But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Love. This word is often seen as the central touchstone of the Gospel, and I tend to agree. According to John the Apostle God in his very nature is love. Jesus came to earth, died, and rose again because of love. And all the commandments of God are summarized in the two mandates to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
But we tend to confuse love with mere sentiment. We think of love as emotion and not as a action. We often convince ourselves we have to whip up a certain sense of attraction, connection, or familiarity before we show loving actions…thus giving us an excuse to neglect or mistreat others who we don’t particularly care for.
The Greek word agape translated as love was originally not considered the “highest” form of love. Before the New Testament era, it was a general expression of well-being. The other two words for love were predominate–eros (love based on attraction, often sexual but not exclusively) and philia (love based on connection, mainly kinship or deeper friendship). But the saving actions of God, in which he expressed his good will for all humanity and creation, transformed the “rankings” of these types of love. This type of love is unconditional. This kind of love is sacrificial. This kind of love is an extension of the very character of God himself.
As a spiritual fruit, we should expect to exhibit agape as we experience it. It’s not something that originates in us or that we can whip up. God first loves us, and then we show that love back to him and out to others. It’s helpful to remember that all the fruits of the Spirit are the work of God in us and through us. We may cultivate that fruit through the spiritual disciplines and sacraments God gives us (again, another gift), but we can never conjure love or any other fruit out of thin air. We need to receive these fruits as gifts first from Christ’s Spirit within us, and then distribute them to others.
Lord of love, fill me with your love, that I may love you wholeheartedly and love my neighbor in the same manner I wish to be loved. Amen.