Environments are vitally important when growing fruit. Did you know that coffee plants need to be grown at an elevation of 4,000 feet to produce the best coffee cherries? Or that grapes grown for wine require mild winter rains? This is why most wine-growing regions are on west coasts, like Spain and California. Oranges need warm weather to grow and a lot of water. Where I live in Tucson, there was a class on rainwater harvesting (yes, that’s a thing in the desert) that provided a rebate for people who participated. The program had to be amended because so many people were using the program to get free systems to grow their citrus trees. See, Tucson would be a great area to grow citrus, except there’s not enough water. Oranges grow if tons of water are dumped into their trees, but that is not sustainable for the desert.
This is often the problem we run into with the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). The right environment is necessary for the fruits of the Spirit to flourish, but we’re not sure how to create that environment. We think if we try hard enough, if we’re nice to everyone, if we think good thoughts about other people, or if we read the Bible and pray enough, then eventually they will come naturally. But most of the time we are relying on our own efforts for growth, and it becomes like trying to grow oranges in the desert: unsustainable and eventually damaging to ourselves and to those around us.
How then do we cultivate the right environment for the fruits of the Spirit? At this time of year, it is good for us to look to the birth of Christ for answers. Jesus’ coming as the Messiah was obvious to those looking in the right places. He was born in Bethlehem, in the line of David, to a virgin. The prophecies, even to the chief priests and the teachers of the law who counseled Herod, were clear about these things. And yet Jesus was unexpected, especially by those looking in the wrong places. He was born in a low estate for a king who was supposed to triumph over Israel’s enemies. The first witnesses of His birth were travelers. The first heralds of His birth were unclean shepherds. One of His first homes was Egypt (Matthew 2:13–21). This is to say nothing of the rest of His life, which was as unexpected as the Jewish leaders could have imagined. This was not how it was supposed to be!
Jesus’ birth was disruptive for everyone, and we like to think we are like Mary, storing up these things in her heart (Luke 2:19), or the shepherds, joyously praising God for the coming of the Messiah (Luke 2:20), or like the Magi, just giving him amazing gifts. But we are actually most like Herod and his chief priests (Matthew 2:1–9), unwilling to have our peaceful lives disturbed by the Messiah, or simply unaware of His coming. Certainly they would have exclaimed over the coming of the Messiah, but when it came to the impact He would have on their lives, they rejected Him.
This is how we are with the fruits of the Spirit. Who wouldn’t want to produce love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? We want those things, until we understand the impact that they will have on our lives. Paul is explicit that our freedom in Christ is about serving others. Each of those fruits is about caring for others. It’s nice when someone says that we exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, but most often we don’t see the impact. Creating an environment that encourages growth in the fruit of the Spirit is about consistently and constantly setting aside ourselves for others. As king of the Jews, Herod worked hard to gain his power and responded in fear when it was threatened. He was unwilling to have his life disrupted by the true King, and ultimately his work was like growing oranges in the desert. Giving up of ourselves requires us to be like the other people in the story.
Be like Mary, who meditated on the things that God had done.
Be like the shepherds, who told the stories of the wonders that they had seen.
Be like the Magi, who traveled far to give gifts to Jesus and to worship Him.
Mark Crawford is Light + Life’s staff writer.1