The choices we make and the actions we take are often a reflection of who we are—who we are becoming. And for Christians, it is our life’s pursuit to become someone whose heart is evermore aligned with the heart of Jesus.
When we walk closely with the Spirit of Jesus, the fruit of our lives reflects that same Spirit. In his letter to the church in Galatia, the apostle Paul describes the defining features of that fruit.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-24)
These are among the chief virtues to which we are to attain.
Nevertheless, they aren’t always at the forefront of our minds or the driving forces in our discipleship. Sometimes, we settle for lesser virtues. Other times, we settle for things that aren’t virtuous at all, instead wrapping our vices up in theological justifications and passing them off as Christian maturity.
Sometimes, we treat things as though they were the fruit of the Spirit when, in reality, they are merely the fruit of our own strivings and shortcomings.
Here are at least five things that are not the fruit of the Spirit.
1. Getting Mad at the ‘Right Things’ Is Not the Fruit of the Spirit.
In an online world, performative anger has become an alarming cultural value. For many—Christian, non-Christian, conservative, and liberal alike—the way we show that we are moral and virtuous people is by letting everyone know that we are mad about the things we should be mad about.
Further, if you want to give the appearance that you’re really virtuous, you have to publicly show that you were not only the first one to get angry, you’re also angrier than anyone else. This is so common that public figures are constantly called out on social media for failing to unequivocally denounce the outrage du jour within moments of a bombshell article or news report being published.
Unfortunately, this mentality has seeped into the church. We show our virtue by being the angriest about abortion, LGBTQ+ activism, school curriculums, or whatever the politicians we don’t like said at a press conference.
Somewhat ironically, in the same text where Paul outlines the fruit of the Spirit in contrast to the works of the flesh, he specifically names enmity, strife, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions as being antithetical to the fruit of the Spirit. Of the 15 works of the flesh he lists, six of them relate to being angry at other people. For perspective, only five relate to issues of sexual purity.
Throughout the New Testament, Paul and others warn believers against anger and strife.
To be sure, there is such a thing as righteous anger. Things like injustice and oppression should upset us. Anger in these instances is a sign that our hearts are breaking for the things that break Jesus’ heart.
But just being angry at the right things isn’t a virtue. Unless you handle it with care, even righteous anger almost immediately turns into a vice. Converting your anger toward the right things into actions that are helpful, fruitful, productive, and carried out in a manner that embodies the fruit if the Spirit is where virtue is found.
Ours is an outrage culture, so that means that we are going to struggle with this perhaps more than most. But struggle we must. Being angry isn’t in itself a virtue. And it isn’t the fruit of the Spirit.
2. Being Able To Quote Lots of Bible Verses Is Not the Fruit of the Spirit.
It seems fairly obvious that something the New Testament expressly instructs us against isn’t the fruit of the Spirit. However, when it comes to studying Scripture, that’s something about which the Bible itself, in both the Old and New Testaments, routinely encourages us to do.
However, just because it is something that we are called to do, that doesn’t mean that it is the fruit of the Spirit. Scripture instructs us how to live in step with the Spirit, but merely reading (or even memorizing) the words doesn’t constitute maturity. It is a means to an end. When reading and studying the Bible is treated like an end unto itself, rather than a means by which we meet Jesus and learn to walk with him, we miss the point entirely.
After all, I’ve known plenty of people who could effortlessly recite the words of Jesus but did not follow the way of Jesus or reflect the character of Jesus. I’m sure you have too. Sometimes, they’re deacons and elders.
Certainly, everyone who calls upon the name of Jesus suffers from this problem. As someone who has studied the Bible for years, I can tell you that I have been educated far beyond what I could ever hope to obey or align my heart and life to. To a certain measure, all Christians are hypocrites.
Be that as it may, if you mistake knowing a lot about the Bible for hard fought spiritual maturity, odds are that the gap between your knowledge and character will be wider than it otherwise would have been. And if you aren’t self-aware about that gap, you can become a real spiritual danger to yourself and others.
3. Conventional Masculinity Is Not the Fruit of the Spirit.
With all that has been said in evangelical spaces about so-called “biblical manhood,” many Christians live with a vision of masculinity marked by a particular brand of strength and authority.
Yet, while the Bible calls on believers to be strong, that strength is marked by an ability to endure difficulty with faith, hope, and contentment rather than by brashness or self-determination. And while the New Testament is not averse to the proper use of authority, it also repeatedly speaks against the kind of male-dominated authoritarianism that unfortunately characterizes many communities, including within some of our churches.
From frivolous debates about beards and skinny jeans to the more troubling realities of sexual abuse and the marginalization of godly, gifted women, too often we have made a toxic form of masculinity the model for “biblical” manhood.
Zachary Wagner, author of “Non-Toxic Masculinity: Recovering Healthy Male Sexuality,” recently stirred online controversy on this point when he tweeted, “Manliness is not a fruit of the Spirit.”
