In Galatians 5:16 the apostle Paul instructed Christians to walk in the Spirit. By doing so, they will not gratify the desires of the flesh. This is a wonderful promise given to us by the Lord. If we will set our minds on spiritual things, our desires will change so that these sinful desires will be replaced by spiritual desires (5:17). So how do I know if I am walking by the Spirit? What does this look like in our lives?
The Fruit of the Spirit (5:22,24)
The outcome of setting our minds on the desires of the flesh is that we will carry out the works of the flesh. Our actions reflect what is in our hearts. Similarly, walking by the Spirit means that there will be particular outcomes of this choice. This is called the fruit of the Spirit.
There are some helpful observations we can make from this description. As many have noted, it is interesting that the “works of the flesh” is plural while the “fruit of the Spirit” is singular. We should not make too big of a deal out of this for even in our own language we use fruit in a singular way though referring to many. If someone were to ask you if you had fruit on your tree, you would not say, “No, I have fruits on my tree!” The word “fruit” does carry with it a plural usage. The point is still valid about the concept concerning the fruit of the Spirit. It really is not possible to only have one of the following characteristics that Paul describes as the fruit of the Spirit and not have the others. For example, can you have love but not be patient? Can you have gentleness but not self-control? All of these characteristics work together and when one is removed you probably do not have any of them.
I believe our attention should focus on the contrast between “works” and “fruit.” Why doesn’t Paul say what the works of the flesh are and what the work of the Spirit is? The plural change should not be the focus much as the change from “works” to “fruit.” Fruit implies that you are not striving for these things but these characteristics are the natural outworking of walking by the Spirit. If you set your mind on spiritual things there is a natural outcome that must occur. Fruit will come from walking by the Spirit.
Think about this another way: you cannot make fruit grow. You can plant the tree but you cannot make the fruit grow. You can tend to the tree but you cannot make the fruit grow. You can fertilize the tree but you cannot make the fruit grow. In San Diego we had a large backyard at the bottom of the hill and my father planted strawberries. He had a rototiller and tilled up the ground. Then he planted them and I remember coming down days later and seeing nothing. There is nothing you can do now to make the fruit grow. All you can do is cultivate and prepare so that fruit will grow. I believe this is the idea Paul is getting at as he writes to this Christians. The command is not to be more patient or be more kind or be more joyful. The command is to walk by the Spirit. When we walk by the Spirit this fruit will result. Walking by the Spirit is the cultivating and preparing for the fruit to grow. This is likely why the fruit of the Spirit is not called the “work of the Spirit.”
We have already seen what our work is. It was commanded to us in verse 16: “Walk by the Spirit” which we used Romans 8:5 to learn that this means setting our minds on spiritual things. Paul describes this another way in this very paragraph. Our work is to crucify the flesh with its passions and lusts (Galatians 5:24). So we are not saying that this is a passive process. Doing nothing will not cause fruit to be borne. Rather, we need to deepen our roots in Christ and cultivate our faith so that we will see this fruit in our lives.
Characteristics of the Fruit of the Spirit (5:22-23)
I hope this will put a different lens on how we read about the fruit of the Spirit. We should not read this so much as, “Do this,” but “This is the result of walking by the Spirit.” Now we are giving positive motivation to set our mind on spiritual things and to crucify the flesh and its desires. Look at what is going to happen in our lives.
Love. It is no surprise that love is the first characteristic of the fruit of the Spirit. Loving God and loving others is the natural outcome of walking by the fruit of the Spirit. Loving God and loving others is the summary of God’s law. Giving ourselves for others is what love looks like. Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies reminds us that love is not merely about feelings. Love also is the decision to give ourselves in spite of our feelings. This is true in marriage. This is true of our friends. This is true of our enemies. Love gives.
Joy. A happiness that transcends present circumstances that is based on spiritual realities. Joy is the deep sense of well-being within us because we know all is well between ourselves and the Lord. This joy is what keeps us from being crushed beyond despair because of life’s difficulties. Our eyes are set on spiritual realities which keeps us from deep depression and distress in our hearts.
Peace. Joy comes from knowing we are in a right relationship with God. Peace comes from relying upon his saving grace. There is peace in our souls knowing that our sins are covered through the blood of Christ. We are no longer in hostility with God but are able to rest in the knowledge of God’s forgiveness.
Patience. I think everyone who serves God desires to be more patient. Longsuffering and endurance are words that help us understand what patience looks like. Joy and peace seem to be the foundations we need to be patient in difficult or insulting situations. We can show greater patience with one another as we enjoy the peace and joy that comes from a right relationship with God. Our patience with others comes from seeing God’s patience with us.
Kindness and goodness. Our kindness toward others comes from recognizing God’s kindness to us. Goodness is kindness in action. Doing good cannot be based on others doing good toward me. That does not happen too often. Further, Jesus said that the world does that. Loving and doing good toward your enemies are the marks of being a follower of Jesus. This is when marriages fail: no one will do good and be kind because the other person is not. We are called to kindness and goodness in spite of how we are being treated.
Faithfulness. I hope that we are seeing that each of these characteristics have been displayed by God toward us first. We are to be faithful and dependable to God because he has been faithful to us. The more that we press into God, learn about him, and have a relationship with him, the more we will desire to be faithful to him.
Gentleness and self-control. These two characteristics are also very similar. Gentleness is sometimes translated meekness and speaks to a person who possess control over actions and emotions. Self-control speaks to having control over fleshly desires, showing purity in mind and conduct. Consider how this brings the discussion full circle. In verse 16 the apostle Paul said that if we will walk by the Spirit then we will not gratify the desires of the flesh. Thus, we will have self-control over our bodies.
Notice the results of walking by the Spirit. Amazing results that we all desire: love joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Crucify the flesh and watch this fruit grow in our lives.
Verse 25 continues this thought. The life in Christ is pictured as a line that we are walking on, following the steps of the Spirit. There is a line or standard that needs to be walked. Practicing the works of the flesh is not walking in step with the Spirit. If we are living by the Spirit then there will be evident fruit of that choice. If there is not fruit, then this reveals to us that there is a serious spiritual problem. Our minds and hearts have not been transformed from the desires of the flesh to the desires of the flesh.
Work Together (5:26)
Verse 26 ends with an interesting admonition that some think is out of place with this discussion. But Paul is making a beautiful point about the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit that we are bearing in Christ is not a competition or a reason for pride. There is not to be a “holier than you” attitude. Recognize the damage that pride causes! We will provoke one another and envy one another rather than enjoying the fruit of walking by the Spirit. We are not in competition with each other in Christ. We are working together in Christ. Let us help and encourage one another to walk by the Spirit.