Cultivating the Spiritual Virtues
We should be known by how the fruit of the Spirit is displayed in our lives:
Christians want to be (or should want to be) better believers, and to be better people. In other words, they want to be more Christlike. That is a major calling for the Christian: to grow in maturity as a believer. It is not about just being happy but about being moulded into the likeness and image of our Lord.
The New Testament is full of these ways of thinking of course. And while we have our own obligations and duties in this regard, at the end of the day it is God at work in us developing Christian character and spiritual maturity. Consider for example the importance of the fruit of the spirit. Galatians 5:22-23 offers us a list of nine items: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
Four general things can be said about them first, before looking at the fruit in a bit more detail. One, this is not about how to be a better person, or how to pick yourself up by your own bootstraps. These are fruit of the SPIRIT, and if you do not have the Holy Spirit, you will not have these fruit – at least to any real and substantial degree.
Yes, a non-Christian can sometimes be a nice person or good person or a patient person. But to see these fruit fully on display in your life as God intended, you must be connected to the source of that fruit. And that comes from God alone. As Jesus put it in John 15:1-6:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
Two, these fruit stand in opposition to the works of the flesh. There are some 15 of these listed in Galatians 5:16-22:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Three, I am hardly a role model here when it comes to the fruit of the Spirit. So when I write devotional and hortatory pieces like this, I am of course including myself in what is being said. Indeed, I need to read pieces like this perhaps more than most of you!
Four, many of these fruit require their opposites to take effect or to be implemented. For example, you cannot really grow in the spiritual grace of longsuffering until you first suffer long. Let me especially make use of this last point as I briefly look at these nine fruit of the Spirit.
Love. As is often said, biblical love means willing the highest good for the other person. It is not mere sentiment or trying to just get along with others. Sometimes it is a tough love. And it often entails loving the unlovable. Non-Christians can love like-minded folks, or those who seem quite lovable. But it takes the fruit of the Spirit to show real love to those who most people would prefer to ignore or avoid.
Joy. I often think I am not a very joyous person. Us melancholics can be a bit morose at times! But the joy of the Lord can be a real part of even our lives. And it is not just a worldly joy or happiness, but a deep down and settled joy that comes in spite of one’s circumstances. When things all around us seem to be crumbling, God can still give us his very tangible joy.
Peace. Peace from the Spirit is also not dependent on our environment and what is going on around us. Thus saints who are being persecuted or who are in prison and the like can still have a deep down peace – a peace that passes all understanding. It is again something that God gives us, not something that we work up ourselves.
Patience. This is certainly one of those virtues that seems to require vice to bring it out, or to bring it into fruition. Referred to as longsuffering in some translations, it is the spiritual gift that develops from the suffering we go through. We hang in there by God’s grace, and learn to lean on God regardless of how tough things can get.
Kindness. Gentleness is another way to describe this. And it again often appears in situations where things are far from ideal. When people abuse us and misuse us, we still can choose to respond in the opposite spirit – to be kind even when others do not seem to deserve such kindness.
Goodness. Again, real biblical goodness is not just being good to those who are good to you. It means being good to those who do not seem to be deserving of such goodness, of those who do you wrong and so on. Sure, there is a place to not allow others to treat you like a doormat, but often the best thing we can do in such situations is not demand our rights, but seek to bless those who hate us or persecute us.
Faithfulness. Sometimes simply translated ‘faith,’ this is another supernatural gift that we cannot muster up on our own. Indeed, we are told that faith is a gift of God, and not of ourselves (Ephesians 2:8). Faith, hope and love, the Apostle Paul tells us, are the things that abide (1 Corinthians 13:13). Thank God that he provides these for us.
Gentleness. Meekness is another English term used for this word. Humility is part of it, and it entails such things as what we read of in Proverbs 15:1 (“a soft answer turns away wrath”), or what 1 Peter 3:15 commands of us (respond to others “with gentleness and respect”). This is another case of responding in the opposite spirit, when your natural tendency would be to lash out at those who have lashed out at you.
Self-control. This is not mere grinning and bearing it, or seeking to hold up under pressure all on your own. It is the Spirit-given ability to apply the brakes to fleshly appetites and resist various temptations. It can also involve things like controlling your tongue when you want to chew someone out, or when you even want to get into a big debate on the social media!
One can think of other virtues that seem to require less than ideal circumstances to become fully formed. Courage for example requires situations where fear and trepidation would be the normal response. Forgiveness requires those who sin against us, and so on.
The point of all this is that often God allows us to be in places or in situations where we would prefer not to be, but he sovereignly allows them knowing that these things may be the only way to cultivate the virtues; for Christians to grow and mature in the fruit of the Spirit.
So next time you find yourself stuck in a traffic jam, or being abused by others, or having people speaking ill of you, or not getting that job or pay rise that you so desired, keep in mind that God may be behind such things. God is so very much concerned to develop our Christian character. And if that means allowing us to get into rather unpleasant situations, then so be it.
Christian maturity is the name of the game. Or as Jesus put it, “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
4 Replies to “Cultivating the Spiritual Virtues”
Thanks, much needed.
Many thanks Amy.
Thank you Bill for the timely article. The ‘pruning’ aspect of the Father also demonstrates just how much He loves me. I feel this ‘old branch’ should have been taken away quite some time back, but…He continues to ‘prune’ me.
Another great and inspirational teaching!