Growing up, I would sit at our cozy kitchen table, my eyes scanning the wallpaper, a smattering of grapes, apples and juicy pears accompanied by the words, “The Fruit of the Spirit is the Love, Joy, Peace….” I didn’t know what “Fruits of the Spirit” actually meant, but it was easy to intuit that these fruits, different as they were from the earthly variety, were considered good and holy.
I eventually learned that the Fruits of the Spirit grow from the Gifts of the Spirit, which the Holy Spirit bestows on us in the Sacrament of Confirmation. The Catechism tells us, “the fruits of the Spirit are perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory” (CCC 1832). St. Paul calls out nine of these by name in Galatians 5:22-23, directly after warning against several vices and desires of the flesh. He presents the Fruits of the Spirit as opposing positive attributes, the tools we need to combat the worldly temptation and corruption that stunts our spiritual growth and pulls us into darkness.
But are these fruits really as desirable as those depicted in my kitchen so many years ago? Are the efforts needed to grow them worth the labor when held up against the comforts of the world?
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Let’s look at what our current culture tells us about these fruits and consider where God’s truth fits in:
Our culture is overflowing with messages that say love is all about us. Whether romantic or fraternal, we’re told that love hinges on feelings. It’s about how we feel and how others make us feel; if the good feelings dissipate, we conclude that love has also disappeared. God tells us, and continually shows us, that true love is an action. Not just any action, but a sacrificial action— offered for another and ordered toward their highest good. Their highest good doesn’t revolve around earthly pleasures, but rather their eternal good, what helps save souls. When we focus on loving others with eternity in mind, it purifies our own intentions and souls.
Our world’s captivation with happiness borders on obsessive. Academic courses and extensive medical studies have poured countless hours into the goal of maximizing happiness. Society encourages us to do whatever it takes and avoid any challenge or discomfort in our quest to “find happiness.” But happiness still eludes us because it’s confined to earthly constraints; it has always been finite and will always been fleeting. What the world is truly searching for is joy. Joy is a much deeper reality, sourced from Eternal Love, that satisfies the intense longing for the infinite in our hearts. Joy can exist independent of material goods or circumstances. Even in the deepest suffering, joy can be present because it springs from Love.
Society is equally captivated by peace. Peace is marketed as an experience, a workout or a state of being; one in which we must detach ourselves from the world, and, sadly, from ourselves. On the contrary, God tells us that Peace is a person. A relationship. The more we seek relationship with him, the better we understand our one true identity in him. When we start to accept our identity in Christ, Peace begins to live and reign in us, permeating our every action and overflowing to the world.
Our world tends to redefine patience as tolerance. It’s seen as a sort of resignation, despondence or euphemism for checking our annoyance. But in traditional Church teaching, the word “longsuffering” is interchangeable with patience, which sheds light on the fullness of this fruit. Patience stems from strength; it involves the ability to invite our Lord in to help us withstand suffering and difficulty in the face of anxiety or temptation. It is the opposite of despair. It is a mark of great humility and trust.
Today’s society feeds on competition and flattery. We can subconsciously size up those around us, while also continually comparing ourselves, craving affirmation and admiration. Kindness, on the other hand, looks past appearances and seeks to affirm the inherent good in another. Kindness looks for the face of God in another. Kindness champions others by calling out their gifts and talents, while recognizing that this does not diminish our own gifts and talents.
Generosity gives from an abundance of love, not a poverty of guilt in response to manipulation or demand. Others might cite our “Christian duty” to be generous by equating it with accommodating their every desire. But neither kindness nor generosity involve acting at the expense of our own bodies, minds and souls. Both are rooted in love, which always desires the highest good of souls—perceiving their true needs, corporal and spiritual. When we recognize those needs and are generous with the gifts, talents and abundance God has gifted to us, it often returns to us many times over.
Faithfulness is based on contingencies in today’s world. We commit to remaining faithful provided that others act as we’d like, or provided they remain faithful to us. Christ, on the other hand, models true fidelity from his posture of sacrificial love on the cross. Faithfulness finds its source in sacrificial love; it remains committed to our Christian vows to love one another to the end for the sake of souls.
Today’s world confuses gentleness with passivity. Passive people don’t ruffle feathers or rock the boat. Passive people are perceived as weak. But real gentleness is born from genuine strength. It’s seeing another’s vulnerability and fragility, yet rather than wielding power, choosing to let compassion and mercy infuse our actions and interactions.
Self-control, or self-discipline, is also often called temperance. It’s the spiritual “impulse control” that combats our current world’s “anything goes” mentality. Self-control helps us recognize the consequences attached to our actions—including those that stretch into eternity—and helps us have greater mastery over our emotions, rather than letting them dictate our decisions. Self-control ultimately allows us to channel our passions into worthy pursuits that glorify God and build his kingdom.
The ways of the world will always present us with tempting, and sometimes very convincing, counterfeits to God’s law. But as I discovered in the years between my fruit-filled childhood kitchen and now, those counterfeits always leave us emptier in the end. As St. Paul reminded the Galatians, “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Each of these fruits cultivates and builds on the others, and the more we embrace them, the more we can collectively build the eternal kingdom of God’s love for souls.