"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law" (Gal. 5:22).
Recently in a McComb, Mississippi, coffee shop, a lady whom I had just drawn a caricature for felt she had to tell my pastor friend and I about her switch to another religious system from the Baptist church of her youth.
She said, "Every Sunday the priest preaches about love. No matter what the sermon is on, he manages to mention it in some way." We said nothing. And even though I know better, what I felt was, "Oh, great. He mentions love. Well lah-de-dah." You'll be glad to know I did not speak that. I'm glad to know I instantly rebuked myself for even thinking it.
The simple fact of the matter is that love is a biggie. Love is the very nature of God, we're told in 1 John 4:16. Anyone who takes God seriously is not allowed to cavalierly dismiss the subject as unworthy of their attention. No New Testament writing is so saturated with love more than this first Epistle of John. It is no stretch to say that those who know the Lord Jesus Christ will themselves be saturated with love.
In his commentary on 1 John, pastor and Bible teacher John MacArthur identifies five reasons Christians are told to love. "Beloved, let us love one another...": 1) because God is the essence of love (1 John 4:7-8); 2) because love is the example given us when God gave Jesus to be our sacrifice (1 John 4:9); 3) because love is the heart of Christian witness (1 John 4:12); 4) because love is the Christian's assurance (1 John 4:13-16); 5) because love is the Christian's confidence in judgment (1 John 4:17-20).
Question: If love is one aspect of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, then why are we commanded throughout the Bible to love? Isn't it automatic, and not something to be turned on and off at will? Yes and no. For love to be a fruit of the Spirit does mean that when the Lord is guiding and controlling one's life, He produces love. Love becomes a natural aspect of who we are. We exude love as surely as an athlete gives off perspiration.
As a preteen, when I came to know the Lord Jesus Christ, I still recall being filled with love for everyone I saw. No one told me I should, it just happened. Later, I realized that was a strong indicator of the Lord's presence in my life. But it became "fruit" only after years of living close to the Lord, staying in His word, and living in obedience to Him.
Love is something the Lord does within us, but love is also something we do in His strength for His glory. We are not to sit back passively waiting for the Spirit within us to love someone, but must take the initiative-be proactive, as the current catchword puts it-and get up and do loving actions for that person.
Biblically, love is something we do. In Luke 6:23ff and other places, when our Lord told the disciples they were to "love your enemies," He did not leave them wondering either who that meant or what they were to do. "Do good to those who hate you," He said. "Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. Give to those who would steal from you." If your enemy is someone who hates you, curses you, mistreats you, and steals from you, then to love him means to do good, bless, pray, and give.
There is an emotion of love, but love is far more than an emotion. There is a fragrance of a rose, but a rose is more than a fragrance. In what way then-if love is an action-can love possibly be a fruit of the Spirit? How can this be? Answer: These nine qualities Paul lists in Galatians 5 are describing one's Christ-like nature. So, "the fruit of the Spirit is love" simply means that one's nature is now to love, to do loving things to others.
Previously, as an unredeemed and thus self-focused sinner, our nature was to take care of number one, to look out for ourselves first and foremost. Now, as the indwelling Lord extends His rule more and more over every area of our existence, we find the Spirit within us wanting to go against those former feelings and to be giving, blessing, serving, helping.
It takes time to produce fruit, especially this kind of fruit. The newborn believer is told to love. He does not sit around waiting for the Spirit to empower him before he does a loving action. He gets up and serves. In doing so, he begins to set the pattern for the rest of his life. "What is the loving thing to do in this situation?" becomes his watchword. It makes him bite his tongue when formerly he would have passed along gossip or a dirty story. It causes him to get up and help someone in need. Love enables him to encourage his leaders and underlings alike. Love enables him to give credit to others, to forgive anyone whose actions were offensive, and to go out of his way to heal divisions.
As the believer lives in obedience to the written Word and the indwelling Spirit, he will find himself in more and more places where doing the loving thing becomes difficult. As he obeys, the fruit sprouts and grows. Eventually, love becomes second nature to him-his new nature. A loving person is a welcome addition to any gathering.
So, are we finished with the subject of love here? Not until we spend a few minutes on the opposites of love. What can we expect from religious people who are not bearing the fruit of the Spirit and thus do not exhibit love? Here are some possibilities, that is, variations on this dark theme.
1) Hatred. Watch the gang from that small church in the Midwest that pickets the funerals of American soldiers who fall in battle. (I refuse to dignify their antics by naming the church.) They protest at denominational meetings of churches, they feel, are not strong enough against homosexuals. Their signs proclaim that "[homosexuals] will burn in hell forever." That is what hatred looks like, and it's why no Bible-believing disciple of Jesus Christ dares call those people brother or sister. All sinners need the Gospel of Christ, not our condemnation. That's God's job.
2) Sectarianism. Once I lose my love for you, my interests all focus on me, mine, and my little group. The disciples said, "Lord, we saw someone doing religious works in Your name, but because he's not following us, we rebuked him" (Luke 9:49). That's what lovelessness does.
3) Division. Within one's family or a church's congregation, arguments and disagreements-which are part of the normal fabric of daily life-can balloon into major schisms when love is absent. That's what the Apostle Paul saw happening in Corinth. "I have been informed...that there are quarrels among you. One is saying I am of Paul' and another I am of Apollos.' Or I'm of Peter' and even Not me. I'm of Christ.' Has Christ been divided? Were you baptized in Paul's name?" (1 Cor. 1:11-13).
4) Personal Ambition and Competitiveness. When love takes a back seat, our motivation becomes our own advancement. We want to win, to be better than anyone else, to capture awards and recognition.
Far from hating or promoting my little group, far from dividing and pushing my personal agenda, love looks out for the welfare of others. No text presents as full a well-rounded picture of love in the congregation as Romans 12. Here are some of its statements: "Let love be without hypocrisy" (12:9); "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor" (12:10); "Contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality" (12:13); "Bless those who persecute you; bless and curse not" (12:14); "Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly" (12:16); "If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him a drink. In doing so you will heap burning coals on his head" (12:20).
The Father is walking among His garden today, looking for fruit. What kind of growth does He see at the tree called you? Jesus said, "Herein is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit" (John 15:8).
Joe McKeever is a retired Southern Baptist pastor from New Orleans, Louisiana. He blogs regularly at www.joemckeever.com.
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