How do you test the value of anything? It’s a good question to ask, and nowadays we have lots of clever analytical tools to do just that for almost any type of situation. But Jesus’ answer to this question was disarmingly simple: look at the fruit it produces. Is it good or bad? Is there lots of it, or not much at all? Does it look good, but taste horrible? Or vice versa? The point is: the fruit tells you what the tree is like. It’s a good way of evaluating a project or an investment of time and resources.
It’s also a pretty good test of a life – look at the fruit!
In our passage today, St. Paul likens this process of growing in Christlike character to growing fruit. Indeed, he gives what is produced by the work of the Spirit in our hearts and lives a name which surely picks up Jesus’ own teaching: the fruit of the Spirit. He, like Jesus, encourages us to focus on the inner life and not external behaviour: get the heart right, and the actions will follow. So these kinds of fruit are attitudes or virtues of character: love, joy, peace, and so on. If we develop such virtues, we can assume that these fruit will in turn produce Christlike words and actions.
We can also reflect today that using this idea of ‘fruit’ also suggests some other things to us about the formation of character:
Time Fruit doesn’t grow overnight, it takes weeks or months. I love pears: but I get frustrated by having to wait a week or so for those pears we bought at the greengrocers or the supermarket to get really ripe and juicy. They seem to just sit and look at me in the fruit bowl. How long does it take? How hard can it be? Much more so, of course, with the months and years to make any real headway in forming a godly character.
Cultivation Good fruit grows when it is looked after. Followers of Jesus needs their own spiritual fertiliser (bible study and prayer) and pesticide (spiritual disciplines and practices), the methods of cultivation which will produce great fruit.
Fragility Fruit is easily spoiled. Any Christian knows how easy it is for hard-won gains in character to be lost by moments of weakness, or periods of inattention to growth.
Taste Good fruit tastes good! The formation of a truly Christ-like character is one which ought to appeal to others, much as Jesus was constantly surrounded by people drawn by his love and grace.
Single source It is ultimately the fruit – singular – of the Spirit. One tree, one source – the Spirit of Jesus, manifesting his character in different ways. Arguably, Paul also put love first as the greatest of all the virtues, and the one which binds the others together. He said as much elsewhere (Colossians 3:14, 1 Corinthians 13:13).
So the fruit of the Spirit proves to be a lovely metaphor for growing more like Jesus. And a realistic one, too. I’m sure most of us have felt that frustration concerning the time it takes to grow real virtues. But bite into your favourite fruit today and you’ll know that it’s worth it! May God grant us grace to keep cultivating the fruit of the Spirit in our lives today.