I’m doing some deliberate reflection on the classic idea of the ‘fruits of the Spirit’: love joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
I want to engage with each of them in turn, but just now I am thinking about the idea itself.
Too often, this idea has been like a new set of rules, or demands. An individualist culture has led many people to expect all these things of themselves: and of course we think we are to generate these things. As if they are not fruits of the Spirit! Surely there is something crucial here for us to see.
More than that, I have found it so much more helpful to consider that the garden of the Spirit, where these fruits grow, is not each and every individual life, but in fact a community, the body of people who are alive in the Spirit.
Here again we need to see that in the New Testament the word ‘you’ is almost always a collective, a group of people, a community of people, not individuals.
Even so, we have each a contribution to make.
But that contribution is often what I have sometimes called the ‘active permissive’ stance, in which we stop avoiding, stop preventing what the Spirit wants to do.
This I am sure is much more what the New Testament seeks: people who will allow themselves to be made into the image of Christ, together. It’s not our efforts which will do this, but rather our willingness to allow the Spirit to nourish us into new life.
Karl Barth, in Church Dogmatics, Vol. 4, Part 4, p.39 wrote about the challenge here: we need to want to grow, while allowing that in fact we cannot make ourselves grow. This is a long quote, but I think worth reflecting on. (I have changed the translation from gender exclusive to inclusive.)
‘ A person is no Christian if they are not willing, ready, modest and courageous enough, so long as they live, so long as they are given the unique opportunity, to move forward not according to the impulses of their own heart or the fancies of their own mind, but according to the impulsion of the Holy Spirit, constantly marching into a land (a small portion of the land) "that I will shew thee" (Gen. 12. 1). Viewed thus, their life is indeed a daily penitence, a constant stretching after the new possibilities which are offered to them, a never-ending striving in the light of the divine invitation and command which constantly encounter them afresh.’
Here Barth is saying that we do have to make an effort: and the effort is to do more than simply follow the inclinations of our minds or personality preferences.
We need to be open to the calling, — he calls it the invitation and command — of God, drawing us to new possibilities.
There is a wonderful paradox here, a paradox of grace. We cannot make ourselves to be (for instance) people of love, joy, or peace, and yet we can put ourselves in the way of this ‘fruit’. We can let the fruit grow. Or we can manufacture our own substitutes.
There is much for reflection here, and (as Kierkegaard would put it) for self-examination.
But not, I think, for too much of that self-recrimination that goes too easily with this approach.
Let the fruit grow, and trust it all to the one who will give this fruit.
As Paul wrote to the Corinthians: only God gives the harvest, the fruit (1 Cor. 3. 6). Let the fruit grow.