The church has a little bit of a problem with patience towards weaker Christians when it comes to righteousness and the fruit of the Spirit. We think they should arrive at the fullness of fruit immediately by their own effort. Brennan Manning frames the problem well:
There is a myth flourishing in the Church today that has caused incalculable harm: once converted, fully converted. In other words, once I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, an irreversible, sinless future beckons. Discipleship will be an untarnished success story; life will be an unbroken upwards spiral towards holiness.Brennan Manning (The Ragamuffin Gospel. Portland, Or., Multnomah, 2015, p. 16.)
Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown and the rest of the classic Peanuts characters, saw the same exact thing in his churches:
All too often it happens that the weak ones have to bolster up and tolerate this persecution of the strong ones in the church. And this is what happens to our young people—they come into the church and they are immediately beaten down by the older element who want them to shape up and to be what they think they should be.”Charles Schulz (The Gospel According to Peanuts, KPIX, San Francisco)
Many of us have bought into this idea that once you accept Christ into your heart you should be done with sin and completely changed. Therefore, when new Christians return to our churches a week later and they still have some of the same old crap they had going on in their lives before they got saved, we judge and accuse them of not being fruitful enough.
There is no such thing as instant fruit, though we could be fooled into thinking so. We can stop by the supermarket any time of year and pick up vegetables and fruits that should by no means be present during that particular season. We don’t even stop to think about it. It’s just magic to us. We want it and we’ll buy it, so stores find a way to get it onto their shelves, whether they have to ship it in from far away or grow it in laboratories. We’re so disconnected from farms and agriculture that we are typically unaware of the time and effort it takes to grow good crops. All we know is that we can get it from the store whenever we want it.
I live in a bit of an urban neighborhood. If you live in a similar neighborhood, then it’s quite possible that food is just food to you. It exists, you buy it, you eat it, you sleep and repeat. We have no visual reminder around us that someone grew that produce or raised that animal. It is for that reason and many others that one of our congregants started Jackson Victory Gardens in the downtown area of our city. Not only did he think it would be fun, but he thought it would be a learning experience for anyone involved.
My eyes were probably opened more than anyone’s through that garden. Over the course of 4 years, I learned that crops are not all that easy to grow, especially when it’s 90 something degrees out and there has been a drought all summer. Without a proper watering system it will take about four hours of walking back and forth with a watering can in hand, which you’ll have to refill about every two minutes. It takes so much effort to run a little garden, let alone a giant farm. And despite all your hard work, there’s no guarantee that your crops will have grown well or to full maturity at the end of the season.
My urban mind was blown. How on earth do farmers take care of giant fields of crops year after year? How do orchards sustain such an amazing amount of fruit when I can hardly get these three tiny pear and apple trees to give me anything worth eating? Do you know how much water it takes to get good fruit out of a young fruit tree? Quite a bit. It’s certainly not as easy as growing potatoes. It seems like all you have to do is cut a potato in half and stick in the ground and you’ll probably be good—but fruit trees require more care and time.
You have to water fruit trees more than your other crops. You have to prune them and protect them from things like fire-blight. You have to make sure they don’t start falling over under the weight of their fruit. It takes time, energy, and patience.
Unlike supermarket fruit, spiritual fruit is not there whenever we want it. We cannot simply go up to the spiritual produce area in our lives and pick up love or joy or peace whenever we’re hungry for it. If we truly want those things in our life, we need to continually offer ourselves over to the Holy Spirit to grow it in us right here, right now.
Trying to grow the Spirit’s fruit by our own effort is like trying to grow a palm tree in Alaska. You just don’t have the right elements to make it happen. Without the Holy Spirit to water the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, you simply won’t be able to grow it.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (a book in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia series), a young boy named Eustace unintentionally turns himself into a dragon. After being led by Aslan the lion (the allegorical God-figure) to the top of a mountain to take a bath (an allegorical baptism), Aslan tells Eustace that he will need to undress first. Now being a dragon and all, Eustace isn’t wearing any clothes and is a bit confused by the command. But then he remembers that snakes shed their skin and wonders if he can do something similar.
Eustace begins to scratch off all of the scales he can so that he can get into the water. Eventually he removes them all, but is surprised to find another layer of scales beneath that top layer. He does it all over again, but as you might guess, there is still another layer. In attempts to obey Aslan’s command, he removes this third layer, but unsurprisingly finds a fourth.
Finally, Aslan explains that only he can remove the scales; so Eustace had to lay on his back and let Aslan rip through his dragon skin until there was no skin left. He then threw what was left of Eustace into the water, which cleaned him up and turned him back into a boy again.
That right there is a fantastic image of the twelfth promise to those who work the Alcoholics Anonymous Program: “We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”
Eustace tries and tries to clean himself, but in the end he can only give himself over to God to do it. We may try and try to grow fruit, but in the end we can only give ourselves over to the Spirit to do it. We may try and try to continually wash the dust off our feet that we’ve kicked up on ourselves day by day, but in the end we can only give ourselves over to Jesus to do it (Jn 13:10).
Now of course, as with most things, there is a balance here. Yes, it is the Spirit who grows the fruit in us, but we are responsible to put effort into that growth as well. Many people see this as contradiction, but popular theologian N.T. Wright explains it well when he says, “Part of the mystery of the spirit’s work, at least as Paul understands its work, is that that work does not cancel out human moral effort, including thought, will, decision and action. Rather, it makes them all possible.” (Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Two Book Set, Vol 4, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2013. Kindle, Loc 30694-30695.)
It’s that delicate balance you find all throughout the Bible between works and grace. Author Greg Forster recalls a pastor friend telling him,
You need to call people to make their lives better, but not create the expectation that they can do so by their own power, merely by trying harder. If you only call people to make their lives better, that’s just scolding. In the extreme, it becomes legalism. But if you only remind people that they can’t change by their own power, that’s irresponsible. In its extreme it becomes anti-nomianism.Greg Forster (Forster, Greg. Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence & Can Begin Rebuilding It. Wheaton, IL, Crossway, 2014, p. 122.)