The Unkindest Cut
Kindness has taken a beating in recent years. It’s never had an easy time of it, but the past several years have been especially brutal.
Lately I suppose kindness has a tough time of it, in part, because it chooses not to wear any armor plating at all. It just walks in with eyes and ears attuned to connect and to respond to others with decency and grace, both of which have been in short supply.
The Apostle Paul places kindness dead-center of his description of the “fruit of the Spirit.” He writes, “But the fruit of the Spirit is joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
I love that little twist of humor the apostle places at the end of this statement, “There’s no law against this!” No indeed there isn’t, although some will never respect these qualities.
A couple of ideas come to mind as I read this passage from Galatians about the fruit of the Spirit.
First, St. Paul isn’t listing a set a individual virtues to which we are called to aspire, nor is this really a list of separate virtues at all, as though the Spirit produces the “fruit of kindness” in some and the “fruit of self-control” in others.
St. Paul is describing here a single fruit that bears all of these characteristics. The list is not a “list of fruits,” but of the qualities of a single fruit, the fruit of the Spirit.
The fruit tastes like this. Hmmm, the taster says, “I’m getting – wait what is that on my tongue – joy. Yes, that’s it, joy, and peace too, and now forbearance and kindness, and what’s this! goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
St. Paul is like the wine lover who breathes in the fragrance of a perfect white Burgundy and says, “I’m getting freshly sliced apples,” then takes a sip, rolls it around, and notes, the structure, the mineral clarity in his mouth, and the perfect dry finish, and tries to put all of this into a single phrase.
Second, St. Paul is saying something very interesting about the way the fruit of the Spirit arises in us. We don’t strive to achieve it. The fruit simply is the natural product of a heart open to God’s Spirit, God’s meeting us directly, “mystically,” to use a word John Calvin favors.
When we empty ourselves of our preoccupation with ourselves, our preoccupation with our opinions and compulsions and fears, our preoccupation with how we will be perceived by others, and we allow God to enter into our emptiness, and we let God’s love replace all the “vain things that charm us most,” as the hymn writer says, the fruit begins to grow. And that fruit tastes like this: “joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
But “why,” we might ask, “is love not in the list describing the taste of this fruit?” Because Love is the source of “the fruit of the Spirit,” divine Love, the Love Who is God, the Love Who flows like a mighty rushing stream from God the Eternal Source and God the Eternal Word and as God’s Spirit to us. The Love Who is God is the animating power that makes us fruitful.
This is all pretty theological talk, I realize. But it is far from abstract.
Have you ever noticed how when we become increasingly reactive, thoughtless, prone to rashness, in anger or fear or a combination of the two? And what flows from us in those moments isn’t usually something of which we will later be proud.
In that moment, when the most primitive part of our brain is sparked, when all we feel is the bitter taste of Adrenalin, when fight or flight clouds our vision with fury or terror, or both, it is a real struggle to rise above simple reactivity. Or let’s take an even more basic situation: when we have cultivated the habit over a long time to feel disgust or offense or disdain toward certain views and opinions, it becomes increasingly more difficult to meet others with anything other than a readiness to react.
We could go on and on piling up examples of how we find our emotional trigger fingers twitching, our safeties off, and our minds shut. There’s very little room for the Spirit of God in a heart so fearful, reactive, angry, closed.
We’ve found ourselves for almost a year in the grip of a viral epidemic. We’ve been much longer in an epidemic of reactivity and division. It is fed by factions, various interests, partisan politics, greed, and selfishness, and a hundred other unseemly realities and some of the zaniest unrealities ever entertained. Most of us can go from apparent calm to throwing a shoe at the television in seconds.
This is not fertile ground for the “fruit of the Spirit.”
And now I am going to say something crazy. There has never been a more perfect time for us to bear witness to the love of God than now.
I’ll say it again: there has never been a more perfect time for us to bear witness to the love of God than now. Not by going door to door cajoling neighbors into metaphysical opinions or standing on a street corner handing out little pamphlets or holding high-tech revivalistic carnivals, but simply by allowing God’s Spirit, the God Who is Love, to grow his fruit in us.
Christians don’t demonstrate their faith by arguing and fighting and shouting and calling attention to themselves and their grievances.
They will know we are children of God if we are captive to the God Who is Love, and if we will allow God to nurture his fruit in us.
It won’t fit on a bumper sticker unless you’ve got a really wide car, but it’s time to “Give joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control a Chance.”