In Galatians 5:22-23 we’re told precisely what spiritual fruit is: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” These are such essential aspects of living a Christian life we dare not rush through an examination of what they imply so we’ll take them three at a time.
It’s no shock Paul designated love first. It had to top the list. In John 13:35 Jesus said, “Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples – if you have love for one another.” This love must be rooted in the church. 1 John 3:14 states, “We know that we have crossed over from death to life because we love our fellow Christians. The one who does not love remains in death.” From the congregation our love spreads out to the entire world exponentially. Romans 13:8 proclaims, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Obviously love is the essential, irreplaceable foundation of our faith. Without it whatever fruit we somehow squeeze out is tasteless and unappealing. In other words, if you ain’t got love you ain’t got zip. Paul said it best in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I give over my body in order to boast, but do not have love, I receive no benefit.” So what is this crazy little thing called love, anyway? Paul didn’t leave us hanging. In the next paragraph he made it crystal clear: “Love is patient, love is kind, it is not envious. Love does not brag, it is not puffed up. It is not rude, it is not self-serving, it is not easily angered or resentful. It is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Notice love “rejoices in the truth.” Since Christ is the fountain of all that is true it figures that our efforts to love are empty without Him being at the center of them.
In his delightful book, “Wishful Thinking,” Frederick Buechner wrote: “The first stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. The middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love and that the Greeks had a different word for each of them. The last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. The unabashed eros of lovers, the sympathetic philia of friends, agape giving itself away freely no less for the murderer than for his victim – these are all varied manifestations of a single reality. To lose yourself in another’s arms, or in another’s company, or in suffering for all men who suffer, including the ones who inflict suffering upon you – to lose yourself in such ways is to find yourself. Is what it’s all about. Is what love is.” Speaking of agape, it shows up everywhere in the Gospels and the epistles. The New Bible Dictionary defines what the Greeks called agape as “that highest and noblest form of love which sees something infinitely precious in its object.” God graphically demonstrated the true meaning of agape when He allowed His only begotten Son to be cruelly tortured to death on the cross as atonement for our sins. No better example or further explanation is necessary. God didn’t just tell us what love is, He showed us what it is.
Still, is there anything on earth more confounding, manipulated or misunderstood than love? It’s because all too often it’s restricted to being an emotion and nothing else. While emotion certainly may be involved, love is much more than that. It must be or it won’t have a permanent effect on others. Love points outward. Love is doing. Love becomes a profound, positive force through action. God confirmed it on Calvary. “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Giving is an act of love. 1 John 3:18 reads, “Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth.” Thus, love is an action we make our free will take. If our will is attuned to God’s then agape is the inevitable fruit. If not, love turns self-centered. When that happens it benefits no one. When Jesus commanded His followers to love their neighbors He wasn’t talking about schmoozing or conjuring up some kind of warm and fuzzy feeling for them. That brand of love can be faked as easily as a cough. Buechner wrote, “On the contrary, He’s telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus, in Jesus’ terms, we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them. In fact liking them may stand in the way of loving them by making us overprotective sentimentalists instead of reasonably honest friends.” For example, when Christ confronted the Pharisees in Matthew 12:34 He didn’t give them any slack. He shouted, “Offspring of vipers! How are you able to say anything good, since you are evil?” He didn’t berate them out of hatred but because He loved them enough to address their judgmental, bigoted attitude to their faces. I’m not saying liking a person can’t be a feature of loving them, only that it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes loving appears long before “liking.”
Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t just a nice story. It’s the heart of the matter. The Samaritan didn’t know the injured man on the road from Adam yet he did everything in his power to put agape into action. The Bible says if we love only those easy to love what are we accomplishing? It’s when we love those we’d rather not come within 100 yards of that we’re most Christ-like. Billy Graham said, “The command to love is not an option; we’re to love whether we feel like it or not. Indeed, we may say that love for others is the first sign that we’ve been born again and that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives.” I think it comes down to comprehending what’s implied in John 3:16. God loves us as much as He loves Jesus! Wow! If that doesn’t blow your mind then you’re not getting it. You should be floored by that. Brennan Manning said, “If you took the love of all the best mothers and fathers who have lived in the course of human history, all their goodness, kindness, patience, fidelity, wisdom, tenderness, strength, and love and united all those qualities in a single person, that person’s love would only be a faint shadow of the furious love and mercy in the heart of God the Father addressed to you and me at this moment.” Do you savvy that? I wonder. Timothy Keller wrote, “One of the signs you may not grasp the unique, radical nature of the Gospel is that you’re certain you do.” When Jesus looked over the crowd gathered to hear Him He was moved with compassion for each one of them. He loves as no other man or woman ever has because His love is unequivocally inclusive. No one gets left out. Manning wrote, “In human beings, love is a quality, a high-prized virtue; in God, love is His identity.” Only by uncaging the Holy Spirit who dwells inside us, letting him have free rein in our lives, can we have any chance of loving others the way Christ intends His followers to do.
Next on the list is joy. In the secular world the word suggests some sort of bubbly elation and/or unbridled ecstasy. But in the spiritual realm joy is a divine liquid that streams into the very depths of our souls, lifting us above circumstances that would otherwise crush us. Every time I attend a believer’s funeral I experience that joy. While I’m sincerely saddened over the loss of a friend or loved one, the knowledge that they’re wrapped in the comforting arms of our Savior gives me an acute yet indescribable awareness of the joy God blesses Christians with. Authentic joy is divine. 1 Thessalonians 1:6 refers to the “…joy that comes from the Holy Spirit” while Nehemiah 8:10 talks about the “…joy of the Lord.” Both identify God as the source. At the Last Supper Jesus, after telling his disciples about the Father’s unconditional love, said “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Notice He told them this knowing that in a few hours He’d be writhing in unimaginable agony, His followers devastated and scattered. Therefore spiritual joy is vastly different than wearing an irrepressible ear-to-ear grin because things are peachy. When you look at where humanity is today you’ll notice joy has become as rare as an honest politician. It’s usually buried beneath mountains of disillusion, mistrust and fear. That’s why expecting the world to supply it is abject foolishness. The Scriptures teach that spiritual joy isn’t dependent on our situation in life. It transcends it. Thus a Christian can still have joy while everything around them falls apart.
