In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a story about a sower who freely cast seeds on the ground, some of which never take root.
Other seeds land on rocky ground but grow only a little before dying. Still other seed grow a great deal before weeds choke them. Lastly, some seeds produce a bountiful harvest, thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold (see Matthew 13:1-23), emphasizing growth and fruitfulness.
The parable of the talents in the Gospel of Matthew also addresses the theme of growth and fruitfulness, but from a different perspective. A master goes away on a long journey, entrusting different portions of his fortune to three servants until his return. Two of the three invest the money and double it. The third buries his treasure and reaps no profit for his master. When the master returns, he praises the first two servants for their faithfulness. He condemns the third for wasting the opportunity before him (see Matthew 25:14-30).
So what is the fruit in the first parable? What are these talents in the second? There seem to be two common candidates we could explore for these. The first is that of personal holiness and the second is the making of new converts to the faith. Which would you say you prefer?
Christians have faced this question throughout history. What is more important? Should I focus more on personal godliness, or should I focus more on leading others to Jesus? Should I primarily concern myself with the Great Commandment, to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37)? Or should I primarily concern myself with the Great Commission, to “make disciples of all nations” (28:19)?
As with so many aspects of Christian life, the truth rests not in an either-or proposition but in a both-and. Far from being mutually exclusive, these two demands are mutually dependent on each other. If we are going to grow in holiness, does that not require that we do all God has commanded us to do, including sharing the gospel with others? Likewise, if we strive to share the gospel with others through our words but not through our holy example, are we not frauds who do more harm than good?
Perhaps Christian communities today and throughout history have erred in overemphasizing one side or the other. The truth is that many of us probably do the same at different stages of our own faith journey. That’s okay. We have a tremendously patient and generous God who understands our weaknesses and grants us so many opportunities to keep growing. Holiness and evangelization are different sides of the same coin. The more we grow in one, the more we must grow in the other.
My Spirit Lives in You
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his apostles that what they have seen him do, they also will do, and greater works still (see John 14:12). This is a daunting promise, but Jesus goes on to tell them that it will be possible through the Holy Spirit, who will come to them and be with them always. In effect, the Holy Spirit activates them for mission. He does the same for us as well.
If you have been baptized, then the Holy Spirit is dwelling within you. The more you pray and open yourself up to the inner life of the Holy Spirit, the more he will bear the fruit of holiness in your life. He is gentle and will not push you, but he will bring you along if you let him, helping you grow in holiness through the fruits of the Spirit and leading you to bring the gospel to others.
In St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, he describes nine specific fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23, RSVCE). I’ve always thought it interesting that these are not referred to as gifts but as fruit. The Acts of the Apostles offers quite a few examples of the gifts of the Spirit, such as prophecy, healing, miracles, and discernment of spirits. These enable the disciples, filled with the Spirit, to testify to God’s presence as these gifts are activated. The fruits of the Spirit, on the other hand, do not immediately pop up in a disciple’s life—they grow over time, slowly yielding their harvest.
When I was younger, I worked on an organic apple orchard. Depending on the variety of apple, it could easily take a decade for a seed to grow into a mature tree capable of bearing fruit.
Also, a funny thing about fruit trees is that taking care of the fruit itself is not the most important task. The most important task is taking care of the tree. A healthy tree will naturally bear good fruit in season. An unhealthy tree will not. If a tree starts to bear unhealthy fruit, no amount of cleaning, polishing, or treating the bad fruit will make it into good fruit. At best, you might be able to salvage a little of the bad fruit to use in pies. Good fruit is a byproduct. It is the natural consequence of a good tree. Ultimately, the only way to turn things around when a tree produces unhealthy fruit is to take better care of the tree.
The fruits of the Spirit are also a byproduct. The “tree,” if you will, must be healthy. In other words, we will never develop the spiritual fruit of joy, for example, simply by trying really hard or by thinking joyful thoughts. The fruits are the supernatural consequence of a growing relationship with Christ and his Spirit.
Let me say that again. The fruits of the Spirit cannot be gained through hard work or the power of positive thinking. Without the Spirit, the best we might attain is an aptitude for pretending to possess a particular fruit. Yet even this approach will fail us in time. Cracks will start to show under the strain of our effort. No, the fruits are not so much a good thing that we do but, rather, a good thing that God does within us. They are the supernatural consequence of prayer and intimacy with him.
It is important that we keep this in mind if the fruits of the Spirit are to play an important role in evangelization. It will do us no good to struggle and strive to develop fruits on our own. We can work to remove impediments, and we can make ourselves more available to God, but he is the One who brings about the change. We are simply inviting God to do within us the good work he already wants to do. We pray not only that these fruits might grow but also that we might understand the change that God is bringing about in us. As we grow in the fruits of the Spirit, we pray that we might know how we can use them to better serve those who are far from God.
I think we are meant to develop an attraction to and a hungering for the fruits of the Spirit. Pause for a moment, and ask yourself which of these fruits are most lacking in your life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, or self-control? Ultimately, they are all interconnected, so it is hard to grow in one of them without also growing in the others, but it still helps to hunger for one or more in particular. Foster that longing. Crave that fruit! The more we crave it and pray for it, the more God will satisfy us.
This is a selection from Living the Fruit of the Spiritby Joshua Danis (The Word Among Us Press, 2020), available at www.wau.org/books.