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But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:22-23)
If you really care about pleasing God, then your life will be brimming with the spiritual fruits that we find listed in Galatians 5. If there’s no harvest happening, then obviously you’re some carnal Christian who hasn’t really committed himself and maybe you should start to question the validity of your salvation. This is what we are commonly taught by the Church. It’s not always spelled out so clearly, but there’s a whole lot of hinting going on. Depending on how thick the guilt is being poured on in your particular community, getting together with the brothers can feel like one big fruit contest. Who acts the most loving? Who has the most self-control? Who seems the most joyful? Those who think they have lots of fruits in their baskets like to thrust their shiny gems in everyone’s face while those who feel like they have nothing sit there feeling like failures. Addicts who came to Jesus and weren’t instantly healed of their addictions are ashamed of how withered and barren their self-control tree looks. Souls who are intensely struggling with fear are embarrassed by their lack of peace. Souls who are burdened with chronic depression feel like failures because they have no joy in their basket. By hyper-focusing on fruits, we end up with a lot of unnecessary guilt and discouragement.
If you’re worried about your walk because you aren’t catching a glimpse of Christ when you look in the mirror, there are a few things you need to understand. For starters, God’s top priority for you is to improve what’s happening between your soul and Him. This is a whole different concept than improving how you are relating to other people. When we talk about spiritual fruits, we’re talking about human-to-human relationships. We’re not talking about the human-to-God dynamic. You can count on the Church to always promote a reversal of God’s priorities, and she’s famous for teaching that the quality of your relationships with other humans is an accurate reflection of the quality of your relationship with God. “If you don’t love people, you don’t love God”—this is a popular theory in the Church, and it’s total baloney.
The truth is that the closer you get to God, the more you will find that you treat Him much differently than you do other humans. This is a good thing, for we all start off treating people inappropriately. We depend on them, trust them, adore them, and love them far more than God wants us to. In many cases, we also submit to others too much—treating them as the equivalent of God in our lives. Classic examples here are the parishioners who never dare to question their pastor, and this guff the Catholics promote about the pope being infallible in certain situations. It is because we’re not appreciating the vast difference between God and humans that we treat them all alike at first. But as God matures us, He teaches us to start treating Him much differently than we do humans.
God demands total submission from us. With humans, this is utterly inappropriate. God wants us to worship Him and love Him obsessively. With humans, such attitudes constitute idolatry. God wants us to view His approval as the greatest reward, yet He finds it very offensive when we act like the opinions of mere mortals are of such great importance. Although fools like Paul go so far as to urge Christians to blur the line between their human spouses and God, the truth is that there is no human-to-human dynamic that justifies us treating created things like the equivalent of our glorious Creator (see Boundaries in Marriage: Inappropriate Submission).
The goal of maturity is to improve our treatment of both God and humans so that in both areas, we are pleasing our Maker. God wants there to be a great difference in how we respond to Him versus other created beings (see How God Wants Us to Relate to Four Kinds of Beings). Your relationships with other humans are supposed to be considered expendable, whereas your relationship with God is not. You’re supposed to be willing to sacrifice your human relationships for the sake of retaining God’s approval, but never the other way around. Once you understand that you’re supposed to treat God and people very differently, it becomes clear why trying to use your interactions with humans to assess how well you’re doing with God is absurd.
If we’re going to thrive in our walks with God, we need to align with His priorities. Since He says that your relationship with Him is infinitely more important than your relationships with created beings, then developing that relationship needs to be your top priority. We shouldn’t be trying to divide our resources 50/50 between God and people. We should be aiming for total obsession with God and trusting that He’ll guide us with people. Surely God knows how to instruct you on how to be a better parent and spouse. When you focus on God, you end up with help in every area. But when you focus on people, you end up trying to coast on your own wisdom and tanking. This is because God isn’t going to sit around teaching you how to excel with people while you ignore Him. God demands to be first. He’s jealous and egotistical. He wants to be center stage in your life. If you have Him there, He’ll guide you in every area. If you try to put someone else on His throne in your heart, He’ll intentionally plague you with problems.
So since improving our relationship with God is what really matters, if we make that our top priority in life, what kinds of maturity lessons should we expect God to bring our way? Well, the topic of spiritual maturity is quite vast, but there are some core essentials. Since you relate to God with your soul, improving that relationship comes down to improving your soul’s response to God. That means developing better soul attitudes. There are four such attitudes which are particularly critical, and they are reverence, submission, dependency and trust. How many of these things show up on Paul’s list of spiritual fruits? None, because Paul is a ding-dong and he’s telling everyone to focus on the wrong thing. Paul is listing off tools that will help you get along well with other humans. He at least has enough intelligence to acknowledge that God is the Supplier of these things, but then he fails to recognize what God’s priorities are. God isn’t going to focus on developing fruits with you because the fruits are about you getting along harmoniously with other humans. Humans don’t come first—God comes first, and getting along harmoniously with God means developing those four critical soul attitudes.
