Fruit of the Spirit: Gentleness

The eighth piece of fruit in the series on the Fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of Gentleness. For an overview see, By Their Fruit You Will Recognize Them.

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Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

In its original language, gentleness often stood in contrast to harshness.  It is closely related to the Scriptural idea of meekness or humility.  Followers of Jesus were often implored not to be overbearing and harsh with their words and their beliefs.  Thus gentleness was to characterize their disposition when interacting with others.  At the same time, truth was never to be compromised.

We have already covered the first fruit of love and we also examined the role of truth with the fruit of peace.  Gentleness then could be described as – to use the language of the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians –  “speaking the truth in love.”  Truth is not being set aside, but neither is it being used as a harsh weapon that serves to turn people off from the message of grace, because it is wielded with a gentle stroke.

Speaking the truth in love is more of an art form than a science – a delicate balance that, as followers of Jesus, we must strive for in our words.  Words that contain both truth and love provide valuable nourishment for others and ourselves.  Yet it is rather easy to leave one of these two ingredients out of our words.  Some people speak the truth quite freely.  They have absolutely no problem pointing out faults and offering criticisms to those around them, even reminding others that the truth sometimes hurts (a sure sign that it was probably not spoken in love).  What they say can even be rather accurate; there is truth in their words.  But love is absent.  Their words are not delivered with gentleness.

Other people extend love quite easily to those around them.  They are often encouraging and make others feel good about themselves with their words.  But when the truth does need to be spoken, they shy away from it, often settling for the approval of those around them.  Truth is skirted if there is a possibility that it may bring disagreement or rejection.

The truth is that on the truth-love continuum, most of us lean more toward one than the other.  Some of us are truth-tellers, while others of us are grace-givers.  One comes easily for us while the other is a bit more difficult to muster up.  But finding that balance is part of expressing the fruit of gentleness.

If gentleness is the art of speaking the truth in love, how would you characterize the fruit of gentleness being evident in your conversations?

  • Am I speaking the truth with love and humility?
  • Do you tend to be more of a truth-teller or a grace-giver?
  • Have you interacted with a person who exuded gentleness with their words?  How did you respond to their words?  How was truth about yourself presented to you?
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Fruit of the Spirit: Faithfulness

This is the seventh of nine pieces of fruit in the series on the Fruit of the Spirit. For an overview see, By Their Fruit You Will Recognize Them.

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Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

When examining goodness, it was noted that while each piece of fruit is associated with action in Scripture, it must not be overlooked that these acts originate from a heart full of the Spirit of God. Faithfulness is another example of how we must not hurry to action while neglecting to examine our heart. Although is it true that faith without works is dead, it could also be said that works not bolstered by a growing faith amount to aimless activity. Like riding a stationary bike, there can be plenty of motion and energy being exerted, but after a half hour of activity, you still find yourself in the same place.

My own journey with this piece of fruit has evolved over the years (this is just part of the value of using the fruit of the Spirit as a periodic reflective exercise). I tended to associate faithfulness with a commitment to living out my calling. Am I doing the things God has called me to do? Am I committed to developing my gifts? Certainly, these things are pieces of what it means to embody faithfulness. But I can put a great deal of time and effort into my calling, while my connection with God and his Spirit stagnates. I can find myself peddling rapidly on a stationary bike.

Part of the issue is that the word faithfulness denotes a type of commitment – a determination to see something to completion. “Have you stayed faithful to your exercise routine and commitment to healthy eating?” There is a commitment, a resolve in the will behind that line of questioning. Again, this may well be an aspect of faithfulness.

Yet the word use for this piece of fruit in the original Greek is simply the word faith, or belief. It is more a condition of the heart and mind that precedes sheer determination. “Do you believe that exercise and healthy eating will be beneficial to your quality of life?” Do you see the difference in that question? Even though the same general idea is being expressed, the latter question probes the mindset behind the activity. If the determination is not supported with belief, determination will soon fade.

Is it possible, as ironic as it may seem, that before we jump to the question of our faithfulness to our calling or to our spiritual growth, we need to step back and simply ask, “In what condition is my faith?” There are times when that deeper question seems more daunting than the surface question.

As it relates to faithfulness, both aspects working together – faith sustaining faithfulness, if you will – are essential. So how do you see faith, or faithfulness, developing in your spiritual life?

  • Am I growing as a follower of Jesus?
  • Which aspect is more challenging to you right now: Simple faith or the working out of that faith?
  • Do think there is a difference between faith and faithfulness? Do they convey the same idea to you?

