Before we can explore the nine characteristics of the Fruit of the Spirit, we must set them in their larger biblical context.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Genesis 1-2 offers the reader two very different angles on a single Creation event. Genesis 1 reveals the transcendent and ineffable Elohim, pictured as a grand Architect whose temple is the Cosmos, which he will form and fill over seven days. Genesis 2 offers us a complementary presentation of creation. In its verses, God’s personal name (YHWH) is invoked and he is imaged, not as an architect, but rather as a joyful Gardener. Genesis 2:8 tells us, “The LORD God planted a garden in Eden.” This garden would then be entrusted to a co-gardener, our father Adam (Gen. 2:15). Where does it speak of his joy? Genesis 2:2-3 tells us that he rested following his Creation. According to John Paul II, this rest of the LORD was not divine inactivity, but rather, “a gaze of joyful delight” (Dies Domini, para. 11). Most human gardeners have experienced this moment, when leaning on their spade, they joyfully survey the work of their hands.
God as a gardener is a rich metaphor that is not only employed in the Creation narrative, but also in the prophets. Within their oracles, the world is a garden where God’s sovereignty is displayed. He plants, scatters and plucks up entire nations. Among them is his tender shoot - Israel. Like the Tree of Life in the center of Eden, Israel was created to be a source of refreshing and revival for the other nations.
Isaiah and Jeremiah are filled with images of God as an attentive gardener. Let’s look at two from Isaiah to illustrate how the prophets use this metaphor of God. The first is in Isaiah 5, commonly called the Song of the Vineyard:
“Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry! Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land” (Isaiah 5:1-8).
There are two chief characteristics that God the Gardener was hoping to find in his vineyard Israel and Judah his pleasant planting - justice and righteousness. Instead, he sees bloodshed and hears the cry of the poor, and therefore his beloved garden will be abandoned. Keep this contrast in mind, because Paul will use similar comparisons between the Fruit of the Spirit and the works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-23). While the imagery in Isaiah 5 is part of an oracle of judgment, later the book of Isaiah will use similar imagery to instill hope in God’s exiled planting. It promises that if the people will turn to the Lord,
“...Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. “If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not” (Isaiah 58:8-11).
The return of a spiritual Garden of Eden can only happen when God’s people are identified by their righteousness and justice. God’s people waited for this moment, the Messianic Age with a new beginning and a new creation. It was Christ who would inaugurate a jubilee of justice and usher in the age of righteousness, initiating a “new creation” that can be experienced only via faith and baptism, “Through the Holy Spirit we are restored to paradise” (Catechism, No. 736).
Like the first garden, there is tree firmly at the center of this new creation. The Seed of victory promised to Eve in Genesis 3:15 has matured into a sapling of salvation. But this glorious tree’s boughs are bent into a shape that many in Israel simply could not bear: The shameful Cross is the new Tree of Life, its branches bent with the weight of the world. On it, “the fruit” of Mary’s womb was pierced and from Him will sprang forth the twin signs of new life - water for the new creation and blood representing the new humanity. He is the true source of life, healing and refreshment and yet is rejected. The Creator of the Cosmos became the Christ of the Cross:
“He who hung the earth is hanging.
He who fixed the heavens in place has been fixed in place.
He who laid the foundations of the universe has been laid on a tree.”
- On Pascha, Melito of Sardis
This imagery was not lost on Paul. The Seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16) is planted in us at baptism when we receive Christ himself, but for this seed to come alive, to leave its latency and become the mature Fruit of the Spirit, something must die...
Thomas Smith was a Protestant minister who was received into the Catholic Church in 1996. Thomas is a repeat guest on EWTN and Catholic radio as well as a sought after parish mission and conference speaker, and an international presenter for the Great Adventure Bible Timeline. Smith is the former Director of the Denver Catholic Biblical School and the Denver Catechetical School and now lives on his family ranch in southeastern Idaho where he farms and writes.