Paul said in 5:16 that if we walk by the Spirit we will not carry out the desire of the flesh. It follows then that if we walk by the Spirit we WILL bear its fruit. The Christian life is not just a matter of what we avoid or what we are not. It is also very much what we do and what we are in God. If we walk in communion with Him we will take on His characteristics. Walking by the Spirit means living lives of prayer, communion, study, meditation, submission, fellowship with other Spirit-filled people – all leading to fruit in our lives. This fruit does not come about because of anything naturally within us – it comes about because of the One who indwells us. If we walk by the Spirit we will bear fruit – if we do not bear fruit we cannot claim to walk by the Spirit.
With this in mind it seems worthwhile to briefly investigate what each element of the fruit means. If these are the characteristics our lives should be marked by it will be helpful to understand them in more detail. Our goal will be to become more familiar with each and be able to better recognize what they should look like in our lives. One thing to note – though we will look at each one separately, we must remember that Paul uses the word fruit singularly. These are not individual fruits – they are different characteristics of the same fruit. The one who walks by the Spirit will have them all to some degree. Trees do not bear fruit parts.
Also, those who walk by the Spirit bear this fruit now. These are not characteristics that are only for eternity. Paul’s intent is not to describe a perfect and glorified Christian. We have the love, joy, peace, patience, etc. of the Spirit available to us in this life. This is not to say that each characteristic will develop to its fullest this side of eternity, but each characteristic should be present and growing as we walk with Him. Jesus told His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you” (Jn 14:27). Peter said (in a similar passage to Galatians 5), “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Pet 1:8). These qualities are available and should mark the Christian’s life now.
They are called the fruit of the Spirit because they are elements of God’s nature. All of these characteristics are found in God. He is loving, joyful, peaceful, etc. As we delve deeper into what each one means we must remember that when the Spirit bears this fruit in us He makes us more like Himself.
One final thought. The intent of this study is not to send us out to work hard at bearing fruit. It is impossible to simply decide to be loving and joyful. The fruit comes as a result of walking. It is worth repeating that this is the fruit of the Spirit. When we make knowing God the center of our lives, when we walk with Him in loving obedience, when we live thankful lives based on the gospel – then we bear the fruit that marks us as one of His. The intent of this study is to recognize the fruit and assess where we are in knowing our Creator. If the fruit is not there we should examine ourselves to make sure we are in the faith. And then we should prayerfully work at knowing our Father and walking by His Spirit.
Love is the first characteristic mentioned and is really the foundation for all the others. Remember that Paul just said in verse 14 that loving your neighbor as yourself fulfills the whole Law. He actually defines love in I Corinthians 13 by using some of the same words he uses here for the fruit of the Spirit. Love is patient, love is kind, love never fails (faithful). He also says that anything done for God without love is worthless – even selling all our possessions to feed the poor or delivering ourselves up to be burned. John describes God as actually personifying love – He IS love. So love is the first and greatest of the elements. If we walk by His Spirit we will first become more loving. Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love – I Jn 4:7-8.
So how to define it? Beyond what we have already said – patient, kind, faithful – love is completely selfless. Paul says it is not jealous, does not brag, is not arrogant, does not seek its own, does not take into account a wrong suffered, bears all things, endures all things. Love is the polar opposite of selfishness. If all sin ultimately has its roots in self-centeredness, love only grows when it is rooted in someone else.
Love that models God’s love is also active. God is never passive toward those He loves. We see this most clearly in the gospel. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and beholds his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth (I Jn 3:16-18).
We love when we walk with the One who IS love but also when we focus on the love He has for us. The bigger our understanding of the love God shows to us the bigger and more active our love for others will be. The cross is the ultimate example of love, and when we focus on that and on God’s continual sustaining love in our lives we will love others. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (I Jn 4:10-11). John says when we love others we actually complete God’s love (I Jn 4:17) because it is proof we are His. Jesus told His disciples that love for each other would be what distinguishes them from the world and identifies them as His (Jn 13:34-35).
If we love with the love God has for us then we are willing to give ourselves to those who are not worthy of any love. Jesus said to love our enemies because that is how our Father in heaven loves (Matt 5:43-48). God ultimately loves because love is His nature. He loves because of Himself, not because the ones He loves are worthy. That is how we must love also. We look at God and love others. We look at the love God has for us in the work of His Son and His Spirit and we love others. Love based on justice or fairness or value is not God’s love.
This is why love can only come as a result of walking by the Spirit. The world cannot love in this way. The world loves based on who someone is or what they do – the object of love is integral to the love it enjoys. For the believer, however, the object of love is secondary. The Christian’s love is a response to God’s love and is based in Him. We love others because of God’s love and we love God because of God’s love. We love because He first loved us (I Jn 4:19).
Love is the basis of the fruit of the Spirit because no other element can grow apart from love. Love is the highest mark of the Christian. A believer shows he shares in the divine nature (II Pet 1:4) when he models the love that is personified in God.
Joy can be a difficult characteristic to define. We talk about it a lot in the Christian community but do not often say specifically what it is. We actually tend to define it more by what it is not. We say it is not the same as happiness. Happiness is dependent on circumstances while joy remains whatever the conditions. But what is it exactly? And how do I know if I am experiencing it like I should? If I do not feel good, can I still claim to have joy? Should joy cause me to smile a lot? Do I know if I am a joyous person or is it something only someone else can identify in me? Can I be melancholy or stoic and still joyful? Are joy and happiness so different that there are no similarities between the two and neither enters into the definition of the other?