10 Commandments – for Atheists?

Recently, prominent atheist Alain de Botton constructed a list of 10 commandments that would promote virtue in a society, even if that society were moving past the need to believe in God – a 10 commandments for atheists.  In an article in The Telegraph, de Botton writes,

Even if we now realise that we made up our own moral exhortations, we have no cause to do away with them all. We continue to need reminders to be sympathetic and just, even if we do not believe that there is a God who has a hand in wishing to make us so.

de Botton explains that even though he rejects the idea of a moral code originating from God, there is something to be learned from the promotion of virtue, leading him to come up with his own list, “If I had to design a list of 10 virtues that could apply today, I might go for the following”:

  1. Resilience
  2. Empathy
  3. Patience
  4. Sacrifice
  5. Politeness
  6. Humor
  7. Self-Awareness
  8. Forgiveness
  9. Hope
  10. Confidence

In subsequent articles, de Botton’s list has been praised as a more enlightened list than many outdated moral codes.  Others have chimed in, blogging about de Botton’s list and constructing their own 10 commandments for society to live by.  One such blogger has devoted much time to demonstrating the archaic and outdated nature of the Biblical 10 Commandments, as well as coming up with a list of his own.

Actually, I must admit that de Botton’s list is not a bad list.  I’m not sure I would reject anything on that list as immoral or self-indulgent.  And having perused a handful of these newly emerging 10 commandment for atheists lists, there really isn’t much to dismiss from them.  Surely the world would be a better place if religious, agnostic, and atheist alike tried to embody most of the virtues being put forth on these lists.

But here is the thing.  My concern is not so much with the content of these lists as the precariousness of the philosophy that lies behind them.  Actually, two issues come to mind:

  • The person who does not believe that God exists will have the difficult, if not impossible task of promoting a virtue or morality that should apply to everyone else.  This tension has been debated in many philosophical circles and has not been overcome.  I recently listened to an interesting lecture by an atheist who was wrestling with this very issue: How do you promote a good and virtuous society while rejecting the existence, and thus the moral authority, of a transcendent deity?  If there is no God, then there is no basis for a moral code that applies to society as a whole.  There is an entire debate surrounding this very issue.
  • But my main caution would be this: If any transcendent moral code is rejected, then who does get to decide what is good and virtuous in a society?  Does the majority get to decide?  Should it be de Botton who decides for everyone?  Should I appoint myself as the virtue police, as many have done in response to this 10 commandment list for atheists?  What I am getting at is that if there is no higher authority, then I am precisely the one who gets to define what is moral and virtuous!   While the list above is laudable, who is to say what would have been defined as virtuous in Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, or during the period of American slavery?  What might be considered virtuous ten years from now?

As much as I might like to think that I could come up with a list of virtues that should govern society, I am glad that responsibility does not fall on me.  It is because religious people believe that the 10 Commandments originate from God (and not Moses) that those commandments have moral authority to govern our lives.  Of course, people of faith will not always live up to these commands – this is one of the points Jesus asserted many times.  The cultural expressions (enforcement, punishment, promotion, etc.) of these commands looks different today than 3,000 years ago, but the principles behind the expressions are enduring.  This issue is one of the main themes of Ten Essential Words, (and is an issue that is not readily understood my many critiques of the Ten Commandments!).

People are certainly free to believe what they want to believe.  I have never been one to assert that the 10 Commandments should be displayed on every street corner, whether you hold to them or not.  And if you don’t believe in God, I would not expect you to live by the Ten Commandments.  But if God does not exist, then I become my god and you become your god, and we begin to resemble Mount Olympus, full of competing deities all battling for their share of power and moral authority.

I do believe there is a God and am happy to let God be God!  I don’t want the job.

Fruit of the Spirit: Goodness

The sixth piece of fruit in the series on the Fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of Goodness.  For an overview see, By Their Fruit You Will Recognize Them.

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Jesus replied, ‘The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.’

Goodness is closely related to kindness in that it can be another word for generosity or a benevolent act.  This has led to some difficultly in distinguishing these two pieces of fruit from each other.  Perhaps the writer was essentially repeating himself.  Indeed, goodness can be related to generosity, but it can also represent more of a virtue – a moral quality of being upright in heart and spirit.  The Greek word at issue here is, in fact, unique to Biblical and other early religious writings.

