Monday, 30 July 2012

Like an apple tree

Apple tree image from

The talk at our church meeting yesterday was about being filled with the Holy Spirit, covering both the Toronto Blessing charismatic experiences (things like shaking and falling over – read the article I've just linked to if this all means nothing to you!) and the fruit of the Spirit that Paul spoke about in Galatians 5. It's the latter that I want to focus on in this post.

The guy doing the talk drew the standard but, I think, helpful parallel with trees that produce fruit, like apple trees and plum trees. They don't strain to produce apples, plums or whatever; they simply do it. But, here's the kicker for me; the conditions have to be right. A tree must have fertile soil, enough sun, shelter from the wind, and the right amount of rain, or else it won't produce much fruit.

So what about us? In this analogy, what conditions do we need in order to produce the fruit of the Spirit; what does it mean for us to have the right soil, plenty of sun, enough rain and so on? I think the analogy breaks down a bit here. One could take the analogy and say there's nothing we can do to produce the Spirit's fruit, like patience, goodness, love, and peace. That's not right though, is it? God doesn't just zap us and make us patient, good, loving, peaceful etc.

Coincidentally (or not...) I'm reading a book which touches on this issue a bit. It's one by Brian McLaren, whom I've raved about before, called 'The Secret Message of Jesus'. McLaren is working through Matthew 5-6, part of the so-called Sermon on the Mount, and he's looking at the three passages where Jesus talks about three spiritual practices or disciplines; firstly giving to those in need, then praying and finally fasting. With each of these practices, Jesus corrects the religious leaders and their way of performing (word choice deliberate!) the practice, replacing it with the correct, healthy usage.

The point is two-fold; we need to practice and 'train for godliness' in order to become mature Jesus-followers, but we also need to do the exercises in the right way. So, just looking at what Jesus says about giving, we mustn't do it in order to be seen. It won't have any effect with God and we'll just end up craving the attention and praise of people. On the contrary, we should avoid drawing attention to ourselves. For the person who manages to do this, 'Your Father, who sees everything, will reward you'. I've always understood this to mean some kind of next-life benefit, but maybe it means God will transform us more into his likeness, enabling us to do good works that we previously were incapable of. That's certainly what Brian McLaren thinks (I've added the italics):
Unwise or habitual practice can make the practitioner miserably habituated in unrewarding routines. In contrast, wise practice rewards the practitioner by making possible what was previously impossible.

So it seems I'm saying I don't think all that much of the fruit tree analogy, after all. We don't just stand there and produce the fruit of the Spirit; there is work to be done in order to bring ourselves under God's transforming power. But we've got to be careful about the work as bad practices will cause great harm. As McLaren puts it, ' 'Practice makes perfect' isn't quite accurate. Practice makes habitual'.


  1. I don't think the sermon was saying what you're arguing against. It was saying don't try and make the fruit happen - make the conditions right and the fruit will come! That's certainly what I got out of it, and is roughly what you're saying too. Let's be open to the spirit and the fruit will come. Being open is more than standing there with your hands out, it's doing the stuff you've talked about.

  2. I love what you have written here, Kevin. Good helpful stuff.

    There's another aspect to the fruit idea - that a particular kind of tree produces a particular kind of fruit. Fig trees produce figs not apples or plums.

    If we are to produce spiritual fruit we need to be spiritual trees, rooted and grounded in Christ. We need the right conditions, but we also need the right DNA. And we need to be nurtured and guided, diseased parts carefully removed. Apple trees produce the best apples when they are given the best horticultural care.

    John 15:1-17 says it all! Jesus is the vine, he is the root and the main Branch into whom we have been grafted. Father is the gardener, he does the work of pruning and cleaning. We are the little branches and are expected to bear fruit - if not we will be cut off. See also something I posted on my own blog a few years back.

    The whole idea of fruitfulness and everything around it are so central to our lives. Bearing fruit is surely a major reason for our existence and salvation, it's one of the ways in which we glorify him. And it's all by grace, not by our own effort.


  3. Niddler - yes, I think you're right. I suppose I'm just adding some thoughts about what it might mean for us to 'make the conditions right'. I just wish we (both in church meetings and on a casual basis) talked more and encouraged each other more about making the conditions right. I had a brief chat with Mrs Niddler (senior) about this the other day, which was really nice. I have bought her book now but not made much of a start on it yet.

    Chris - many thanks! Extend that analogy, I like it... It is indeed all by grace, but I don't think (or rather Dallas Willard doesn't think, and I like what he says) grace and effort are in opposition. We need God to transform us, of course, but we also need to put ourselves under his grace, as it were. We need to work out our salvation, we need to train for godliness, we need to run the race set out before us... These are all active things, aren't they?

  4. The grace and effort thing is not, I think, at all straightforward. Jesus said, 'Apart from me you can do - nothing.' Maximum human effort in my own strength without grace is therefore fruitless, maybe even harmful to others.

    But that's not to say effort is unnecessary, but that it must be properly directed effort. I like to think in terms of the following simple steps (that is, simple as in easy to write down, not simple to do :-)

    Listen -> hear -> understand -> obey

    Seek first the Kingdom, and all the rest will be added in.

    Julian Treasure has some good things to say about listening.

  5. Oh yes, I think I'd agree with all of that, Chris. Abide in Jesus, seek first the kingdom of God - it's just that doesn't mean passively wait for God to transform our character, does it?!