Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Fruit of the Spirit?: A Tale of Four Misunderstood Words in the New Testament

In postmodern thought, ideas are merely expressions of the person. They reflect that person's experience, and that experience becomes that person's identity. To speak against an idea, then, is to speak against a person, their experience, and their identity. Hence, to speak harshly toward an idea, have no patience for an idea, speak unkindly toward an idea, or say that such an idea is false in view of another idea is to do all of these things toward people. Hence, when the Scripture commands us to be patient, gentle, humble, kind, and loving, it supposedly is commanding us to not speak about ideas this way, or to people in any sort of harsh, angry, or sarcastic tone.

Postmodernity hasn't just affected that other guy down the street. It has affected even the most astute of Christians. It has affected all of scholarship. It has affected everyone everywhere. And so, it has also had an effect upon lexicography (scholarly and lay lexicography alike). I've read numerous commentaries that displayed no more insight and correction in these four terms I'm about to discuss than of which the average joe sitting in the pew is capable. I think it's simply because we take the terms for granted on the one hand, and it seems "natural" for us, largely due to our postmodern worldview to take them as such on the other. Hence, we just don't bother to question what we're reading. The words to which I'm referring are these: "gentleness," "kindness," "patience," and "humility."

Of course, the biggest word that is misunderstood is "love," of which all of these are a part; but I've discussed that many times elsewhere. Today, I want to just clarify what these terms actually mean in their biblical contexts. I'm not going to do a major study with all of the verses present, but simpy give you a summary of what those contexts indicate.


Gentleness is often taken to mean that you are to have a certain tone in your speech, that you are not to speak harshly. One who does so does not exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. That fits well in our pomo understanding that truth is less important than how you speak and make another feel, simply because truth is elusive, but how you make another person feel when you speak to him or her is empirically verifiable. It's not about honoring God and how He feels with the truth, but about the person's feelings in front of you.
However, this isn't what the term means. The word group praos/praus/prautes has to do with one not being uncontrollably violent. In other words, it has to do with one who has control of himself in terms of what he says and does, so as to not become wildly violent. The term is used of animals who are tame, as opposed to wild. Obviously, it does not refer to the tone of their speech. We can apply it to that, but it does not necessarily and automatically condemn a harsh tone, since it primarily refers to restraining oneself from abuse in speech and physical action. In other words, the fruit of the Spirit here is using one's speech and actions for the sake of the benefit of others rather than to vent, which is an act of self worship at the sacrifice of others.
If we apply this to discipline, one should discipline his children for their sake, harshly spoken or not, not to simply release pent up anger upon his kids. The same goes for the man who is to be gentle. As Trench noted (Synonyms of the New Testament, 142) the term does not refer to a lack of temper, but falls short of a hot temper, i.e., something in between, something controlled. In fact, in the same letter that talks about gentleness as the fruit of the Spirit, Paul confronts Peter "to his face," which is a phrase relating the harshness and severity with which he confronted him, precisely because Paul was being gentle (i.e., in control of himself in looking out for another), as Peter was damned for what he was doing. Again, later in the letter, Paul expresses his harsh tone by saying that he wished these people, who were doing spiritual harm to the Galatians by telling them they needed to be circumcised in order to be acceptable to Christ, would just go all the way and castrate themselves. His harsh tone expresses how much of a harmful error this is, and that the Galatians should draw themselves away from such an error now.
Likewise, when James and Peter use the term, it always has to do with control of oneself versus becoming violent in speech or action in order to take out frustrations on others. Wisdom brings control for James, and those who are under harsh authorities in their lives should not violently revolt or speak without humility toward those authorities. But as we have discussed, this has little to do with the idea that being harsh, angry, or direct in one's tone as a sin. If that is true, the Christ, who is certainly said to be gentle, is, in fact, not. We need to remember that gentleness includes flipping over tables in anger, calling a friend "Satan," calling false teachers "children of hell," "children of demons" (i.e., "brood of vipers), "white-washed tombs," "liars," etc. If we fail to do so, we're going to argue that Christ, and people who are equally filled with the Holy Spirit who act like Christ, are acting "unChristlike."


