“How does a person know if she is bearing good fruit for God?” A young woman asked me this question following an Advent retreat in which I’d presented about the spiritual benefits of waiting. It’s a common question, I realize — one without a clear, universal answer.
Maybe it’s a cop-out to respond, “There’s no panacea,” but I frequently do. And then I read about the fruits of the Holy Spirit in scripture, recalling that there are definite signs that one is, indeed, fruitful in one’s work.
Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The short answer to the initial question, of course, is that our lives will exemplify a melange of these spiritual fruits if we are, in fact, following God’s will. But how can we recognize these fruits, and what can we do to foster them in our lives?
Let’s begin by differentiating between the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. “The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit…complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations.” (CCC 1831) “The fruits of the Spirit are perfections that the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory.” (CCC 1832)
In other words, spiritual gifts are those that God chooses to bestow on us without any merit or practice on our part. We cannot earn or acquire these gifts. But if we use them by being attentive to the ways in which God is calling us to share them with others, we will see the consequences of these gifts — which are the spiritual fruits, or results, of our good deeds.
How can we share the charisms God has given us so that the following spiritual fruits will be evident through our lives? Without delving into the dense theological attributes of each, here are some practical ways we can grow in each:
A foundational theological virtue, it’s safe to assume that all other fruits fall back to the “greatest of these,” as St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13. Authentic Christian love requires self-abnegation on a daily basis. It means we must deny ourselves little pleasures or comforts in order that the Spirit overcomes the flesh. Not contingent upon emotion, love – or charity – is a conscious act of the will. It means we will the good of the other. At times that might mean speaking truth that challenges a loved one. At other times, it might mean we should quiet ourselves and listen to another. No matter, when we are refined in the school of suffering, we will know more deeply and clearly what it means to love.
Though it is right to pray that we will be “reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy in the next,” the secular definition of happiness is not even close to the spiritual fruit of joy. It is quite possible to experience supernatural joy in the midst of great trials and hardship. The juxtaposition of experiencing both pain and joy is a beautiful spiritual gift that allows us to be visible witnesses of the hope we have in the Resurrection.
Peace is likely what we long for above all else, but how to attain it? St. Teresa of Avila once said, “Let nothing disturb you.” How is that possible in our complex tech society? There are times when God will impart peace as supernatural grace upon our souls when we least expect it, yet need it as consolation to continue in fidelity to our spiritual journey. This is the “peace that surpasses all understanding” written about in Philippians 4:7.
If we truly want to be holy, practicing patience is an excellent starting point. If we pray for this gift of “long-suffering,” God will deliver us plenty of opportunities for us to practice it. Often, when we undergo seasons of waiting — in which our lives seem to be in a holding pattern and nothing is really moving forward with projects or plans — we are asked to trust and wait. Waiting necessitates patience, because we don’t know how long we will need to hold still.
A popular quote today is, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” It’s a choice on our part as to how we will respond to those we encounter. Will I be rude, insensitive, quick-tempered, judgmental? Or will I pause, be patient, and respond with mercy? It is true that we are all fighting battles unknown to the rest of the world, so smiling, offering a helping hand, and being “slow to anger” are all superb ways we can exemplify kindness in our daily lives.
In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” When I think of goodness, this is what I imagine — integrity, honesty, truth, beauty. Let’s do more than think about these things; let’s put them into effect by our words and deeds.
Fidelity to God and in our human relationships is often tried throughout the course of our lives. The Psalmist cried, “How long, O Lord, how long will you forget me?” in Psalm 13. When we feel abandoned by God, or perhaps our marriage has become stagnant, or maybe a parent or sibling has hurt us deeply throughout many decades, we are tempted to sever the ties. True faithfulness involves perseverance through the ups and downs, good and bad – and mediocre. We remain rooted to the True Vine, and in time, as branches we will bear “fruit that will last” (John 15).
Akin to meekness, when we are gentle, we have a quiet way about us. We’re not constantly chattering or loudly interrupting (as I often do, much to my chagrin). Instead, we listen. We wait to respond to someone else. We don’t allow our emotions to override reason. It seems that, in order to grow in gentleness, we need a healthy dose of humility. Maybe it’s because humility humiliates — we become little in the sight of God and others, and so we are less inclined to judge harshly. This does not mean we don’t stand for what’s true and against what is evil. It simply means we respond to others, in their own weaknesses and foibles, with charity.
I can think of nothing more apt than to end with self-control. In a world that lauds instant gratification, what could be more counter-cultural than exhibiting self-control? On the one hand, we’re praised for refraining from eating pesticide-laden produce or hormone-pumped animal products, but on the other hand, we’re encouraged to indulge – in spa treatments, shopping sprees, or ice cream sundaes. True self-control, however, is a spiritual fruit, because it involves the virtue of temperance – balancing our strong impulses specifically toward sensory pleasures and delights. We refrain and restrain not out of guilt, only to overindulge later, but rather we moderate our senses and their pleasures.
There’s no reason to measure ourselves by how many or how often spiritual fruits are evidence of good works or following God’s will. Instead, we would do well to simply remain receptive to the movements and musings of the Holy Spirit, guided by the sacraments and sound spiritual direction, so that our daily lives will bear whatever God wills — in His time, His way, and by His methods. If we remain open to Him always, He will never disappoint. In fact, He will make all things great, and greater still than we can possibly fathom — in and through us.