Have you ever visited an avid gardener? Before your visit is over, you just know that he (or she) will take you outside and show you the garden. Up and down each row, you will be shown the various plants and told how each is producing. You will hear about what it took to make each plant produce well, and what had to be done to make the soil as fertile as possible.
Avid gardeners take great pleasure when their gardens produce well. They devote much time and energy to their gardens, and care deeply about their success. They study the soil and the needs of each plant. Perhaps they have even produced their own compost, working over the years to improve and build up the soil. Their investment of time and energy is rewarded when the garden produces well.
Did you know that God the Father compares Himself to a gardener? After all, as Paul explained to the Church at Corinth, "you are God's garden" (1 Corinthians 3:9, NEB). God takes great delight and satisfaction when we bear much spiritual fruit (John 15:8). If we are not bearing much fruit, it is not because God is indifferent to our growth! Even so, there are reasons why some people bear more fruit and some bear less.
Our attitude and frame of mind can be compared to the soil of the garden. Some attitudes are conducive to healthy growth, while others are toxic. Do you know which attitudes are comparable to healthy and fertile soil? Do you know which attitudes will inhibit your spiritual growth, and keep you from producing the fruit in which our Father so greatly delights? When you know the difference, you can take steps to cooperate with the Master Gardener.
Humility Is Fertile Soil for Growth
There is perhaps no condition more important than humility, for those seeking spiritual growth. Two ancient kings of Judah, Asa and his son Jehoshaphat, illustrate well why humility is such a vital attribute.
King Asa came to the throne of Judah approximately 20 years after the death of King Solomon. For the first ten years of Asa's reign, things were relatively quiet; the young king sought to encourage the worship of the true God, and to build his nation's military defense. Then Zerah, the Ethiopian, mounted a massive attack on Judah. With a million-man army, he invaded the Middle East. Humbled by his inability to defeat the invasion with Judah's military power, Asa cried out to God for deliverance. God heard Asa's prayer, and delivered Judah.
In 2 Chronicles 15, we read that after the Ethiopian army was defeated, God's prophet Azariah went to meet Asa, admonishing him that God would be with him if he would be with God. Taking courage from the prophet's words, Asa called his nation to a renewal of the covenant at the upcoming Pentecost season (the feast of the third month) and began a systematic destruction of the symbols of idolatrous worship throughout the land. Asa even destroyed the idol of his mother, Maachah, and removed her from the prestigious position of Queen Mother because of her poor example to the nation. With these reforms in place, the land prospered and enjoyed peace for the next 25 years.
Then another crisis arose. We read in 2 Chronicles 16 that in the 36th year of Asa's reign, Israel's King Baasha came against Judah. Asa was frightened, and took all the money he could quickly find—including money from the Temple treasury—to bribe the king of Syria to attack Israel on his behalf. Asa's strategy seemed successful, but God's prophet Hanani corrected the king for his lack of faith and trust in God. Hanani reminded Asa that God had intervened for him against the Ethiopians many years earlier, but that because of his most recent choice he would have warfare from then on.
Asa was infuriated by this rebuke. His reaction, in effect, was: "I'm the king; how dare you talk to me that way!" Asa had Hanani arrested and thrown in jail, and began to oppress some of the people at that time. When struck by a foot disease in the 39th year of his reign, he never went to God for healing, even as his condition worsened; he only consulted various physicians (2 Chronicles 16:12).
Why did Asa fail to seek God's healing during his distress? One answer is clear: the king had imprisoned God's prophet. How could Asa ask God for miraculous healing, when he had imprisoned His prophet and rejected His correction? This would have required humility, but Asa had too much pride to admit his mistake publicly or to apologize to Hanani.
Asa's example is tragic: he did much good, and received many of God's blessings, but he failed to grow spiritually as the years went by. In his youth, he had been willing to acknowledge his lack of self-sufficiency and his utter dependence on God. Sadly, many years of peace and prosperity left him with illusions of power and greatness, and he lost the humility that could have let him admit his error and seek God's mercy. As a result, he came to a tragic end.
