A recent series of commercials for a credit card asks, “What’s in your wallet?” The question I’d like to ask is, What’s in your garden? Now I might as well confess that I’m not much of a gardener. But one thing I do know about gardens is that they need to be maintained. They won’t be very nice if you just leave them alone. As Prov. 20:4 puts it, “The lazy man does not plant in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and find nothing.” It’s the person who plants who eventually gets a harvest. Likewise our spiritual lives need to be maintained if they’re going to flourish. So what should we plant in our spiritual gardens?

Weeds to Remove

Another important thing I know about gardening is that before we can plant flowers in our garden we have to remove the weeds from the flower bed. The flowers can’t grow if the weeds choke them out. The first spiritual “weed” we need to uproot from our garden is the root of bitterness. Heb. 12:15 says, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no root of bitterness grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” This is one of the most difficult “weeds” to deal with, because we sometimes feel justified in feeling bitter toward someone who has hurt us. We need to realise that whatever someone else has done to us, bitterness is never justified. It also doesn’t help, because it hurts us far more than it does anyone else. Indeed sometimes bitterness can hurt us more than the original offence did. And sometimes others who were not involved in the original offence can be hurt by our bitterness; this is how many become defiled by it. This makes it all the more important to get rid of bitterness early.

One “bad fruit” which grows from the root of bitterness is complaining. The Israelites did a lot of complaining during their time in the wilderness. In fact their constant murmuring was one reason why they stayed in the wilderness for so long, and why none of the Israelites who left Egypt—with two notable exceptions—made it into the Promised Land. When they complained against Moses they were really complaining against God, and that is a very dangerous thing to do. Complaining shows a lack of faith and trust in God. The Psalmist says,

They [the Israelites] grumbled in their tents and did not obey the Lord. So he swore to them with uplifted hand that he would make them fall in the desert, disperse their descendants among the nations and scatter them throughout the lands (Ps. 106:25-27).

Related to the “weed” of complaining is the “weed” of impatience. In fact I suggest that impatience is the root of much of our complaining. This is particularly a problem in Western society today. We live in a world of fast food, 24-hour shopping and high-speed Internet, and we don’t want to wait for anything. Unfortunately God doesn’t work that way. It’s almost a cliché to say that God’s timing is not our timing. But these things become clichés because there’s truth in them. After a garden has been planted with seeds it’s a few weeks before the plants come up. Weeks during which all that is visible is bare ground. But that doesn’t mean that nothing is happening. Underground, in the darkness where they can’t be seen, the seeds are sprouting and germinating. Only after some time do the young plants come out of the ground and become visible. And then there’s still more waiting before the harvest. And if the plants are harvested too early, before they’re ready, they’re useless. But eventually they’re ready, and the harvest does come.

Of course, the classic illustration of impatience in Scripture is the story of Abraham and Sarah, and their inability to wait for God to keep his promise to give them a son. Abraham slept with Sarah’s maid, Hagar, and fathered Ishmael by her. Isaac, the promised son, did come later. But Abraham’s and Sarah’s action set up a conflict which continues to this day. And I wonder if it didn’t set God’s timing back. Might Isaac have come a little earlier if Abraham and Sarah had waited on God and not produced Ishmael? Do we delay God’s promises to us by our efforts to make them come true?

Another “weed” we must remove is that of idolatry. It’s easy to think of idolatry as the worship of images of false gods. But let’s not fool ourselves. God wants first place in our hearts, and anything that takes that place away from him is a false god, an idol. That means that money, career, material goods, fame, even other people, can be idols. We must remember that everything we have and are is given to us by God, and we must keep things in their proper place. Another thing to remember is that focus on self, even in the form of self-hatred and low self-esteem, is also a form of idolatry.

Another important “weed” which we must uproot is that of unbelief. This may be the most difficult one to get rid of, because it can be hard to detect. It’s also the root of many other “weeds.” How much of our complaining, impatience and fear are in fact caused by lack of faith and trust in God? I suspect that behind this is the idea that God will always make us happy, and if he is with us nothing will ever go wrong in our lives. This is completely untrue, and has caused a lot of confusion and disappointment in the Church. Job said, “Shall we receive good from the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). The truth is that God never promised us a rose garden. What he does promise us is that he will be with us and that he’ll take us through the bad times. Our job is to trust that God knows what he’s doing, even when we don’t know what he’s doing, and that he’ll do what he says he will do.

