“Baby Sitters & Blueberry Bushes” on Galatians 5:22-26 by Joe Ellis – June 5, 2022
Today, as we celebrate and remember the day of Pentecost, I thought it might be helpful to explore something about the Holy Spirit that has always been confusing to me. This exploration today will then be a bit of a springboard for the rest of the summer, where we will reflect more deeply on each of the 9 fruits of the Spirit that Paul lists in this passage (Galatians 5:22-26)
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also behave in accordance with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, being jealous of one another.
Before looking at the fruits individually, I’d like to talk about how they work as a whole, how they relate to the Holy Spirit, and how the Holy Spirit works in spite of us. This has always been a bit confusing to me. What is the relationships between my effort at producing fruit and the Spirit producing fruit in me?
When you look at an apple tree or a blueberry bush, you don’t see the tree or bush grunting and sweating each time they produce one measly apple or blueberry. The plant just does what it does, and it’s almost as though it can’t help producing fruit. Also, the plant just knows what kind of fruit to produce — you don’t have to describe what a blueberry is to a blueberry bush, or what an apple is to an apple tree. They just know. How does it know? Well, it’s in the plants’ DNA.
When Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit growing in us, does that mean that we don’t need to work at being loving, or joyful or patient or kind? That it will just come without effort, like fruit on a tree? And just as a blueberry bush doesn’t need to be told what type of fruit to produce — is that also true for us? For example, in the book of Jeremiah, God tells us in 31:33, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Similarly, in the book of Ezekiel, God says in 36:27, “I will put my Spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” This does seem like we’ll be like the blueberry bush, automatically knowing what fruit to produce — almost like we won’t even need to think about it. Amazingly, Ezekiel and Jeremiah aren’t just talking about a few fruit — they’re talking about the whole law of God, like Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible. If it’s God’s law that they’re talking about, there’s a lot to remember there. So, after receiving the Holy Spirit, is the whole Torah written on my heart so that I become like a Torah-berry bush, knowing and producing everything it says in Torah without any effort?
The answer to our first question about how do we know what to do can be found in Galatians 5:13-14:
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.For the whole law (Torah) is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Paul is following in the tradition of Jesus, who said in Matthew 22:37-40:
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
You see, Jesus is saying we do not need to have memorized the 5,852 verses of Torah to know how to live out Torah. We need only two verses: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.” So, as the Holy Spirit moves in us to love God and love our neighbours, we don’t need Torah to tell us what to do because the Holy Spirit is moving within us.
You see, Torah exists because of people’s disposition to evil, not because of people’s disposition to good. So, when the Spirit empowers us to love God and love our neighbours, Torah becomes irrelevant, or at least not relevant in the way it might be if the Spirit were not at work living in us. Gordon Fee writes, “There is no need of Torah to say, “You shall not kill,” to people who by the Spirit are loving one another. Nor is there any need to say, “Don’t covet,” to those who are generous and giving to others, and are actively pursuing the good of others out of kindness. This does not mean that such reminders are irrelevant…” And that’s why after listing the fruit of the Spirit, Paul says, “against such things as these there is no Torah.” As the Spirit grows in us, the type of fruit Paul mentions in this list, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we are showing that indeed the law (and all of Torah) is written on our hearts. We become like the blueberry bush, knowing what to grow.
Listen again to the fruit of the Spirit that Paul mentions: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I want to suggest that everything that comes after love is really a subcategory, or a further description of what kind of behaviours or qualities describe love. The fruit of the Spirit is about loving God and loving our neighbours. Someone who is joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and shows self-control in his or her actions towards others, is someone who knows how to love well. Just as the blueberry bush doesn’t need to be told that a blueberry is what it should grow, when the Spirit is within us, we don’t need to be told that we are to grow in love. That’s the work that the Spirit does within us. And as we do grow in love, that is the evidence that God’s law of love is written upon our hearts.
Now, here comes the second question. How much work does cultivating the fruit of the Spirit in our lives involve? The blueberry bush doesn’t need to work at growing a blueberry — it just does. What about us? With the metaphor of fruit — the implication is that it should just happen. That we should just kick back and watch fruit grow out of us. Is that possible? But again, Gordon Fee says, “In almost every case these various “fruit” appear elsewhere in the form of imperatives.” (An imperative expresses is a direct command, request, warning, or instruction.)In other words, for each of these fruit, Paul elsewhere says, “Do these things. Work at them. Practice them.” In Ephesians 6:10 Paul says, “Let us work at what is good.” That’s like a gardener saying to a blueberry bush, “You grow blueberries, you bush!” This is actually where the fruit tree metaphor breaks down.