Humility is actually linked to gentleness. They often come from the same word group or appear together. As I said above, gentleness is control of oneself for the benefit of another. That control may lead one in anger to speak harshly, or simply without anger to speak directly without much sugar coating. Humility, likewise, has to do with our general mindset to do things for the sake of God and others. It is lifting God up above ourselves first and foremost. This means we put His Word over our words and opinions. It may be then that we put His Word over the words and opinions of others; and to others in our pomo culture, then, this looks arrogant. In all actuality, however, we are actually lifting both God and others up over ourselves when we lift up God's Word over theirs, because we are seeking to redeem them from the tyranny of themselves. We are seeking to show them that God is life and must be exalted above them so that they might have life too.
Again, what humility in our cultural context looks like and what humility the Bible calls us to are completely different concepts. We can't just see the word "humility" and assume that it refers to the same things that our culture refers to when it speaks that term. I speak a lot on this blog about not carrying the referents from one context over to the other in the attempt to find the meaning of words. The same goes for not importing our contemporary referents back into the biblical context when attempting the same thing. Our lexicography needs to be based upon the biblical referents, not our own.
Hence, humility is placing others before ourselves; but unlike our current culture, that does not mean you don't tell someone that they are wrong. In fact, if one has humbled himself toward God, and exalts God's Word above his own, then humility is doing the same thing when one encounters the opinions of others. Humility wants to exalt God's Word as the means of deliverance from the devil's delusions, and so it seeks the glory of God and salvation of others. Only in our flip-flopped culture does biblical humility look like arrogance, since God's Word is not sought as the means to know truth, but rather the individual's subjective experience of life is. Hence, it looks like we're simply exalting our own experience over others. That, actually, is arrogant; but exalting God's Word over our experience is the humblest thing one can do, because it removes the exaltation of the Self in oneself and seeks to do the same in others (i.e., to pass humility on to another for redemptive purposes).


Patience used to be translated as "long-suffering." I think this is a better translation, because in our modern context, patience means you don't speak harshly (yet again) or with a certain tone, precisely because it means, to us, that you don't get angry.
The term, however, doesn't have to do with showing a lack of anger. It has to do with endurance. You don't give up on the person. You may get angry with ideas and even people who espouse them for being so careless with life and thought; but you don't give up on the person himself. You continue to seek his or her redemption. You don't try and make someone conform through physical force because you're tired and weary of them. You don't become abusive and dismissive toward the person. But notice, this is toward the person, not ideas. I see absolutely no tolerance by any of the biblical writers, or even the Lord Himself, for false teachings. They have absolutely no "patience" toward destructive ideas, as they are the means of damnation and defaming the true God in others. Patience is toward people, and patience has to do with persevering in one's desire and quest to see others repent and grow in the truth. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether one gets angry or speaks harshly. But in a pomo context, there is no truth to be had, so patience is not only about persons but ideas as well. One cannot be angry or speak poorly or in a harsh tone about another person's ideas. Again, this is not what the Bible is talking about when it speaks of having patience, i.e., long-suffering.


Finally, we come to the word "kindness." This word is also taken to mean someone who does not hurt the feelings of others by speaking harshly, but is rather a "nice" person. In fact, we often conflate the ideas of kindness and being nice. But this term is most often used in the NT to refer to God's desire to save us. The term itself is linked to the others above in that it seeks what is best, from an eternal perspective, for the individual. It seeks to save them. It seeks their redemption. It seeks their good. Hence, it seeks to give what is good to them. A kind man, then, may be one who is angry at you for destroying yourself and others.

The Fruit of the Spirit

It is important to note that the fruit of the Spirit is singular, perhaps, not because all of the characteristics describe the one fruit, as it's often said, but because the one fruit is love and the rest of the attributes describe what love looks like (de Boer 362-66; Luhrmann 111; Dunn 310). As de Boer explains it, it might be understood as "The fruit of the Spirit is love [which is accompanied or marked by] joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, self control" (362). This makes sense in the context, since love is Paul's subject, and it also reflects his great love chapter in 1 Cor 13. Love is not one of the attributes of the fruit. It is the fruit. The rest are to be understood within the concept of biblical love, and biblical love seeks the good of others from an eternal perspective, not from a temporal "feel" of a conversation or action. It seeks the glory of God in the salvation of others. Hence, all of the attributes mentioned are geared toward that goal rather than the goal of having good feelings amongst ourselves at the expense of the truth that might have exalted God above ourselves and saved those with whom we interact.

A kind, gentle, humble, and patient man may whip the animals out of the temple, call a friend "Satan," call false teachers "children of hell." Again, Christ is our example of the most kind man who ever lived. Paul says of Him that He is the manifestation of God's kindness and love toward us. Yet, He is far from the Messiah of postmodern ideals, who never speaks harshly, never gets angry, never speaks sarcastically. Jesus is YHWH, the Divine Warrior. He wars against chaos, against what damns, precisely because He loves, has patience, is humble toward God and others, is gentle, is kind. War is not often pretty. It doesn't always make people feel good. And this type of war against the dethroning of God and His truth that would save others from exalting themselves certainly doesn't allow the ego of the other to remain intact; but it is a war of love nonetheless. In fact, it is a war of love precisely due to the fact that it does not allow the ego to stand. We are sparing lives, not feelings. No discipline, either of circumstances brought on by God or of words that are spoken by His Spirit through His people, are pleasant at the time; but they yield for those who heed them the fruit of life and salvation. If these terms mean anything else to you beside that, then I'm afraid you're just reading them wrong.

I was not trying to get praise and fame through my writings and little books, for almost everyone I knew condemned my harsh and stinging tone. Martin Luther


  1. thank you for this!!! I'll refer to this regularly.

  2. I couldn't find a definition for the word, pomo.

    1. It's abbreviated slang for "postmodern."