What does fruitful mean?
When Jesus said we will “produce much fruit” by remaining in him, what exactly did he mean (John 15:5, 8)?
Was he promising us a successful ministry, or a large family, or a thriving career, or good health, or financial prosperity? Fruitful can mean any of these things, according to the dictionary definition.
Thankfully, there’s a detailed list later in the Bible that fleshes out Jesus’ vine and branches metaphor. It was written by the apostle Paul, and it paints a wonderfully clear image of a fruitful life.
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)
These verses show us that fruitfulness in the Christian life is not about how successful or productive or useful we are. Instead, it’s about:
- Who we are — our character.
- How we relate to others — our behaviour.
Who we’re becoming on the inside is of utmost importance to God. And his Spirit is at work, developing this fruit in our hearts regardless of our situation:
- Whether or not our ministry is thriving.
- Whether we’re married with children, or we’re single, divorced or widowed.
- Whether or not we have a job.
- Whether or not we enjoy good health.
- Whether or not we have lots of money.
How liberating it is to realise that our potential for fruitfulness is not governed by our circumstances!
How can we become more fruitful?
What about the practical side of things? How can we develop this fruit in our life?
Is it even possible to be a joyful, patient and kind person when you’re battling just to make it through the day? Life is not easy! Grief and pain can turn you inward; your emotions can become all-consuming.
How many times do we all fall short of this ideal image of a fruitful life each hour, let alone each day?!
When it comes to spiritual growth, it’s tempting to rely on self-discipline and goal setting, isn’t it? I know because I tried this approach, in fits and starts, for many years. Let me tell you how it worked.
I decided to break this spiritual growth thing down into bite-sized chunks (an apt metaphor?!).
So I focused on one fruit of the Spirit at a time. I worked really hard at showing that specific fruit in my life. Once I started to feel a sense of progress, the plan was to move my focus to the next fruit, and so on.
The problem was, I don’t think I ever really got the hang of joy. Or peace. And I wasn’t even half way through the list yet!
Following this method left me feeling crestfallen and guilt-ridden. It’s definitely not an approach that I recommend! More importantly, it’s not an approach that the Bible would necessarily recommend either.
Fruit of the Spirit: the context
Let’s look at the context of these Fruit of the Spirit verses, because they shed a really helpful and fascinating light on the question of how we can become more fruitful.
- Paul has been encouraging the Galatian Christians to remember they are free. (Gal 5:1)
- Jesus has freed them from the Old Testament religious rules (“the law”), and from the penalty incurred by breaking those rules. (Gal 2:19, Gal 3:11-13)
- Now, in response, their lives need to be God-focused and others-focused. They’re not to use their freedom as an excuse for self-focused living! (Gal 5:13)
So, the Galatian Christians were struggling in their faith. After accepting the gospel of grace1The gospel is the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-4, 1 John 4:9-10). Grace is another way of saying God’s kindness and generosity. Grace goes hand in hand with gospel because God’s forgiveness is a gift — not a wage. No-one on earth could ever earn God’s forgiveness through hard work, good deeds, or even spiritual devotion; we can only receive it as a gift (Rom 5:8, Eph 2:8-9).with enthusiasm, they slowly started to slip away from grace.
Instead, they were now relying on rule-following to feel good enough for God. (Gal 1:6-7NIV, 2:16, 3:3, 5:4) Have you ever done that? I know I have!
How many times have you carried a heavy load of guilt because you’re not self-disciplined enough to read the Bible every day? (Daily Bible reading is a wonderful goal, by the way!)
How many times have you felt quietly smug when you see another Christian caught in sin while you are doing OK?
Rule-following won’t help us to be more fruitful
Rule-following is one of the greatest stumbling blocks to a relationship with God! Isn’t that a fascinating paradox?
You’d think that people who try to be good would be accepted by God. But just look at how Jesus gets stuck into the religious leaders of his day to see how off-course spiritual pride is in God’s eyes. (Matt 23:12-15)
The problem with rule-following is this: it very quickly leads to a self-absorbed preoccupation with how well — or how badly — you’re performing. Pride and a judgmental spirit on the one hand; guilt and self-loathing on the other. So, in practice, rule-following is self-focused rather than God-focused.
In stark contrast is the gospel, which truly is good news! The gospel frees us from both pride and guilt. Its message? You are already accepted by God, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice. It’s not about what you can do for God, it’s about what God has done for you. (Eph 2:8-10)
The gospel frees us to live a fruitful life
Can you see the huge difference between a rules-focused life and a gospel-focused life? The gospel changes our whole focus, from “self” to God.
