That every believer should excel in the fruit of the Spirit is a misconception. It’s not a misconception because it’s unrealistic. The ability to walk daily in the gifts of the Spirit is quite attainable. It’s a misconception in that we confuse sanctification and justification. As we give our lives to Jesus we are immediately declared righteous (Romans 5:1) and a new creation (1 Corinthians 5:17). This is justification, or as I was taught as a child, “just as if I’d never sinned”.
Sanctification is gradual, painful, and liberating. It’s a daily reliance on God’s grace coupled with a disciplined life that longs to live in holiness, not visit holiness periodically as one would visit summer home on vacation.
All too often we confuse the two. We believe justification is something we must work ourselves into and sanctification is something we should attain instantly. When we are not perfect we allow guilt and shame to pull us into our old mindset, destructive habits, and dysfunctional relationships. “Why bother?”, you utter, exhausted that every hill is uphill. Yes, the renewing of the mind can be exhausting, but not forever.
The Apostle Paul helps us out by giving us a list of 9 characteristics that mark the life of the Spirit-led believer (Galatians 5:22-23). Just 9. Not 90, 900, or 9,000. Just 9. For those who have a hard time remembering them, as I occasionally do, here they are. By the way, one of my favorite methods of remembering them is this: 3 have one syllable, 3 have 2 syllables, 3 have 3 syllables. At least that helps me.
As you look over this list I think you would agree that all 9 of these things are relationally, spiritually, mentally, and physically beneficial. In fact, if you presented this list to a co-worker and exclaimed, “I want to be known as loving, joyful, peaceful, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and able to practice self-control,” they would applaud you. They may also agree that every person should long for such things.
Here’s the problem, the Fruit of the Spirit is not contingent upon the work of the Spirit. You can be an atheist and still practice every one of the Fruits of the Spirit. The difference is how you arrive at the fruit. Apart from a relationship with Holy Spirit, this list of 9 characteristics is fully dependent on our efforts. You’ll have to make every effort to love, be patient, and be kind. It will be a conscious battle every day because the Fruit of the Spirit is contrary to the flesh. It becomes a focus of the human will every day.
While those who are led by the Spirit still struggle, the fruit of the spirit is the result of a healthy relationship, not ones own striving. Through intimacy with Holy Spirit, we seemingly stumble into the fruit of the Spirit. The Apostle Paul presented this list to be an external and internal indicator of our relationship. It’s a list we can use to reveal our the condition of our heart and the condition of our intimacy. It’s also a list we can use to help our brothers and sister in Christ.
When we see a lack in the 9 characteristics, we are able to bring Godly confrontation (which always leads to restoration, not condemnation), and see their relationship with Holy Spirit strengthened. When the 9 characteristics are absent, the relationship with Holy Spirit fractured as a result of our doing not His.
Do you want to know what I find so fascinating about the Fruit of the Spirit? They yield results but are not results oriented. God knew if he were to attach metrics of accomplishment to fruit, no one would ever feel good enough. Every person would live in degrading sanctification and meaningless justification. This is why our salvation is a gift and our sanctification is a process. We strive for intimacy with The Father and the result takes shape in characteristics that are so attractive to those who do not know Jesus, results can’t help but come.
To focus on the results is to forego the sanctification and desire only the justification. It is attention to results at the expense of relationship. It’s meaningless toil to no end. By placing the relationship with God first, we entrust the results to Him, where they belong. We must simply do our part and be led, wherever that may take us. Toil first in relationship with Him and fruit will be inevitable.