One of the most common themes on this blog is the idea of bearing good fruit. The idea can be found in some form or another in almost everything I’ve posted here. If I’m every concerned about that, I’m comforted by the fact that it was an idea that was close to Jesus’ heart too.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses the metaphor of bearing good fruit as the key to how we discern truth from error, much as John the Baptist had before him:
Watch out for false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but are inwardly hungry wolves. You will know them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits (Mt 7).
When we think about how Christians have historically sought to discern truth, this is really quite remarkable. But, according to Jesus, truth is to be judged not by fidelity to tradition or to the letter of Scripture, but by the fruit it bears: by its consequences in and for the world. And it’s not just Jesus: From Psalm 1 through Paul, according to the Scriptures, the quality of the fruit our lives bear is to be the criterion through which we discern goodness and truth. According to Paul, a holy Spirit-filled life looks like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5.22f).
Funnily enough, while this focus on the tangible results of our spiritual life may be contentious within Christianity, it is becoming increasingly common in our broader culture. A huge industry has arisen surrounding questions of how to live a good, happy, and fulfilled life. Connected to this, over the past few decades, an entire subfield within psychology has emerged that explores not neurosis and mental illness but the positive conditions for psychological health and wellbeing. More and more it seems, big questions about what it means to live well are returning to the fore. The fields are, as they say, ready for the harvest — a harvest of wellbeing, growth, and good fruit.
As part of this movement, in work taken up by the VIA (“Values in Action”) Institute on Character, researchers in positive psychology have searched through not only the scientific record, but the oral and written traditions of cultures from across the world, in the hopes of discovering universal conditions for happiness and wellbeing. And what they have found is a list of virtues not unlike the good spiritual fruit described in our Scriptures. And so, it would seem that there is actually an increasing convergence between what psychology is telling us about human happiness and what our Scriptures have been telling us about life all along.
Earlier in 2019, I explored the twenty-four character strengths identified by these positive psychologists from a Christian perspective, to see what our own tradition has to say about them, and how they interact with the values of the Gospel. It was an interesting project, as some of the strengths are identical to those ‘good fruit’ proposed by the New Testament, while others are more challenging for our tradition.
For more information on this project, see the blog posts at the links below: