The Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26)

In Galatians 5, Paul shows very clearly what happens when we are motivated by selfishness, greed, and power: 

“Sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin.” (Galatians 5:19-21)

Paul said that when we “indulge the flesh” (v. 13) in this way, it’s as if we “bite,” “devour” and “destroy” each other (v.15). We treat other people like commodities that exist only to meet our sexual, emotional, financial, and relational needs.  If you have ever been treated as if you were disposable, you know the devastating impact of sin. Paul follows up this daunting list with a very sharp contrast:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Galatians 5:22-26)

When we are "in step with the Spirit" of God, we will have the passions and desire of God – and God is not a consumer of disposable people. Our lives will reflect the heart of God as we serve each other in love (v.13). Though there are many ways this can be seen, Paul lists nine specific ways that our lives bear this spiritual fruit.*

  • Love (agape) is serving people for their intrinsic worth, not for how they make us feel. I need to do the dishes, and leave notes, and plan dates for my wife not because I always feel like it, but because she is worthy of it.
  • Joy is a delight that comes from focusing on Jesus. It is independent of our circumstances or His gifts . Joy does not come from personal comfort or emotional highs. It only comes as a response to the person of Christ.
  • Peace is a confidence and rest in the wisdom and control of God rather than ourselves. Peace is not controlling the storm; it’s offering your situation to Christ in the midst of it.
  • Patience is persistently enduring without blowing up, giving up or lashing out. You find your stability in knowing that God is sovereign in both circumstances and timing.
  • Kindness is the ability to serve others practically, often in ways which are costly or make us vulnerable. Our hearts are broken by the things that break the heart of God, and we do something about it. It’s active empathy.
  • Goodness has to do with personal integrity. We speak truth boldly and live consistently no matter where we are or who is around us. Our thoughts, words and deeds align.
  • Faithfulness is courageous loyalty. It’s being reliable, dependable and honest even if it’s difficult.
  • Gentleness is the humble, healing use of power
  • Self-control is purposeful living. It’s the ability to pursue the important over the urgent. We understand when it’s time to relax vs. work, or spend time with the family instead vs. buddies.

 This is what “faith expressed in love” looks like when we walk in step with the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. We bear beautiful, nourishing fruit. Unfortunately, each of these fruits has a counterfeit  that can subtly work its way into our life, distorting our view of God and harming our relationship with others. 

  • The counterfeit of agape love is selfish love, where you care for others because of how they make you feel about yourself. You feel like you would do anything for that spouse or friend – but really, it’s only for as long as they please you. If they don’t, you move on or withdraw.
  • The counterfeit of joy is happiness or elation. You feel good as long as you have money, health, affirmation, success, and a schedule that’s just like you want it. It’s a feeling based on the gift instead of the Giver. It’s not liking your spouse’s attempt at showing love because it’s not how you wanted it to be, or being angry at a good friend because they forget your birthday. 
  • The counterfeit of peace is indifference or apathy. People think you are calm; really, you have just stopped caring.  You look like you can handle family issues with a spouse, kids or friends well – but it’s only because you’ve stopped investing any emotion in them.
  • The counterfeit of patience is cynicism. You don’t blow up, lash out, or quit because you expected the worst anyway. People say, “You are so understanding and patient with your kids. I don't know you are able to let them learn the hard way and love them anyway.” You know – you just assume the worst, so anything good that happens is a pleasant surprise.
  • The counterfeit of kindness is manipulation. You do good things to be noticed and given something in return. People say, “Wow, you are generous with your time (or money).”  But you did it so they would say that. If nobody noticed, you would probably stop doing it.
  • The counterfeit of goodness is obnoxiousness. It’s being truthful but not loving. You might not be a hypocrite, but you’re a jerk. Nobody seems like nobody seems to love it like you do.  Maybe they do like truth but they just … don’t… like … you.
  • The counterfeit of faithfulness is enablement. You are loving but not truthful. You might be loyal but not bold, and as your friends implode you never challenge, you just love them for who they are.
  • The counterfeit of gentleness is patronization. You help, but it's a kindness that reminds the recipient and others that they are lucky they have a powerful person like you around.  You feel good about yourself, but others leave diminished and ashamed. 
  • The counterfeit of self-control is willpower. Self-control is purposeful prioritization for the sake of others. Willpower is selfish control so you can boast about yourself or judge others more successfully.

This counterfeit fruit can feel very real. It can at times move us emotionally, make us feel close to God and others, and even temporarily provide the solace we seek. But it’s ultimately empty and frustrating. So what was the solution? How do any of us move from counterfeit to real? 

In Galatians, Paul has laid out an understanding of how a God of grace works with us. God offers us a covenant (of salvation); Christ pays our penalty for breaking it (forgiveness); God adopts us into His family (giving us righteousness, or right standing); His indwelling Spirit begins to changes us (sanctification); and our lives bear new spiritual fruit. These things have nothing to do with our effortThese are all in a sense passive. 

But Paul has more to say. Christ was crucified for us; we crucify the flesh (v.23); the Holy Spirit indwells us; we must walk in step with the Spirit (v.25); God grants us righteousness; we have to avoid becoming conceited (v.26). This is an active, ongoing process on our end. This is very different from how Paul talks about the gifts of the Spirit in his letters to the Corinthian church. The gifts are given as God sees fit. God gives some to some and others to others, and there is not indication in Scripture that it has anything to do with our actions or spiritual maturity.

The fruit, however, is meant for everybody, and experience and expression of the fruit of the Spirit is in some way connected to our commitment to “walk in step.” So what does our contribution look like when it comes to bearing fruit? I believe it can be summarized in three general categories: 

  • Praying (for the freedom of God’s Spirit)
  • Studying Scripture (for the ‘steps’ of the Spirit)
  • Stepping (because we reap what we sow)

For example, if you want to experience genuine, selfless love, pray for the Spirit’s influence, study the Scripture, and look for opportunities to serve people for their good, not yours.  If you want to experience genuine joy,  pray for the Spirit’s influence, study the Scripture, and continually re-focus on the person of Christ in the midst of all your circumstances. If you want to experience genuine gentleness, pray for the Spirit’s influence, study the Scripture, and continually looks for ways to use your influence with humility.

The more we step with the Spirit purposefully, the more we will step with the Spirit naturally.


* I am deeply indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for my understanding of Galatians. The explanations of the fruit and their counterfeits are largely his, with some changes and additions of my own.