Tuesday, August 07, 2012

not what goes in, but what comes out

On my walk home today, I passed a storefront which had the following sign in it:
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…”
I’m sure some day I will investigate further what the purpose of the store was and why they put that sign up, but on this walk I just mused. The sign grabbed my attention not because those words seemed so comforting, but because the ellipsis seemed so jarring. I know that list; it tumbles out all at once in my head once it’s started:
… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.*
And so I wondered why the sign stopped at peace. What is the message the storeowners wanted to share?

As I said, I did not find out what kind of store it is, and so, lacking any further context, I guessed that the sign was meant to encourage the reader to seek peace within him or herself. Live the spiritual life, it seemed to say, and you will find love and joy and peace. Do you live in turmoil? The Spirit will bring calm. Do you think the world about you is dreary? The Spirit will give you joy. Do you feel unloved? The Spirit will love you.

But the list when taken as a whole makes clear that the “fruit” being discussed is not internal, but external. That is even more clear when it is contrasted with the “works of the flesh” that immediately precedes it.** The love mentioned here is not love for oneself, but a love expressed toward others. The joy is fruitful; it is joy shared and spread about. The peace is the antithesis of the “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy” just listed; it brings consolation and reconciliation to one’s whole community.

From there the description continues to encompass one’s behavior. Treat people patiently. Treat them well. Treat them faithfully. Treat them gently. Even the last item, self-control, which may appear to apply only to the individual, is seen in this context to circumscribe one’s actions towards others: if the behavior isn’t loving, patient, gentle, or any of the other fruitful adjectives that have gone before, then don’t do it. Self-control is pruning one’s comportment so that the other fruits may increase.

The Christian life is dynamic; it engages the self by engaging with others. It is a fine goal to seek inner calm, but it’s not a specifically Christian goal.*** The Christian reaches out, as Christ did—to the marginalized, to provide solace; to the privileged, to call them to account; to the wise, that wisdom may increase; to the perplexed, that wisdom may be sought; to everyone, in every way, displaying the fruit of the Spirit.

This leads to what may surprise some in the church (but few outside the church), that the Christian life is measured externally. The worth of the person does not change, but the value of faith is measured in actions and consequences. The lesson of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is not that there is a hell, as some would have it; the lesson is that our obedience to Christ is measured by our care for others. When someone declares “I’m not perfect, just forgiven”, they’re only telling half of the Christian story. When they say it smugly, they fulfill James’ words that “faith without works is dead.”

So I will contemplate the fruit of the Spirit in my life; as should be clear by now, this does not mean what the Spirit has done for me, but what the Spirit is doing through me.
/ / / /

* Admittedly, the list usually tumbles out to the tune of the Sunday school song I learned long ago:
The fruit of the Spirit’s not a cantaloupe, nope!
The fruit of the Spirit’s not a cantaloupe, nope!
So if you want to be a cantaloupe, you might as well hear it:
You can’t be a fruit of the Spirit.
’Cause the Spirit is love-joy-peace-patience-kindness-goodness-faithfulness,
gentleness and self-contro-o-ol!
** The list of “works of the flesh” begins famously with (in the words of the KJV) adultery and fornication. Some prefer the translation used by the NIV and ESV, which lists them as sexual immorality and impurity, because this phrasing is malleable and therefore useful to preach against the sexual taboo du jour. My wife has been making the argument—which I find increasingly plausible—that at least one of these should be translated as “rape”. In fact, a lot of the condemnation of sexual immorality in the New Testament makes perfect sense when interpreted as rape.

*** Two points here. First, I do not mean to disparage the search for inner peace. God clearly wants us to have rest and not to be tossed about by inner conflict. Sometimes each of us needs retreat. That is good and healthy. Second, I imagine that all this rhetoric of reaching out could be interpreted as an argument against monasticism, that is, against persistent retreat from the world. I mean nothing of the kind. For one thing, although I do not think monasticism is any higher a calling than any other vocation a Christian might accept, it serves as a reminder of sacredness and a spiritual center of the church. For another, monks and nuns do, for the most part, reach out to their surrounding community in just the manner described by the fruit of the Spirit.

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