What We Ned to Plant: Fruit of the Spirit

We’ve talked about some of the “weeds” we need to remove. But it’s not enough just to remove what shouldn’t be in our garden. We need to plant the things that should be there. But I’m not talking about flowers, I’m talking about fruit: the fruit of the Spirit. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23)

The first thing to notice is that Paul describes these qualities as “fruit of the Spirit.” In the first century fruit was a common and familiar metaphor for the results or consequences of something. The Galatians would easily understand: Paul is saying that these qualities are natural results of life in the Spirit. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he said that people would be known by their fruits (Matt. 7:15-20). More than this: the qualities which Paul here describes as fruit of the Spirit are attributed to God elsewhere in Scripture. This is because life in the Spirit produces godly character. Notice also that the qualities Paul lists are fruit of the Spirit. They are not the result of human effort but of the inner transformation which the Spirit works in a believer. This is why Paul is so hostile toward those who encourage people to follow the ritual of the law. Following the ritual of the law has to do with human effort. But spiritual growth is the result of the operation of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. The fruit of the Spirit are contrasted with the works of the flesh which Paul lists in verses 19-21: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealously, anger, selfishness, dissention, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like.” We may also notice that the fruit of the Spirit show concern for others, while the works of the flesh are all about self-indulgence.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Paul puts love first on his list. First, love is a uniquely Christian virtue. Non-Christian writers of Paul’s day also made up lists of virtues and vices—they were fairly common. But love doesn’t appear in any of those lists, only in the Christian ones. Another interesting thing about these lists is that in Gentile writers the virtues listed refer to character development, but in Paul they refer to brotherly love and the building up of the Church. Second, one could say that the other virtues on this list are expressions of love. Third, love keeps the other fruit of the Spirit from degenerating into works of the flesh. This is why in 1 Cor. 13:1-3 Paul says that if he spoke in tongues, and had other gifts such as faith, knowledge, and prophecy, but exercised them without love, it would all mean nothing. No wonder Paul can end that chapter by saying that three virtues remain, faith, hope and love, but the greatest is love.

The second fruit of the Spirit is joy. The kind of joy that Paul is talking about doesn’t depend on circumstances because it comes from God. You may have heard it said that happiness comes from what happens, but joy comes from Jesus. Christian joy doesn’t depend on circumstances but on the fact that God is in charge. That doesn’t change with the circumstances. That’s why we can rejoice always, as Paul says several times in his letters that believers should do. When we understand that God is in charge, we can know that whatever the circumstances are, they are part of his plan, and that he will work things out for good.

The next fruit of the Spirit is peace. There are probably several aspects to this fruit. Paul may be thinking of the Hebrew word shalom, which refers to the peace that comes from being whole, with nothing missing or broken. That kind of peace comes only from God, and doesn’t depend on circumstances. He may also be talking about being at peace with others, something which he calls on believers to do in other letters. Or possibly he means being at peace with God. Of course, peace with God is the inevitable result when the Spirit comes to live in a person. In fact, these kinds of peace are interconnected. It’s only when we are at peace with God that we can have wholeness and peace within ourselves. And it’s only when we’re at peace with God and with ourselves that we can be at peace with others.

The next fruit of the Spirit is patience. The Greek word Paul uses here is makrothumia. Makrothumia is literally the quality of being “long-tempered.” We don’t use that word in English, but we do use its opposite, “short-tempered.” Paul is talking about putting up with other people, being patient with them. That kind of patience leads to the next two fruit of the Spirit, kindness and goodness to others. “Goodness” here probably means generosity; both these fruit of the Spirit are contrasted with “envy,” which is mentioned in v. 21. The next fruit of the Spirit is faithfulness. This refers to being dependable and trustworthy. Paul asked the Corinthians, “Do I make my plans like a worldly man, ready to say Yes and No at the same time? As surely as God is faithful, our word to you was not Yes and No” (2 Cor. 1:17-18). Paul may have felt that the Galatians had not acted this way toward him, in that they had wandered away from his teaching.

The next fruit of the Spirit is gentleness. Or at least that’s how some versions translate it. The Greek word used here actually means “meekness.” But what is meekness? You may have heard it said that “Meekness isn’t weakness,” or that “Meekness is power under control.” Meekness is the strength that comes from being in the place that God wants you to be, doing what he designed you to do, under his authority. You may also be under human authority, or you may be the human authority. The classic example of meekness in the Old Testament is Moses. Indeed, Num. 12:3 says that Moses was the meekest man of his day. But he was hardly a wimp or a pansy. In fact, his temper got him into trouble a few times, with God, with Pharaoh and with others. But when people criticised him unfairly, he didn’t strike back, he prayed for them. The ultimate example of meekness is Jesus himself. According to 1 Pet. 2:23, he also, when he was insulted, did not return the insults, but trusted God to be his vindicator. And on one occasion Jesus met a Roman centurion whose son was very ill. The centurion believed that Jesus could heal the boy without even coming to his home. He said,

“I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”(Matt. 8:5)
I think that what that centurion perceived, without fully knowing it, was that Jesus’ authority came in part from his submissive obedience to God. He was able to accomplish what he did because he did his Father’s will and sought his Father’s glory, not his own.