Here’s where we get into an interesting conflict, because the best way for God to improve your soul’s response to Him is to put you through trials in which you’ll be forced to practice one or more of those four critical attitudes. What kinds of trials force us into a position of practicing trust and dependency on God? Often trials in which we are feeling scared, overwhelmed, and/or utterly overcome by temptation. Saddling you with some nasty addiction is a fabulous way for God to develop your attitude of dependency on Him. But if you’re going to be constantly falling down into temptation, are you going to be demonstrating self-control? Clearly not. You’re not going to have much peace, either, because you’re going to be wrestling with all kinds of frustration and guilt.
Trust trials are classic joy killers. When we’re feeling trapped in some upsetting situation with no way to save ourselves, we don’t tend to go around smiling peacefully. Instead, we feel stressed, and stress tends to make us impatient and rude. A Christian who is getting pounded on in some spiritual valley is no fun to be around socially. He’s moody, broody, and full of caustic comments about God. Yet that fruitless fellow is also making some fabulous progress on a soul level. He’s maturing, and even though it’s an ugly process, it’s well worth it because God comes first.
Getting closer to God is the prize that trumps all other things. You never want to sacrifice progress with God for the sake of staying on friendly terms with humans. When you’re in some pit hole of refinement, you’re not going to see an abundance of spiritual fruits in your life. Instead, you’re going to see an abundance of carnality. Deep core changes often result in some very negative surface attitudes. This is because some aspects of maturity are very draining to our souls and extremely annoying to our earthsuits.
Your earthsuit wants your soul to care only about your earthsuit’s pleasure and comfort. But when your soul is fighting to stay in alignment with a God who is asking you to live by an entirely different set of priorities, your earthsuit is going to be the one who gets shafted, and naturally it will throw quite the bratty tantrum. For example, the more humble God makes you, the less fun your earthsuit will get to have bragging and boasting about how fabulous you are. This is annoying to your suit, and at first it’s very tough on your self-centered soul to let go of that cherry of self-exaltation. But if your soul keeps pursuing the right priorities, it will decide that God’s approval is more important than anything else, and eventually it will discover a whole new kind of joy: that of exalting God and only God.
In the process of maturity, there are many “fruits” that we gain, but they are different than the ones Paul talks about. A deep soul love for God is an entirely different thing than the limited heart bonds we share with other humans. In his fruit list, Paul is only talking about a love for people. In his famous “Love is” poem from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is also only focused on the love of people. Well, choosing a better love of humans over a better love of God is like choosing a cheap candy bar over a three course meal. In both cases, you’re eating food, but the hearty meal is going to really satisfy you while the candy bar will only leave you wanting more.
In the Church, we talk a lot about spiritual qualities and righteous characteristics, but we rarely talk about them within the context of correct spiritual priorities. Living at peace with other humans is pleasant and convenient, but it’s nothing compared to the soul peace that comes from living in alignment with God. Being faithful to your friends and spouse is certainly going to make your life a lot easier, but it’s only your faithfulness to God that will matter in the end. The reality is that we can’t always have the fruits that Paul promotes at the same time as we’re developing a better relationship with God. Often we will have to slog through seasons in which we will feel pretty fruitless in order to move closer to Him. But is it worth it? Of course it is, because pleasing our Creator is infinitely more important than having sweet harmony with other people.
If you have to choose between being a pleasant spiritual infant or a snarky spiritual adult, you’d be a fool to sacrifice maturity for a righteous appearance. Sure, we’d all love to be gracious rays of sunshine 24/7, but that’s just not an option. God has intentionally fixed it so that the serious pursuit of Him will cause friction and division in our relationships with other people. It doesn’t mean we’ll go around acting like jerks all the time, and it doesn’t mean we won’t have any friends. But we’re not going to be perpetual rays of sunshine who never get on anyone’s nerves. We live in a world in which most people are willfully defying God. The closer we get to Him, the more people will respond to us the same way that they are already responding to Him in the privacy of their own souls. Spiritual maturity is not the path that leads to great fame and popularity in this world. But it is the path that takes us closer to God, and since close communion with Him is the greatest treasure of all, why would we want to hold back?
The Price & Privilege of Knowing God
The Evidence of Growth: Where is it hiding? (Help for Frustrated Christians)
The Mechanics of Spiritual Growth: Four Essential Attitudes
Pursuing Intimacy with God: Will our need for other humans hold us back?
Enhancing Our Love for God