It is for this reason that I would distinguish goodness from kindness by focusing more on the internal aspect of the meaning – the virtue.  While kindness is more associated with an act performed for the benefit of someone else, it could be said that goodness is more of a condition of the heart and spirit.  And while it is true that each piece of fruit is associated with action in Scripture, it should not be overlooked that these acts originate from a heart full of the Spirit of God.

So what would be a distinguishing characteristic of someone full of the virtue of goodness, as we have now clarified it?  I would contend that it is the ability to recognize the kingdom of God at work in his or her midst – in the people and circumstances that person finds themselves among.  If we are a people that hold to the belief that heaven is not just a place we go when we die, but rather another way of expressing God’s kingdom.  And, as Jesus often suggested, God’s kingdom is advancing and breaking through on an ongoing basis, then it stands to reason that goodness would be a way of recognizing God’s kingdom at work in the world around us.  Goodness is the spiritual eyes – the glasses we wear – that suddenly make visible what otherwise might have been overlooked or ignored.

It is not always an easy way to view the world.  Surely, it is much easier to view the copious visible evidence with cynicism and a lack of hope that God’s kingdom can ever overcome so much that is wrong with our world.  Nor does the outlook of goodness withdraw and merely endure this life.  Rather the virtue of goodness chooses to identify ways in which Jesus’ words are evident: The kingdom of God is in our midst and advancing, whether we recognize it or not.  And it keeps the faith that God is true to his word that one day the kingdom of God will prevail and creation will be restored to the way God originally desired it.

Then again, goodness is not a Pollyanna outlook that naively disregards the evil and brokenness around us.  It chooses to see beyond the surface – beyond the visible – to recognize that pain can bring healing, to find transcendence in the mundane, and to see the wonder of creation.  It is also at this point that goodness is put into action by fostering the good that is discerned in those around us and working to right the wrongs in our circumstances.  Perhaps there is more action to goodness than first acknowledged.

  • Am I recognizing God’s kingdom at work in the people and circumstances around me?
  • Recall an event or interaction from this past week.  How could you view that event/interaction differently if viewed through the lens of goodness?
  • How might recognizing God’s kingdom in your midst prompt you to acts of kindness?

Fruit of the Spirit: Kindness

The next piece of fruit in the series on the Fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of Kindness. For an overview see, By Their Fruit You Will Recognize Them.

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Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.

Kindness is a prime example of a piece of fruit we tend to associate with a feeling or an emotion.  When someone is described as kind, it is often assumed that the person is cordial and pleasant to be around, even well-mannered.  It is easy to think someone (or ourselves) kind without ever attributing it to specific actions.  Yet Scripture invariably associates kindness with a tangible action, something that is done to or for someone else.

The word for kindness in Scripture is closely related to the idea of benevolence, or a specific action performed for the benefit of someone else.  It is for this reason that I believe our word generosity comes closest to the heart of the meaning of kindness.  Generosity is being willing to give freely out of what is ours to those around us.

We tend to associate generosity first and foremost with money, but generosity reaches far beyond writing a check or handing a dollar to the homeless.  We can be generous with our time, as well as other expressions of hospitality.  Generosity begins in the heart and manifests itself in our words and actions – all areas of our life.

While generosity extends far beyond money, there is little question that Scripture teaches the importance of financial stewardship.  Money is not inherently good or bad; it can be hoarded and used for evil purposes, or it can be used as a means for good, helping resource important projects and providing means for others in a time of need.  A widely held myth associated with generosity is that a person needs a lot of money in order to truly be generous, but this is simply not the case.

There are many other ways we can live a life of generosity.  We are to be generous with our possessions.  We can be generous with our abilities, always on the lookout for ways to use our gifts in order to bless those around us.  We can be relationally generous, not treating others as inconveniences, but consistently building into the lives of others.  We are called to be generous with our words, encouraging one another.  A heart of generosity does not confine this piece of fruit to a single area of life; it does not compartmentalize.  Kindness continually manifests itself in acts of generosity.

If the fruit of kindness is associated with generosity, how do you see this piece of fruit developing within you?

  • Am I become a more generous person with my time, my words, and my resources?
  • Which aspect of kindness – your time, words, or resources – is easiest for you to be generous with?  Which is the most difficult?
  • Are there areas of your life where a kind attitude has not been enlivened with a generous spirit?

Fruit of the Spirit: Patience

This is the fourth of nine pieces of fruit in the series on the Fruit of the Spirit. For an overview see, By Their Fruit You Will Recognize Them.

