Most people – Christian or not – believe that Christ followers should be characterized by their behaviors, and this sets up a whole realm of expectations. Non-believers label Christians as hypocritical when we fail at those expectations. Therefore, many Christians try even harder to prove by their actions that they are good and upright in their belief system. Many churches support this view by preaching that Christians will be known by their love and challenging congregants to demonstrate that love.
Therefore, we can become very busy carrying out that assignment. Most of us will occasionally help out a neighbor. But, do we fall prey to road rage when encountering traffic to buy them groceries? Will we give a listening ear to someone suffering a life-trauma, but punish our child for acting out as a desperate means of gaining our attention? Do we volunteer monthly at a soup kitchen to assuage our indulgent lifestyles? Do we give money to good causes while neglecting the widow or single mom barely scraping by? In all of these situations and many more, we demonstrate we don’t have what it takes to consistently go the distance when mustering our own effort to do good deeds.
But, is that putting the cart before the horse? It is true that scripture gives us lists of dos and don’ts, starting with the 10 Commandments, and including lists given by the Apostle Paul in his writings. But Paul was careful to label the “good” list as fruit: Galatians 5:22-23 identifies love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control as fruit of the Spirit. This fruit is not produced by our effort, but by remaining in Jesus, the Vine, Who actually produces the fruit. We could not birth a piece of fruit if our lives depended upon it. Fruit grows naturally as a result of nourishment from the Vine. But, Paul actually precedes this list with another one that he labels the sinful nature: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” This list is very convicting, as the contrast serves to identify life-areas that must still be mastered – proof that we have a definite role to play.
Some of the hardest work we can ever do is be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings, and embark on the journey with Jesus to change those deeply embedded things. Jesus will not supernaturally change us without our cooperation – and our cooperation almost always demands great effort, and is accompanied by pain – like resetting a broken bone. But this pain makes us whole and brings freedom. In eliminating the sinful nature obstructions from the life-giving flow of the Vine, good fruit is able to grow effortlessly. These fruits in reality are heart attitudes and behaviors that drive and empower our actions.
The Apostle Peter focuses his final instructions on critical reminders: “make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8) Even though this looks like the fruit we cannot grow, Peter is actually instructing us to cultivate the fruit. Therefore, we are participating with Jesus in life-style changes that will equip us to do and be what and whom God has created us to do/be. Peter’s closing words identify what should be our life-long pursuit: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) This is active participation in the most incredible, amazing, rewarding adventure imaginable! We do not neglect the good deeds, but now they are birthed in Him, and empowered by Him – life-giving to both the receiver and giver.