Asa's son, Jehoshaphat, acted very differently than his father. Like his father, he began his rule by seeking God and trying to be a good king. Jehoshaphat seems to have been the kind of man who was always willing to help others, even when they did not deserve his sympathy. When wicked King Ahab of Israel came to him, seeking help against Syria which had taken part of Israel's territory, Jehoshaphat felt sorry for Ahab, and agreed to help him. Jehoshaphat barely escaped from the battle with his life, and God's prophet then rebuked him: "Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord?" (2 Chronicles 19:2).
How did Jehoshaphat respond to this correction? He used the following months to better organize his nation's government (2 Chronicles 19:4–11). We can discern his attitude by the instructions he gave to his judges: "Then he set judges in the land throughout all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city, and said to the judges, 'Take heed to what you are doing, for you do not judge for man but for the Lord, who is with you in the judgment. Now therefore, let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take care and do it, for there is no iniquity with the Lord our God, no partiality, nor taking of bribes'" (vv. 5–7).
King Jehoshaphat made mistakes, as we all do, but throughout his life he had the humility to grow in response to God's correction. Later, when the Ammonites and the Moabites invaded the land, Jehoshaphat responded by proclaiming a fast and praying to God for deliverance (2 Chronicles 20). God heard Jehoshaphat's supplication, and intervened.
A humble heart, like Jehoshaphat's, will respond positively to correction—and will learn. Spiritual growth takes place, and healthy spiritual fruit will grow, only in the soil of a humble heart and mind.
The Importance of Loving the Truth
How much do we value truth? Do we want the truth even when it hurts? It is easy to want to see others "straightened out" about their problems, but how much do we desire to be straightened out regarding our own? The Pharisees of Jesus' day were quick to see where many of their contemporaries were falling short of God's righteousness. They were known for their negative and critical attitude toward others.
This attitude led them to find fault with Jesus of Nazareth for spending time with people who had problems. "Why would He spend his time with sinners?" they wondered. Do you think that the Pharisees saw their criticisms as a problem? Hardly! They believed that their negative spirit toward others was evidence of their zeal for God's truth. But was it, really?
Zeal for the truth is not demonstrated by how we respond when others are being corrected for their problems. It is demonstrated by how we respond when we are being corrected for our problems! There is a big difference. Notice how the Pharisees responded when Jesus used the plain words of Scripture to correct them: they became offended (Matthew 15:12)! For all of their talk about following God's word, they were willing to lay aside the plain commandments of God in order to hold on to their own traditions. This is true of most people even today.
Many years later, when Paul was on what was probably his last journey to Jerusalem, he stopped for a meeting with the Ephesian elders. Paul reminded them that he had not held back from declaring "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27) during his years among them. Paul did not play funny little games with God's word, nor did he "sugar coat" the truth. Paul taught the plain truth without fear or favor. Of course, God's word is sharp and cutting (Hebrews 4:12)—and the truth can be painful when we honestly examine how it applies in our own lives!
Near the end of his life, Paul warned Timothy of what he would face in the years ahead. Paul admonished Timothy to continue preaching the word, but told him that the time was quickly coming when many who were supposedly part of the Church would turn aside. When the truth proved painful and corrective, many would prefer fables instead, and would seek out ministers who would cater to them, telling them what they wanted to hear (2 Timothy 4:2–4).
Of course, those who reject sometimes-painful correction cease to grow spiritually. If we are to grow and bear spiritual fruit, we must learn to love the truth more than we love our own way. The religious leaders of Jesus' day loved their own way so much that they refused to accept correction, even from the Son of God. Think about it! At the beginning of Jesus' ministry, Nicodemus came to Him privately, and acknowledged: "we [Pharisees and other religious leaders] know that you are a teacher come from God" (John 3:1–2). But while many, like Nicodemus, admitted privately that Jesus was God's messenger, they refused to heed His warnings and admonitions. As a result, noting that they did not love the truth, Jesus warned them near the end of His ministry: "Therefore I say to you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it" (Matthew 21:43).
