The world has always been full of religious nuts. With a long list of do's and don'ts they try to regulate their own and everybody else's behavior to their liking. They are full of good advice, but empty of good news for those whose character fails to conform to their legal regulations. Not even Jesus measured up to their standards. Their religion does not address our deepest need. The one thing we don't need is some religious nut handing us a new rule book. As one man said to his wife who belonged to Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility in Lake Wobegon, "Why do I need to go to church? I already know how to be better than I am."
What Jesus wants is not religious nuts but spiritual fruit. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness self-control; against such there is no law" (Galatians 5:22-23).
Christian character is formed not by outward compulsion but by inward compassion—not by legal regulation but by spiritual reformation. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit who lives within you. If you are filled with the Holy Spirit, you will produce the fruits of the Spirit as surely as an apple tree produces apples—not because there is a law on the books saying, "Thou shalt produce apples," but because it is your nature to do so.
The apostle Paul lists three clusters of fruit. The first is personal, the second is interpersonal, and the third is regulatory.
The circumference of your character is measured by the radius of your love. Jesus asked, "If you love those who love you, what reward do you get? (Mat. 5:46). Unless your love reaches beyond the close circle of immediate friends, your "reward" is to be confined to the tiny island of self, cut off from the world God loves (John 3:16) and would love through you.
Of course it's difficult. Those who deserve your love least often need it the most. As a bulletin graffiti poet put it:
Philosopher George Santayana said, "Love is very penetrating because it penetrates to the possibilities in people rather than to the facts about them." The facts may be very ugly, but the possibilities in people are as bright as the promises of God. The same God who though his Spirit lives in you also lives in them at least potentially. You stand on holy ground whenever you stand close to a Christian brother or sister.
Suffering itself requires no talent. It attacks us, often without warning, and takes us captive. But what then? The Holy Spirit within us enables us, like Jesus, to suffer long. Because "love suffers long" (1 Corinthians 13:4), when we are slighted, we slight the slight and love the slighter.
It may be that impatient people get things started, but it is patient people who get things done. A young boy was lovingly patting his father's old work horse when someone asked, "Can your horse run fast?"
"No," he answered, "but he can stand fast!"
The Holy Spirit enables us to stand fast under great stress.
If someone were to pay you a dollar for every kind word you have spoken and collected fifty cents for every unkind word, would you be rich or poor? The most persuasive evidence of the Holy Spirit's presence in the lives of Christians is their kindness. Where kindness is absent, we may assume that the Spirit is absent or, at least grieved (Ephesians 4:29-32).
Abraham Lincoln said, "Kindness is the only service that will stand the storms of life and will not wash out. It will wear well, look well, and be remembered long after the prism of politeness or the complexion of courtesy has faded away. When I am gone, I hope it can be said of me that I plucked a thistle and planted a flower wherever I thought a flower would grow."
Jesus quibbled with the lawyer, "Why do you call me good? There is none good but God" (Mark 10:18), thereby making a subtle allusion to his own deity. But if God the Holy Spirit who is good dwells within the Christian, his fruit in the Christian's life is goodness. The fruit of goodness corrects the vitamin deficiency which the Reformed theologians called original sin and total depravity. "Good-nature," Henry Ward Beecher wrote, "is one of the richest fruits of true Christianity."
The first three fruits of the Spirit are personal. Love, joy and peace are part of the inner consciousness of the Christian. The next three fruits are interpersonal. Longsuffering, gentleness, and goodness are what the Christian needs in dealing with others. The last three fruits are regulatory. Faith, meekness and self-control are what the Christian needs to provide a balanced diet of all spiritual fruits. You cannot grow strong in your Christian character by "pigging out" on any one of the fruits of the Spirit. That's why you need the third cluster.
That is not to say the Christian's character will be timid and mousy. Meekness has been too often confused with weakness. It is strong enough to inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5). Anyone can be meek before circumstances or events, but the Spirit-filled Christian is meek before God. That kind of meekness becomes strength when it faces the trials of living. The word translated meekness means "under control, tamed." It was used of taming wild horses. Their spirit is not broken, but broken in and harnessed for service. The spirit of the meek Christian is not broken, but broken in and harnessed for service. The great Biblical expositor, Matthew Henry, defined meekness as "the opposite of self-will toward God and ill-will toward others."
Without self-control, however, the rest of the Spirit's fruits will be unused or misused. Love becomes saccharine sentimentality, joy becomes heady euphoria, peace becomes complacency, patience becomes leniency, kindness becomes blandness, goodness becomes self-righteousness, faithfulness becomes slavishness, and gentleness becomes weakness.
The wise Solomon counseled: "It is better to win control over yourself than over whole cities (Proverbs 16:32 TEV). Aristotle concurs: "I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies; for the hardest victory is the victory over self."
The Spirit produces fruit in our lives enabling us to grow in our character with Christ. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. Against such there is no law. And for such there is no law. It cannot be commanded from without; it must grow from the Spirit within until we are remade in the image of Jesus Christ.