By Javan Rowe
Paul’s list of spiritual fruit in Galatians 5 is such a hopeful part of Scripture. While the Christian journey may be difficult, Christ promises to bear fruit through us if we remain in him. The first characteristic of this fruit is love (5:22).
Love has been the topic of countless songs, movies, and television programs. The word is so overused its essence has been lost to many. Their knowledge of true love is vague at best. As result, when we see that love appears first in Paul’s list, we may bypass it to contemplate heartier concepts like faithfulness or self-control.
That Paul lists love first should be our first clue as to its importance. One does not have to venture far into the Bible before the theme of love appears, and the theme is repeated throughout Scripture. We are told what we are to love: “Hate evil, love good” (Amos 5:15). We are taught about the most important recipient of our love: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
But even passages like these don’t tell us what love is. If the Lord has made such fruit available to us, we need to understand its nature and purpose.
What Is Love?
Some people seem confused about love—whether it exists solely in the mind as an emotion or externally as a physical action. Such confusion is unnecessary because love is both internal and external. It is a feeling housed deep in the soul, which is seen in expressions like, “I love you with all my heart.” That kind of love is made evident to others through actions, like fruit on a tree.
Still, love is difficult to describe. Saying love looks like this or that doesn’t tell us what love is. Maybe this is because love has no definition apart from how it looks. Perhaps love is simply a compilation of our actions. Paul seemed to think this way, which is why he devoted an entire chapter in 1 Corinthians to what love looks like. It’s as if Paul were saying, “I cannot tell you exactly what love is, but I can certainly describe what it looks like when it is present.”
First Corinthians 13, known as “the love chapter,” is a great exposition on love. Paul begins by saying love is more important than powerful gifts like angelic tongues, prophesy, or mountain-moving faith. He then describes love by its actions.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (vv. 4-8).
The best way to define love is by its actions: patience, kindness, lifting others up rather than ourselves in our Christian lives. This is what love is; our deep-seated positive emotions worked out in tangible ways to benefit others.
Love Is the Initiator
To understand love we must look at God, who exhibits love perfectly. Scripture depicts the Trinity demonstrating love within the Godhead from before Creation. The potent, intermingling love within the Trinity was so immense it overflowed into the creative work of this world and everything in it, including humankind. When Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden, God’s love set our redemption into motion. Even today, the Holy Spirit loves us so much he draws us toward Jesus and the salvation Christ purchased.
In short, God’s love initiated every good blessing we have. It is not accidental that love comes first in the list of spiritual fruit. It is the great initiator and foundation of all spiritual fruit.
Love undergirds all of God’s attributes. His grace and mercy, for example, are made possible because of his great love. He sent his Son to redeem us because of the deep love he has for his creation. God saw the sin and resulting despair mankind was wallowing in and was moved, through love, to save us. Love initiated our salvation, along with every other blessing we enjoy.
One summary we can make of 1 Corinthians 13 is that the greatest things in life are meaningless if they are not laced with love. This is verified by the way Paul introduces the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh (vv. 13-16).
Walking in the Spirit leads to love because we cannot help being influenced by the love radiating from the Spirit. Paul concludes with a tremendous challenge: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (vv. 24, 25).
Living in the Spirit means weaving love into the fabric of our lives in cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Some of the strands we weave include loving our neighbor, seeking purity, and giving to the needy. When we resist the flesh and walk in step with the Spirit, we will experience the fruit of love.
The hardworking farmer diligently works the soil and expects results. In a similar way, the Christian chooses to demonstrate love and expects to grow in love as a result. Our capacity to love is never depleted because God continues to replenish. We keep in step with the Spirit, demonstrating to others the love he has bestowed on us. This fruit is shared, never horded.
Mirroring Divine Love
The fruit of the Spirit is characteristic of God himself. Love is of God and God has demonstrated it in countless ways. In order to experience God’s love more fully we must live lives of love, reflecting his love. John 15:13 says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay his life down for his friends” (NIV 1984). The sacrificial love of God was demonstrated by Christ on the cross.
We mirror the love of God by living sacrificially and submissively. We start with our own marriages. We sacrifice for our families, friends, and church. We put the needs of others before our own needs. Laying down our lives for our friends is a constant, daily work of subduing our flesh and looking out for our neighbor.
This sacrificial love leads to unity. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis said, “Love . . . is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by . . . grace.” In other words, we must work at love and it must become habitual. It will not be easy. Thankfully we have God’s grace to help us along the way. Since it is a spiritual fruit, we have access to the Holy Spirit for guidance and assistance. When we sow seeds of love, we will reap greater harvests of love that will result in unity in all aspects of our lives.
Javan Rowe is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio.
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