End-time prophecy reveals that, in the not-too-distant future, the False Prophet will deceive many— even while the Two Witnesses are proclaiming God's truth and working great miracles in Jerusalem—because they do not have a genuine love of the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:10). All of us who wish to grow spiritually must love the truth deeply.
Bearing Spiritual Fruit
You and I cannot generate spiritual fruit by our own power. We cannot will ourselves to have more faith or more godly love; these are the fruit of God's Holy Spirit in our lives. God is the one who yields the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6) or produces the growth. Many people appear to display naturally, to a limited degree, some of the characteristics that Galatians 5 calls fruit of the Spirit. But such natural displays are not what the Bible is describing; the Bible is describing the evidence of our changed character—the new nature that God is producing in us through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit.
Galatians 5:22–23 describes nine different types of spiritual fruit. We have seen that God wants us to bear fruit; He is glorified when we produce much fruit. This fruit comes as a result of the working of the Holy Spirit in a receptive heart and mind. Such a heart is humble, and has a deep love of the truth.
What is this fruit that is to be produced? It is not merely a series of natural human characteristics; it is something that goes much deeper.
Love is the first fruit mentioned. It is natural to love those who are kind and loving to us. It is also natural to resent (and even to hate) those who are hurtful and unkind to us and to our loved ones. Real love is not expressed merely in words and platitudes; it will be shown by what we do—by the way we actually treat others.
Joy is the second fruit mentioned— and it goes far beyond mere momentary happiness or excitement. Paul declared emphatically that our current sufferings are not worthy to be compared to the ultimate glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18). True joy is what we have inside based on the living hope that is so real to us.
Peace—the third fruit mentioned— is produced by the Holy Spirit; it is not generated by ideal circumstances around us. It is an inner peace and acceptance, based on the knowledge that our lives are in God's hands. When we have truly surrendered our lives to Him, a peace results regardless of whether we are temporarily up or down. Paul wrote in Philippians 4 that he had learned peace and contentment—characteristics that did not come naturally to him (see Acts 9:1–2). Spiritual peace only comes to a surrendered and thankful heart.
Next come longsuffering, kindness and goodness. Some people, because of their background and temperament, seem to be more naturally patient and kind than others. Scripture, however, is talking about something far deeper than these natural qualities. The spiritual quality of longsuffering involves the ability to wait on God, and should not be confused with apathy or indifference. Because they know that God is real, and that His promises are real, those who are longsuffering are prepared to wait for Him. A humble heart that deeply loves the truth will search Scripture for examples of longsuffering, kindness and goodness, and ask God to change natural human tendencies so that we might become more like Him.
The presence of faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in our lives is further evidence of the Holy Spirit working and bearing fruit. These qualities flow from God, and from our relationship with Him. Faithfulness—fidelity to God—will cause us to take seriously all of our commitments in life. The spiritual quality of gentleness comes from our willingness to trust God to fight our battles for us. A life of self-control, or temperance, is the opposite of one governed by lust, greed and covetousness. Since Scripture tells us that covetousness is idolatry (Colossians 3:5), loyalty to our Creator requires us to lead a life that is neither out of control nor filled with excess.
When we examine the fruit that our lives are bearing, we must recognize God's part in the process. We cannot manufacture spiritual fruit, nor can we make it grow, mature and ripen by our own strength of will. We must, however, understand how much God delights in seeing abundant fruit in our lives. He is in no way indifferent. We never have to wonder whether God is really interested; He is an avid gardener, and you are His garden! He takes great pleasure in seeing healthy spiritual fruit come to maturity in your life!
God is the One who causes spiritual seed to germinate in our lives, but our hearts and minds are the soil in which it must take root and grow. Are we offering Him soil that is fertile? Are our hearts and minds truly humble, so that we are open and receptive to God's correction and thankful for His involvement? Do we genuinely love His truth more than anything or anyone? If so, we will be continually searching the Scripture so that we may understand more deeply the spiritual qualities that God desires to see in us. We will continually ask Him to transform us, by the renewing work of His Spirit— and to glorify Himself by bearing more spiritual fruit in our lives!