“To this day, a pretty scary amount of Christian dudes still think that becoming more ‘manly’ is either at the center or close to the center of Christian discipleship,” Wagner continued.
Designating this overemphasis on conventional masculinity as the gospel according to Jordan Peterson and Mark Driscoll, Wagner added, “If you believe that some sort of loss of ‘traditional’ masculine values is at the root of everything ailing our society, you’re of course very much entitled to that opinion. I’m just trying to point out that there’s nothing necessarily biblical about that view.”
In fact, as Wagner points out, the way of Jesus, as outlined by the New Testament, steers believers away from any number of traits that would be considered manly—in the cultural context of its original hearers as well as in our own—toward nonviolence, meekness, servanthood, and surrender.
4. ‘Doctrinal Purity’ Is Not the Fruit of the Spirit.
In his first letter to his friend Timothy, Paul warns the young leader to watch his “life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16). And in every letter that Paul penned to first-century churches, he dealt with doctrinal questions and outlined sound teaching.
In other words, doctrine is important. If we don’t take care to place ourselves under the authority of sound biblical teaching, we will begin living out a version of the Christian faith that bears less of a resemblance to Christ and more closely correlates with our cultural or political ideals.
Nevertheless, while there is a great deal about which the Bible is abundantly clear, there are a fair number of doctrinal questions on which it is decidedly more ambiguous. For example, good faith arguments can be made on opposing sides of questions related to issues such as mode of baptism, eschatology, church governance style, or the role of women in pastoral leadership.
But to talk to some church leaders and self-styled theologians, unless you adhere to the incredibly specific theological vision they espouse, you are wayward. You are a theological liberal, you don’t care about what the Bible actually teaches, you are a false teacher and generally not to be trusted or regarded as a full-fledged member of the universal church.
Again, Paul explicitly lists rivalries, dissensions, and divisions as works of the flesh.
Waging a holy war against other Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians in the name of “doctrinal purity” is not the fruit of the Spirit. It’s actually the work of Satan.
5. Cynicism Is Not the Fruit of the Spirit.
Discernment is an important biblical value. After all, the apostle John warns us not to “believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
Given the myriad scandals that have surrounded the evangelical movement in recent years—both on a national scale and before some of our very eyes in local contexts—it’s difficult to argue against the fact that we could stand to develop our collective discernment muscles.
But discernment isn’t the same thing as cynicism. Discernment “trusts but verifies.” Cynicism has a vested interest in remaining unconvinced that anyone, including Christians and church leaders, will ever be anything more than the worst of what we’ve seen.
Somehow, we think that by virtue of our traumatic experiences and newfound (or perhaps longstanding) awareness of where the church has fallen short, we must be ipso facto among the most mature, godly, and wise followers of Jesus. And that certainly could be the case for you. Or it could just be that you’re struggling with bitterness—another work of the flesh.
It’s undeniable that much of the American church is a hot mess right now. But when has that never not been the case for the church in any era, in any region of the world? Our shortcomings have been painfully obvious from day one—that’s partly why Paul had to write so many letters.
Not that we should throw up our hands and accept where our tradition has failed without seeking to bring about a renewed sense of God’s calling to our communities. We should definitely do that. It’s just that doing so requires much more than deconstructing what ails us. We must also build something new, and that requires child-like faith.
The Fruit of the Spirit Is Marked by Spiritual Maturity, Not Evangelical (or Post-Evangelical) Shibboleths.
The through-line with all these faux fruits is that, fundamentally, they are performative. They are a way for us to show the world that we are one of the good people, the right people, the virtuous people. They are shibboleths.
The word “shibboleth” came into usage during a dark time in the history of Israel, as chronicled by Judges 12, when different tribes within the nation were actually warring with one another.
Because the tribes were still part of the same nation and had similar appearance, it would be easy for soldiers to cross enemy lines. In light of this reality, one tribe leveraged the dialectic differences between the tribes to identify their enemies. When they encountered a soldier, they would make him say the word “shibboleth.” If the soldier pronounced the word according to the tribe’s own dialect, he would be free to go. If he pronounced it according to the dialect of the enemy, he was put to death.
Too many of us are going through life trying to figure out who we should be putting to death—or even just trying to avoid being put to death ourselves. But this isn’t what the Christian life is about. It certainly isn’t the fruit of the Spirit.
If we walk in step with the fruit of the Spirit, we won’t be filled with fear, anger, arrogance, cynicism, or the need to control others or project a particular image of ourselves. We will be marked by love that endures being wronged. We will be marked by joy and peace in the midst of difficult circumstances. We will be marked by patience, kindness, and gentleness toward other people—even the difficult ones. We will pursue goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.
In other words, we will be marked by the fruit of the Spirit.