Every summer my Aunt Minnie planted a big garden and enlisted me to help water and weed it. As soon as the ground defrosted in western Pennsylvania, she scattered seeds that would yield beans, lettuce, pumpkins, and other vegetables. As summer approached, Aunt Minnie put in her tomatoes.
These were my favorite because they were the raw materials for the luscious marinara sauce she served with her homemade ravioli.
To be successful in Pittsburgh’s short growing season, tomatoes need a head start. So Aunt Minnie always went to the greenhouse at the nursery nearby and selected hearty seedlings, which she thrust in the ground with a little fertilizer and a lot of care.
A Place for Growing. The greenhouse had played an important role in preparing those tomato plants for their life’s purpose. The glass walls and roof protected the little plants from the cold; they let in the sunlight and kept in the warmth that they needed for growth. Gardeners cared for them, watering them daily and fertilizing them as they needed. The greenhouse gave those tomato plants good beginnings.
Our families are like that. They are the Holy Spirit’s greenhouse for us and our children. With us the children get protection, nourishment for their bodies and souls, and instruction and practice in daily living. This prepares our kids to fulfill their life’s purpose of loving and serving the Lord and his people. It gives them a good start on the Christian lives they must live in the world. In the family, they begin to acquire the fruits of the Holy Spirit, the behaviors that mark them as followers of Christ.
The spiritual greenhouse of daily family life is also where we parents continue our own Christian growth by developing the fruits of the Spirit to maturity. Together we all learn “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). These are the qualities the Holy Spirit produces in us as he transforms us in Christ’s image
Know Your Fruit. Spiritual growth is a work of grace, but we must also do what we can to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit in our families. This requires understanding what they are and how they work.
Take some time to reflect on the following four facts about the fruits of the Spirit. If possible, discuss them with your spouse. These truths will lay the groundwork for your family’s Christian growth, just as turning the soil prepared the little hillside plot for my Aunt Minnie’s garden.
Fact #1: The fruits of the Spirit are not feelings. Many Christians misinterpret these Christian characteristics. They may mistake attraction for love, pleasure for joy, calmness for peace, and so on. The fruits of the Spirit may involve feelings, but they are character traits that the Spirit forms in us through our decisions and actions. We define and acquire them by what we do, not by how we feel. Sometimes, in fact, our behavior manifests spiritual fruit when we feel quite the opposite.
Once, for example, two of my sons were embroiled in an angry dispute. The younger one, with fists threatening, was ready to settle it with a fight. The older one was angry too, but, with arms at his side, he said, “Go ahead and hit me if you want. I am not going to fight with you.” He wanted to work things out peaceably, and as a result they did not slug it out.
This is a down-home illustration of the fruit of the Spirit that we call “peace.” Peace is not merely a calm feeling or even the cessation of hostilities. Peace is the disposition to maintain and repair unity in relationships. My son’s actions—his refusal to fight his brother and his insistence on settling things some other way—preserved the peace in our family. Had he followed his feelings, there would have been a fight! Of course, bearing the fruits of the Spirit involves a process; one single action did not show that my son had acquired the settled disposition of a peacemaker. Still, it was a promising sign.
Fact #2: We do not receive the fruits of the Spirit passively; we acquire them actively. When we notice that we lack a certain Christian quality, we are inclined to pray for it. If we have persistent bouts with anger, we pray for patience. If we wrestle with pesky desires, we pray for self-control. Prayer is the right place to start. If that’s all we do, however, we’ll never produce the spiritual fruits we are seeking.
The fruits of the Spirit are perfections that the Spirit forms in us, but we have to play our part and respond to grace. We acquire them as we go about performing the behaviors that their names describe. Are you praying for patience? Then take steps to control your anger and irritability with a whiny child. Do you want to grow in self-control? Leave that last piece of cake for another family member to enjoy.
Fact #3: Each fruit of the Spirit is an antidote for an opposite evil behavior. St. Paul contrasted the fruits of the Spirit with the “works of the flesh,” evil deeds that are the fruit of self-indulgence (see Galatians 5:19-23). Each Christian mark is the obverse of a wicked one, like opposite sides of a coin.
But the fruits of the Spirit are not only opposed to the works of the flesh: They are also antidotes for evil conduct. Love, for example, leaves no room for hatred; kindness is a gentle replacement for meanness; and peace defuses enmity, as it did for my sons when they worked things out without coming to blows.
Fact #4: Ordinarily, the fruits of the Spirit are formed in us in our relationships. Anyone who has tried consistently to obey Christ’s command to “love one another” (John 13:34-35) has discovered how difficult it is. Jesus’ kind of love goes against the grain of our natural tendencies to self-interest and sin. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, we just would not be able to love others selflessly—not even our own spouses and children. The Spirit makes it possible by disposing us to do the right thing in all of our relationships. When we follow his promptings and conduct ourselves in Christlike ways, we produce the fruits of the Spirit.
Each of these Christian characteristics, even those which seem to be private, shapes the way we relate to others. Gentleness, for example, may help us discover ways to reach the heart of a rebellious child. Faithfulness may seal our determination to honor our marriage vows. Self-control, which may seem to be a purely personal, internal quality, affects others because it curbs conduct like greed and lust that can destroy our closest relationships.
Because the fruits of the Spirit are behaviors that produce loving relationships, the family is the ideal place to learn them and put them into practice. As we do, we and our children will be like those tomato plants in my aunt’s garden, bearing a bumper crop of fruit that will be a delight to all.
Bert Ghezzi and his wife, Mary Lou, have seven children and fifteen grandchildren. A popular author and speaker, Bert has written more than hundreds of articles and more than twenty books. They include Voices of the Saints and, with Fr. Benedict Groeschel, Everyday Encounters with God, which you can purchase at The Word Among Us Bookstore.