So let’s look at another metaphor that can help us understand the relationship between the Spirit producing fruit in us and our own effort— we find the metaphor in Galatians 3:24-26:
“So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons and daughters of God, through faith.
The law was like a baby-sitter for God’s people, looking after them until the coming of the Messiah, so that they might be given covenant membership on the basis of faithfulness. But now that faithfulness has come, we are no longer under the rule of the babysitter (Torah). “For you are all children of God, through faith in the Messiah, Jesus.”
So, before we placed our faith in Jesus and received the Holy Spirit through faith, Paul describes us as children under a babysitter. Torah was the babysitter keeping God’s people in line until the Messiah came and sent His Spirit. When the Spirit is present in you and me, the baby-sitter is no longer necessary.
When we’re kids, we do need a baby-sitter. We don’t have the capacity to be alone, otherwise we’ll very quickly fall into trouble. Yet, as we grow up, we grow in capacity. We can take care of ourselves. We can be by ourselves. As we go through the process of maturing, we have more capacity to take care of ourselves. The baby sitter doesn’t need to tell us when to go to bed, or how to brush our teeth, or what to eat for dinner — we mostly do that ourselves. Similarly, receiving the Holy Spirit gets rid of the need for the Baby Sitter — Torah — we don’t need Torah to tell us what to do or what not to do, the Spirit that is within us will tell us. The Spirit works in us similarly to the normal process of growing up does to a human. Just as the normal process of human maturation helps a grownup live without a babysitter, the Spirit-guided process of maturation helps a Christian live without Torah. The Spirit grows in us a capacity to love God and to love our neighbour.
Here is the thing — that does not mean that the Spirit living within us doesn’t require effort on our part to have the fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Similarly, just because grownups don’t need a babysitter doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take effort being an adult.
The other week, both Michelle and I got that terrible flu that was been going around, and putting dinner on the table took a monumental amount of effort that involved a lot of crying. Just because I have the capacity to be a grownup doesn’t mean that being a grownup is always easy. It would have been much easier to just stay in bed and let my kids eat chocolate chips for dinner. Instead, they got week old pea soup. Similarly, just because the Holy Spirit has increased our capacity to love God and love our neighbours, doesn’t mean that it is always easy or effortless. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to love our enemy, have joy in all circumstances, be long-suffering, have kindness when someone has only been rude to us, be generous when your finances are tight, be faithful when you’d rather tuck and run, be gentle when you’d rather bite someone’s head off, and show self-control when somebody just touched a big old raw, emotional nerve of yours. Just because the Spirit is in you, and has increased your capacity to love, does not mean that it will be easy and will require no effort on your part. A Spirit-filled human being is much more complicated than a mature blueberry bush. The Spirit grows our capacity to love, but living into that still requires effort.
Throughout the rest of this series, we’ll talk about what Spirit-driven effort looks like. But I want to close with one final note. This last point about comparing a Christian growing in the Spirit to a child growing up and no longer needing a baby-sitter — it needs to be said that growing in the Spirit is not the same thing as a human growing in maturity. Some humans have huge limitations in how mature they are able to become. Because of developmental complications at birth or cognitive injuries later, some humans are not able to mature to the point where they no longer need a guardian to look after them. But that does not mean that they are not able to grow in the Spirit, and exhibit fruit in their lives. Sometimes, perhaps often, our brothers and sisters with developmental disabilities like autism, or Down Syndrome, or FASD (fetal alcohol syndrome disorder) show remarkable growth in the Spirit. Their lives are characterized beautifully by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Becoming a person filled with the Spirit is not the same as being a mature adult human being and all that we think that is.
Similarly, although children have a ways to go into developmental maturity — children are just as capable of growing in the Spirit as a grownup. Children are just as capable in their own way of showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The Spirit and His fruit are certainly not tied to cognitive ability, maturity, or physical prowess. The weak or young may often shame the strong or mature.
Through the Holy Spirit, God writes His law on our hearts — His deep concern that we love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and that we love our neighbours as ourselves. As we grow in fellowship with the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit enlarges our capacity to love God and our neighbours. This will not always be easy. This will not always be intuitive. Sometimes we will struggle, fail, backslide, and be confused about what good fruit looks like in any given moment. But the Holy Spirit is there with us every step of the way. You are not alone, He will show you the way.