A friend of mine and I are exchanging emails about spiritual growth. She recently shared with me a paraphrase of something Bishop Desmond Tutu once said.
We are like light bulbs. God is like electricity. Light bulbs illuminate their surroundings. That is to say, they shed light when they are connected to a source of electricity. Unscrew a bulb from a fixture, and out goes the light. The bulb is what it truly is only when it is connected to a power source.
In keeping with this light bulb analogy, God created humans to be connected with us. We are what we were always meant to be when we stay connected.
The apostle Paul has something like this analogy in mind when he talks about the fruit of the Spirit and contrasts it with the works of the flesh. The fruit of the Spirt is what we become as a result of our connection with God in Christ. The works of the flesh are what we make of ourselves.
In an intellectual landscape shaped by thinkers like Plato and Descartes, we may mistakenly think of Spirt and flesh as two different kinds of stuff. We might think that Paul is contrasting our immaterial soul with our physical bodies, counting the one as good and the other as evil.
Christian doctrine has always rejected a simple division of spirit as good and matter as evil. After all, God created the material universe and saw that it was good. God became flesh—and redeemed all flesh—in Jesus.
So, when Paul distinguishes the fruit of the Spirit from works of the flesh he is not condemning our bodies and setting aside only our immaterial souls as good. Instead, Paul is contrasting two ways of being in this world.
Works of the flesh are what we make of ourselves when we pursue self-expression, self-gratification, and self-preservation above all else. We strain our will and tax our mind to get applause, or to experience physical pleasure, or to achieve social status, or to possess material comforts in the mistaken belief that these things will make life worth living.
At the risk of oversimplifying, works of the flesh are driven by the misguided notion that our external circumstances will give us the inner life we crave.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is how Paul talks about the influence that Jesus has on us when we stay connected with him. Paul famously says that the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23a)
That’s what Jesus looks like. Over time, we start to resemble him. He imparts his spirit to us in the regular give and take of our relationship.
Notice that Paul says “fruit” of the Spirit. Singular. Not “fruits” plural. Love, joy, peace, and the like combine to describe the Spirit-shaped soul. Our connection with God in Christ does not give us this, that, or the other fruit separately. Lacking one or the other suggests that we are lacking the fruit, or at least that the fruit of the Spirit is still immature in us.
I suspect that some have read Paul’s list as a spiritual to-do list. They labor under the misconception that their personal effort will win God over. They try harder to love, to be joyful, and so on.
Nothing could further from the truth. It is not the force of our will but the depth of our connection with the divine that shapes us in the way that Paul describes as fruit of the Spirit.
To make Paul’s point, let’s dwell on one dimension of the fruit of the Spirit: peace.
Peace is the opposite of worry and anxiety. As a parent, I have spent countless fretful hours.
With our first child Andrew, Joy and I covered every electrical plug, bought rounded bumpers to blunt sharp table corners, locked cupboards containing household cleaners, installed listening devices in the nursery, and hovered over him every waking moment of every day.
We were convinced that we could protect him from physical harm, predators, and negative moral influences with our vigilance. And while we did all of this because we love Andrew so much that our hearts ache, we also did this to secure our own peace of mind.
Only, our hypervigilance didn’t erase our worry and anxiety. It just exhausted us and made us feel like failures when Andrew smacked his head, skinned his knee, or came home from pre-K with advanced potty mouth.
The peace that we can achieve by controlling our external circumstances is brittle and fleeting and grueling. Strictly speaking, it’s not really peace at all so much as a mixture of willfulness and denial.
My advance course in peace began when this oldest child served in Afghanistan. Of course he signed up to serve with a Marine Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit. Of course he was forward deployed pretty much the whole time.
So how do you suppose that hypervigilant, control-freak strategy was working for me then? Well, just in case you can’t figure it out: not so much.
I learned about a different kind of peace. For starters, I learned that God is God and I am not. One of my old spiritual directors used to say this to me all the time. Now his message was finally making the million mile trip from my head to my heart.
There are many things in this life that I cannot control. Lots of those things don’t mean much of anything to me. Being indifferent to the temperature of my coffee or a broken shoe lace is easy. These things don’t matter to me in the long run, so they don’t give me heartburn.
But my son matters to me. And while he was in Afghanistan I learned that I can’t control the world he lives in. Bad things can and do happen to him. And when they happen to him, I will feel sorrow and grief and loss. And I can be at peace about that. A peace that comes from my relationship with God in Christ.
My peace does not come from the belief that God will protect us from suffering. Instead, the peace that passes understanding rests upon my trust that God shows up no matter what. And God’s compassion is more than a sympathetic affection. God’s love redeems all things. Even horrific, painful things.
The fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of being connected to Jesus. That connection makes us who we truly are over time. Jesus shapes us into the image of God we were created to be.
God is love. Love is the greatest power there is. The paradox of such power is that it involves vulnerability. God’s love is always vulnerable love. The divine love empowers us to spread that vulnerable, world-changing love.
God created humans to be connected with us. We are what we were always meant to be when we stay connected.