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Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

Patience is one of those words that has come to mean something different in our world today than it did in Scripture.  Because of this, we might be quick to assess ourselves as either being patient or impatient – whatever the case may be – and move on to the next piece of fruit on the list.   To measure our level of patience we reflect on ordeals such as waiting in the security line at the airport, driving through mall traffic, or waiting in the 10 items or less line behind the woman fumbling through her change purse or the man writing out a check for his fifteen items.  These tried-and-true gauntlets are meant to plumb the depths of our character and reveal just how patient a person we are becoming.

But when the Apostle Paul included patience as one of the pieces of fruit that defines a follower of Jesus, he did not have security lines, traffic, or the checkout lanes in mind.  The Biblical meaning of patience is much closer to that of endurance or perseverance rather than one’s ability to wait an extra five minutes without fussing and fuming.  In fact, the words for patience, endurance, and perseverance are often used interchangeably in Scripture.  We can even use both words together – patient endurance – to come closer to the original intent.

The perfect example in the devolvement of the meaning of patience can be found by comparing two translations of James 1:3-4.  The old King James reads, “Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience.  But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.”  More modern translations, however, have updated this passage to read, “because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.   Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”  You see, it is not our notion of patience that brings about maturity, but rather perseverance.

Patience is most often associated with two realms in the Bible: relationships and circumstances.  Relationally, it is not first and foremost our patience with strangers that Jesus seemed to be concerned about – though that may serve as an early warning system within our spirit – but patience with friends and family.  Patience can be found among the one another commands used to instruct disciples how to interact with fellow believers.  And yes, sometimes when it comes to relationships, endurance is the better word.

Patience is also a key characteristic in getting through our circumstances.  When our circumstances get difficult, perseverance will be the true test of whether we learn and grow from those circumstances or whether we take flight and seek out comfort and security.  There is little doubt that the Godly route to maturity takes the path of perseverance and not comfort.  Truly, patience can be defined as “the discipline of hanging in there.”

So whether patience, endurance, or perseverance is the word that resonates with you, how is this Fruit of the Spirit manifesting itself in your life?

  • Am I growing in my willingness to stick with my relationships and persevere through my circumstances?
  • What relationships in your life try your patience and why?
  • Are there circumstances you currently find yourself in, in which you might be called to learn something through them rather than trying to escape them?

Fruit of the Spirit: Peace

This is the third of the nine pieces of fruit in the series on the Fruit of the Spirit. For an overview see, By Their Fruit You Will Recognize Them.

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Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

You may be picking up on a pattern that in order to better understand what a given characteristic of the Fruit of the Spirit is intended to convey, it helps to explore what the absence of that characteristic leaves us with.  Peace may be one of those nebulous concepts, until we understand that peace is noticeably absent when our lives are filled with chaos, anxiety, and fear.  In Scriptural terms, peace is very much linked to the absence of fear.  Notice that we did not say the absence of negative circumstances, but rather a fearful attitude toward our circumstances.  And we rid our lives of fear and anxiety when we learn to embrace God’s truth.

Several years ago, I went through a difficult time where things were being said about me that simply were not true.  I found myself increasingly living in fear and had to learn through many anxiety-filled nights that the truth is not something to be feared.  I had to learn to embrace truth.  For a time, I had a white rock sitting on my desk with the word truth written on it as a constant reminder to embrace the truth.  The more I returned to the truth of that situation (or any given circumstance) the less fearful I became and my life was characterized more by peace.

Similar to joy, it is fallacious to believe that peace is attainable only when our lives are free from all troubles and concerns.  If that were the case, possessing a spirit of peace would be beyond the normal human grasp.  But that is not the case.  Like each of these pieces of fruit, we are called to possess them in the midst of life’s troubles and concerns.

Jesus is recorded often as saying, “Peace be with you.”  He was usually saying this in response to a stressful situation.  He also commanded us not to worry.  The two go hand in hand.  We can only assume he said these two things because as human beings we are apt to worry and be fearful of things that are out of our control.  It is only when we take responsibility for what is in our control and entrust the things that are out of our control to God that we can truly live a life of peace, free from the burden of fear and anxiety.

So instead of waiting for that fictitious day when our lives are free of worry in order to experience peace, we can reduce stress and anxiety where it is within our control and we can rest in the truth of God when those stressors are out of our control.  This is the pathway to a life of peace.  If peace, as part of the Fruit of the Spirit, is the absence of fear and the presence of truth, how peaceful would you say your life is currently?

  • Am I refusing to live in fear as I come to embrace truth?
  • What issues cause fear to resurface in your life?
  • In what ways can truth keep those fears from overwhelming you?