The New Bible Dictionary defines joy as follows. It is a quality, and not simply an emotion, grounded upon God himself and indeed derived from Him (Ps 16:11; Phil 4:4; Rom 15:13), which characterizes the Christian’s life on earth (1 Pet 1:8), and also anticipates eschatologically the joy of being with Christ forever in the kingdom of heaven (cf. Rev 19:7).
Note the elements. It is a quality instead of an emotion. This means it can exist apart from circumstances. This is what differentiates it from the happiness of the world. Christian joy can exist in the midst of trials. Suffering does not preclude joy. This is why James can say, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (Jas 1:2).
The joyous Christian is the one who can endure hardship while having faith in the One who controls all things. Joy in the midst of life comes from knowing our Father is sovereign and loving. That He does all things for His glory and that His children benefit when He does. That nothing is outside of His control and He will never leave us or forsake us. That while circumstances can be horrific and each day a test of endurance, there is purpose in all things and we will be more conformed to the image of His Son when the dust settles. Joy is being able to say with David – Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for You are with me (Ps 23). Nehemiah could say, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10) because focusing on God in the midst of trials is what strengthens us to endure them.
It is grounded in God and derives from Him. That it is derived from Him is exactly what we are studying – it is an element of the fruit of the Spirit. But that it is grounded in Him is the single biggest key to understanding it. We are joyful when our lives and minds and priorities are centered on Him. We are not joyful when our lives and minds and priorities are centered on anything or anyone else (most notably ourselves).
Think about this. God is perfectly faithful. God is omnipresent. God is never unreachable. God loves us perfectly. God is merciful. God always wants what is best for us – to know Him and become like Him – and has the power to carry it out. God knows our thoughts. God created us and understands us better than we understand ourselves. God craves intimacy with us and demands that we talk to Him. God always listens. God created and sustains the universe and yet tells us to call Him ‘Father’ and that we are His children. As we know One like this and experience Him, how can we not enjoy Him?
Jesus told His disciples that when they saw Him again after He rose from the dead their heart would rejoice and no one would be able to take their joy away (Jn 16:22). When the angel announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds, he said he brought them good news of a great joy which shall be for all people (Lk 2:10). When pregnant Mary went to see her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth said, “When the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby (John the Baptist) leaped in my womb for joy” (Lk 1:44). The inevitable result of experiencing Jesus is joy. (The idea for this paragraph is from the Tim Keller sermon The Joy of Jesus – 5/3/1998).
And this joy we have in Him transcends the rewards and lusts of the world. We know we walk by the Spirit when we find more joy in God than in the pleasures of the flesh. We know we understand joy when we can say with David, “You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Ps 16:11).
This is not to say that we do not fall or that we are never again tempted by the passing pleasures of sin. What it means, however, is that over time we find that we honestly would rather commune with our Father than carry out the desire of the flesh. Or that when we DO commune with the Father it makes the lusts we give in to pale in comparison. When we realize our souls are only satisfied when we are engaged with Him we begin to know what joy in Him means. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied (Matt 5:6).
David said in Psalm 16:8-9, “I have set the Lord continually before me; because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; my flesh also will dwell securely.” Setting the Lord continually before him is the cause of David’s joy. When we meditate on God and who and what He is we are joyful in Him. To know God is to enjoy Him.
It characterizes the Christian’s life but also anticipates the joy of being with Christ forever. The believer can be joyous now as he walks with the Spirit and knows his Creator more and more. But he also anticipates being with Christ one day in His full and glorified presence. What will make the new earth a paradise will be God’s presence and being able to know Him more and more for all eternity. So if the believer has joy now through walking by the Spirit and contemplating the Creator, imagine what joy awaits him in the full presence of God in a world untouched by sin. We walk now in the joy of knowing our Father and Savior but also in the hope of a more glorious and perfect joy to come.
So is joy the same as happiness? No, but that is not to say that happiness is not oftentimes incorporated into it. Do I have to smile a lot if I am joyous? Not necessarily, but joy probably takes different forms with different people. And smiling is typically a good thing. Can I recognize joy in my own life? Yes – those living in the joy of the Lord know it. But most likely others who really know us can identify it also.
What if my life is not typified by joy? Then it is centered on me or I am not truly a believer. Those are the only two options. This is where love and joy intersect. When we love God because of who He is and not because of what He does for us, when our lives are full of Him regardless of circumstances, and when we stop looking at our relationship with Him as a matter of fairness – I obey and God blesses – then we can begin to experience the joy of His presence. When we stop assigning beauty and value to the creation instead of the Creator, then we can enjoy Him. When we daily preach the gospel to ourselves and continually meditate on the cross we can live joyously before Him. It is ALL about Him. When we focus on Him and experience Him and contemplate Him and love Him and meditate on Him – joy is inevitable.
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail,
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold,
And there be no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will exult in the Lord,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.
The Lord God is my strength,
And He has made my feet like hinds feet,
And makes me walk on my high places.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!