When Jefferson injected into the Declaration of Independence the statement that one of the inalienable rights people have is the “pursuit of happiness” he didn’t do the country any favors. That pursuit has led millions to ruin. At Celebrate Recovery meetings the folks in attendance are there because it was their compulsive chasing after something or someone they hoped would make them “happy” that widened the gulf between them and their Heavenly Father. There’s no mention of the “pursuit of happiness” in the Bible. Jesus didn’t die so we could be happy. He died so we could be holy. Years ago I realized happiness on this earth is not only elusive; it doesn’t stick around long when perchance I happen to stumble upon it. I also found happiness isn’t something acquired by searching for it harder. I do catch glimpses of it when certain factors line up just right but solar eclipses are more frequent. But the joy Christ has planted in my soul is way beyond any short-term “happiness” I’ve ever experienced in my life. By far. The pleasures this world offers are fleeting and trite in comparison to the ever-refreshing living water the Holy Spirit pours into my soul, giving me an unshakable sense of purpose and an iron-clad assurance of spending eternity in the beautiful mansion Jesus has prepared for me.
I’m talking about the kind of joy the Apostle Paul exudes throughout 2 Timothy, the final letter he penned while languishing on death row. Despite his dreadful surroundings and the constant suffering he endured, the joy of the Lord filled his heart. He didn’t fear what tyrants or cowardly government officials could do to him because he knew without an iota of doubt what awaited him in the kingdom come: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith! Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day – and not to me only, but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). The Scriptures confirm the truth encapsulated in C.S. Lewis’ quip, “Joy is the serious business of Heaven.” But we don’t have to wait to know that joy. We can have it now. Charles Allen wrote, “Just as all the water in the world cannot quench the fire of the Holy Spirit, neither can all the troubles and tragedies of the world overwhelm the joy which the Spirit brings into the human heart.”
Paul next lists peace. That poor word gets tossed out so carelessly these days it’s been distilled down to being little more than a vapid cliché. Instead of “see ya later” many utter an anemic “peace.” Yet is there anything this world has less of? When I think of peace concepts like unity, completeness, rest, serenity and security come to mind. In the Old Testament the word used is shalom. It connotes fullness, having everything you need to feel comfortable and content just being yourself. Jesus is indeed the “Prince of Peace” but when he broached the subject He often confused his disciples. In Matthew 10:34 he said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” Conversely, one of the last things He said to them was, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…” (John 14:27). So what’s up with that? Buechner wrote, “This contradiction is resolved when you realize that for Jesus peace seems to have meant not the absence of struggle, but the presence of love.” We mustn’t forget that not once did Christ say we’d tiptoe through the tulips down here for extended stretches of time. Thus what He means by peace isn’t the end of warfare between nations or individuals. Peace is the inner surety that He’s in control.
Isaiah 26:3 states, “You [God] keep completely safe the people who maintain their faith, for they trust in you.” In context this Scripture presents believers as well-armed battlefield soldiers in total command of the situation, dire as it may look. They’re not in a panic or shaking in their boots because they know that what will transpire is in God’s hands. They’re standing on the solid rock that is Jesus Christ and they know their Savior will never abandon them. When a Christian entertains doubts or allows hard times to erode their faith they block the Holy Ghost from granting them what they need most – strength, courage and peace. Dr. Graham wrote, “Only the Holy Spirit can give us peace in the midst of the storms of restlessness and despair.” In an earlier essay I highlighted the Bible’s teaching that we’re not to grieve the Holy Spirit. Yet that’s exactly what we do when we allow anxiety to drag us down. You see, having the peace of God is a byproduct of our making peace with God. And that only occurs when we surrender our heart to Christ and accept His gracious salvation. On the cross Jesus ended the irreconcilable conflict between sinful man and the righteous God of Creation. The wrath of the Heavenly Father, stoked by our constant sinning, was appeased by the sacrifice His Son made on mankind’s behalf. Not only did Christ end the war, He made it possible for us to be with Him in paradise forever! The thick curtain between us and the great I AM was torn asunder. There’s no longer a barrier keeping us from knowing the peace of God as an incredibly real presence in our lives.
Charles Spurgeon said, “I looked at Christ, and the dove of peace flew into my heart; I looked at the dove of peace, and it flew away.” He was telling us we shouldn’t pursue peace. Rather, we should tune in to the instigator of all peace, the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent to dwell inside us for the principle purpose of giving us a genuine peace that transcends all understanding. A peace this fallen planet doesn’t know and, therefore, doesn’t offer. In the last portion of John 14:27 Jesus, when telling his disciples how His peace comes about, said, “I do not give it to you as the world does.” The world can’t. Only Christ can bring peace to a troubled heart. Glance around. You’ll see peace is a scarce commodity on this planet and it’s always superficial and temporary when gained through man’s efforts. The peace of God is eternal.
Is there hope for us? You betcha. In Romans 15:13 Paul says to all Christians, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in Him, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” We don’t have to yearn for peace to happen on earth in order to know what spiritual peace in our hearts feels like. Because of Christ, it’s there for the taking.