We move from being people who try to please God in our own strength (only to fail again and again), or people who think we are good enough for God (and therefore tend to be self-righteous and judgmental).
We become people who take shelter under God’s amazing grace; who thank God every day for his forgiveness; who ask God daily to help them love others the way he loves us.
Is living a good life still important? Of course! We still want to become more fruitful. But there’s one vital difference: our relationship with God does not hinge on our own performance. Instead, it rests in the completed work of Jesus on the cross. And that truly does free us, like Galatians 5:1 says!
Religion vs Gospel
If you struggle with rules-based guilt or pride, this Religion versus Gospel comparison chart might help.
For many years I lived in a terrible cycle of religious pride and guilt. Sometimes I’d feel spiritually confident, because I was doing well. Other times I’d feel distressed at my inability to do what the Bible said. For a year or two, I couldn’t even open the Bible because of the awful self-loathing that would follow.
What a relief when I finally grasped the freedom offered by the gospel of grace. I really wish I’d understood the Bible’s central message sooner!
Why does spiritual fruit grow so slowly?!
Do certain fruits feel impossibly unattainable to you, with your personality? Do you long to be a more joyful person, but you just can’t seem to get there? Are you exasperated about your lack of self-control? Do you wish you were a more gentle and kind person?
I know how you feel! I remember reading through the Fruit of the Spirit verses years ago, in my early twenties. I laughed a wry, incredulous laugh when I thought about these two in particular: joy and gentleness. Only a miracle would make me into a joyful, gentle person, I thought!
Yet here I am almost 20 years later, and I can see these fruits have somehow grown in my life. Amazing! Still a long way to go, mind you, but there’s no denying that God has done his amazing work in me. He can do the same for you. Don’t despair!
A gospel-focused approach to spiritual growth
Before we look at the fruit of the Spirit in more detail (in Fruitful #3 onward), I want to make sure you’re not falling into the same rule-keeping rut as the Galatian Christians.
Below are two guiding principles to help you think in a gospel-centred way about your own spiritual growth.
1. Avoid the comparison trap!
You’ll either feel inadequate (I’m such a bad Christian!) or proud (I’m such a good Christian!) if you compare your fruitfulness with others’. Instead, you can:
- Look back and see how much God has changed you over the years. As Joyce Meyer says: “I may not be where I want to be, but thank God I am not where I used to be.”2I heard this about 15 years ago, in one of her talks, and it stuck with me! Had to check the wording and found the quote on brainyquote.com. God is working in you, and he will be faithful to finish the good work he began inside of you when you first believed in him. (Phil 1:6)
- Rest in the gospel of grace. (Eph 2:8-10)
- Tell that guilt monster where to go if it knocks at your door! (Rom 8:1)
2. Water the roots to grow the fruit.
If you want to become more joyful, you don’t just try really hard to be more joyful! No, that would be like watering a plant’s branches and hoping the fruit will grow.
How does a plant grow? By drinking in water at the roots. Therefore, keep this in mind: being fruitful is not your goal! Instead, being fruitful is the result. It’s the natural outcome when your heart is focused on the gospel.
As you read the upcoming posts about each fruit of the Spirit, make it your goal to water the roots. Keep looking towards God, the source of life. As you focus on who God is, you will be transformed. Your priorities will be realigned with God’s priorities. Your mind will be renewed. (Rom 12:2)
Remember what Jesus said, in John 15:5? If you remain in him, the vine, you will be fruitful. Why? Because he is the source of life and he is able to help you grow.
Father God, it’s so tempting to compare ourselves with others, and to let our self-confidence hinge on that comparison. Please help us learn to put our confidence in you, daily. Thank you for the gospel message, which frees us from both pride and guilt. Help us to trust in the completed work of Jesus, who died the death we deserve, rather than trusting in our own actions to feel good enough for you. Thank you so much for offering us forgiveness and freedom. You have indeed richly blessed us with “everything we need for life and godliness”. Amen.
How can I help you grow?
1. Printable Resource Bundle
Click on the preview above to see what’s inside the Fruitful #2 Bundle. You can also download the PDF from there.
May this resource help you to rest in God’s amazing grace, as he transforms you from the inside out.
If you enjoy stories with a bit of humour, you’ll absolutely love these! They’re intended for children, but I gained so much from reading them that I decided to include the links here.
All four stories are available to read for free online, using the links below.
Gospel vs Religion (from the site Acts29.com)
Want to continue?
Go to Fruitful #3: What to Do When God’s Love Feels Far Away