Monday, January 18, 2016

Cultivating Character with the Holy Spirit

The Christ-follower works in concert with the Holy Spirit to cultivate a life of character. Perhaps this smacks of legalism or Pelagianism to some, but this paradox threads its way throughout the New Testament. Two clear examples from Paul follow:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13, ESV)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1, ESV).
While I could pile on countless other verses to further illustrate the point, these two adequately showcase the tension between God’s work and mine in the pursuit of holy living. Pastors and theologians have often noticed the link between the indicative and imperative moods of Scripture. The indicative states a truth; the imperative shouts a command. When set side-by-side, as in the two examples above, we may crudely summarize: God does; we do.

He saves; we work out salvation.
He frees; we stand in freedom.
He empowers; we unleash the power.

Of course, too much attention to God’s sovereignty sparks the fear of determinism. No one wants to concede his life has been scripted, or that she is a pawn. On the other hand, when we overstate human responsibility, we divinize ourselves at the expense of minimizing God.

These theological debates cause dizziness and division. Moreover, they do little to inspire Spirit-led obedience. For God’s people to flourish—claiming their freedom and bearing fruit—we must conspire with the Holy Spirit to cultivate character.

The apostle Paul outlines this Spirit-shaped character in Galatians 5:22-23. The fruit feed into one another like a self-sustaining ecosystem: Love produces joy, grows peace, inspires patience, fuels kindness, nurtures goodness, imbibes faithfulness, fertilizes gentleness, inseminates self-control.

God’s Spirit has started an organic work we can share in. The Spirit is the source of the fruit – it grows out of His very essence. I am the gardener who cultivates it. And this work of cultivating requires at least two things. We must create an environment for the Holy Spirit to expand us. We must seize opportunities for spiritual fruit to flourish.

CREATING AN ENVIRONMENT mixes three ingredients:

Awareness: Cultivating spiritual fruit begins with an awareness of nature of the Spirit and His activity. While the Spirit appears in dramatic fashion in the early church (see Acts 2), the constant work of the Holy Spirit includes assurance (John 14:16-18; Gal. 4:5; Eph.  1:13-14), conviction (John 16:8-11), unity (Eph. 5:18-22; 1 Cor. 12-14), and holy character (Gal. 5:22-25). He ever instructs us in these truths.

Attention: While the fruit of the Spirit does not constitute a job description, it serves as a helpful personality map of the Holy Spirit (He is loving,  joyful, peaceful, etc.). Giving attention to the nature and nuances of this fruit helps identify what kind of person the Holy Spirit is forming us into. Regular, slow, thoughtful reflection on this fruit creates an environment for flourishing. Asking, “How is my love growing? My joy? Is self-control on the decline?” gives attention to character development, not simply behavior modification.

Activity: Asking God to grow spiritual fruit in us brings us into active partnership. Pruning constitutes another important aspect of cultivation. We would be wise to identify vices, false beliefs, and godless attitudes that stunt growth. Setting up boundaries, accountability, and healthy spiritual disciplines will, over time, strip off the flesh and showcase Christ in me.

(NOTE: Spiritual disciplines do not guarantee godliness or mask legalism, but establish patterns and a posture of learning from Christ our Lord. Prayer, worship, confession, study, biblical meditation, silence, fasting, and solitude are some of the many disciplines.)

SEIZING OPPORTUNITIES: Every day abounds with opportunities to cultivate spiritual fruitfulness. We need not manufacture nor orchestrate the conditions of our lives so we grow. It will happen with the Spirit’s aid.
  • Lonely people, suffering friends, misunderstood neighbors invite you to show love.
  • A new morning, a favorite song, a busy bird’s feeder, a friend’s laugh, and Taco Tuesday each open a window for joy
  • Slow traffic, latent WiFi service, prolonged adoption plans, and dawdling children give an opportunity for patience
  • Negligent co-workers or employees provide a chance to show gentleness
  • Extra leisure time, stocked refrigerators, Amazon.com, and sexy magazine covers are a test of self-control.


When we take the time to create an environment of holy character, the injustices, joys, and routine matters of the day become opportunities to flourish under the Spirit’s lead.

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