The last fruit of the Spirit is self-control. Self-control is the discipline of oneself to live the way God wants us to. Paul may be thinking here especially of sexual temperance. This fruit is then to be contrasted with “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, drunkenness, and carousing” which are mentioned in verse 21.

The Tools We Need

We’ve talked about some of the “weeds” we need to remove from our spiritual gardens, and what we need to plant instead. Now, as I said before, I’m not much of a gardener. But even I know you can’t garden without tools. So what tools do we need for spiritual gardening? Perhaps the most important tool we have is the word of God. This is a multi-purpose tool. As Paul tells Timothy his spiritual son, “All Scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16) The Word will help us to detect the “weeds.” It’s also the “fertiliser” we use to help the fruit of the Spirit grow in us. To put it another way, the Word of God will help us avoid wrong attitudes and actions, cultivate right ones, and live the way God wants us to. This is why it’s important to spend time reading the Bible every day. I should make it clear that I’m not talking about spending hours and hours at Bible reading; the truth is, few of us do that. But a few minutes every day of reading the Bible and absorbing what it says makes a big difference in our lives.

Another important tool we have is prayer. Now prayer can sound like a scary or difficult thing. But it really doesn’t have to be. When it comes down to it, prayer is simply a conversation with God. It’s talking with him the way we talk to our best friend, and listening for him to talk back to us. Again, I’m not talking about spending hours and hours at it. I’ve mentioned friendship with God, and that’s important here. If we want to be friends with someone, we have to spend time with them in order to develop the friendship. And that’s all prayer and Bible study really are—spending time with God to get to know him.

Speaking of friends, they can also be an important gardening tool. The company we keep has an influence on us, whether we intend it to or not. So we have to be careful about whom we spend time with. As the book of Proverbs puts it, “He who walks with wise men becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov. 13:20). And again, “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Prov. 22:25). Having the example and advice of godly people in front of us is a good way to keep on track spiritually and encourage our own spiritual growth. This is also why it’s important for us to be connected with a good Bible-believing, Bible-preaching church where we can learn about God, worship him, and have fellowship with other believers.

Another very important device we need is the double tool of confession and repentance. Now I admit that this is an awkward tool to use; admitting to our faults is never comfortable. But the tool of confession and repentance is the only one that will completely remove the “weeds.” And if any part of a “weed” is left behind, it will just grow back again. The good news is that confession is always effective. As the apostle John puts it, “If we confess our sins to God, he is faithful and just, and will forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). If we ask God to forgive our sins, we can be assured of his forgiveness. All we have to do is receive it. There is nothing that God will not forgive if we genuinely repent. But what is genuine repentance? It’s more than just being sorry for our sins, and it’s certainly more than being sorry we’ve been caught. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which means a change of mind. Repentance is coming to see sin the way God sees it. We can get an idea of how God sees sin by looking at what it takes to atone for sin. The entire Old Testament sacrificial system is built on the principle that if sin is to be atoned for, a life must be sacrificed. “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins,” says the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 9:22). In God’s eyes, sin is ugly, and he doesn’t distinguish between lesser and greater sins the way we do. But all the blood of bulls and goats that was offered on the Temple altar could only cover sin temporarily, it couldn’t wipe it out. So God sent his one and only Son, Jesus, to die for our sins. The shedding of his blood wiped out our sin completely and permanently. How seriously does God take sin? So seriously that it cost the life of his beloved Son to deal with it.

One last thing I know about gardening is that once we pull out the weeds and plant the flowers, we need to watch for any weeds that try to come back in, and pull them out. So also the spiritual “weeds” that we’ve been discussing will come back into our lives if we don’t watch out for them. As soon as we see any of these wrong attitudes in ourselves, we need to uproot them, using the spiritual tools that I’ve mentioned.

In conclusion, let me ask again, What’s in your garden? We’ve talked about some of the wrong attitudes that we need to remove, and the fruit of the Spirit which should be growing in every believer’s life. If they aren’t, don’t be discouraged. Start using the tools we’ve talked about, and get growing. The growing won’t be complete this side of heaven, so we’ve all got growing to do. But the very first step in this process is to receive Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour. Only after you’ve done this can the Holy Spirit come in and grow his fruit in you. I wish you happy and productive gardening, in every sense of the word.