My father-in-law recently retired from a life of farming. For about 50 years, he raised beef cattle and crops from corn to beans to alfalfa and more. Each season of the year was marked by particular tasks, and each task made the next one possible. Travel was always difficult for him, not only because of the livestock but also because failure to do the work the season required would set him back for the next season.
This may sound like the life of a productive person. But nothing could be further from the truth. He loathes society’s addiction to efficiency and loves to quote Wendell Berry’s rebuke of “agro-business” people who farm solely for profit. My father-in-law spent his life farming for the love of the land. He was in it for the dirt and the cows, for the land and the process. He has taught me that there is a world of difference between productivity and fruitfulness. One is artificial and frenetic; the other is earthy and slow.
This is the time of year when we all tend to evaluate our commitments and our calendars. We take stock of our schedules and determine afresh what to give ourselves to. That is good and right. It is far better to live on purpose than to live by default. Life, as John Lennon sang, is what happens while we’re busy making other plans. So why not make plans that help us live well?
And yet, if we’re not careful, all this inventory-taking and plan-making can be for the misguided goal of simply being more productive.
What Jesus wants for us is to be fruitful.
The first and most important thing to say about fruitfulness is this: Fruitfulness flows from a life of abiding in Christ. It is about receiving the love of God and allowing God’s love to produce a love for him in return. Just as my father-in-law farmed for the love of the land, so we are to see our lives as the overflow of being deeply loved by God and having a deep love for God. No matter what you do or don’t do, regardless of what you accomplish or how you fail, nothing can ever change how much God loves you; nothing can ever separate you from his love. You are already and always truly and fully loved.
Secondly, fruitfulness is about becoming, not doing. Productivity is about the things we want to achieve; fruitfulness is about the person we are becoming. When Paul describes the fruit of the Spirit, he lists what we might call virtues—character qualities that become embedded into the fabric of our being. My father-in-law does not see corn or beans as products to sell or as dollars to earn. They are what the ground, in cooperation with his labor, yields in due season. Goals—especially ones that are outcome-oriented and action-driven—may be arbitrary and thus unreasonable. They can fire our motivation but then fizzle as we fall short. Fruitfulness, on the other hand, is about what we gradually, slowly, by the grace of God become.
Speaking of the grace of God, the third thing we must say about fruitfulness is that bearing fruit is the result of the Spirit’s work in us. It is the Spirit who brings love and joy, peace and patience, and more, from the soil of our lives. That is not to say that our participation is not required. In the mystery and mercy of God’s grace, he invites us in through our faith, surrender, and effort. But spiritual formation is the Spirit’s work. The lead actor in this story is the triune God—not you, not me. Intentionality creates space for us to sense the work of the Holy Spirit so that our participation is possible.Spiritual formation is the Spirit’s work. The lead actor in this story is the triune God—not you, not me. Click To Tweet
Fourthly, fruitfulness is never for our sake. As we abide in Jesus, the Holy Spirit produces fruit in us for the sake of the world. An apple tree doesn’t benefit from an apple . . . until the apple is eaten and the core is thrown on the ground, where the seeds can then turn into other apple trees. The fruit of our lives is for the good of others. When we become more faithful or long-suffering or gentle, those around us receive our presence as a gift.
Finally, fruitfulness is meant to result in the glory of God. When we abide in Jesus and become more like him as the Spirit works in us and with us, others see our “good works”—our light shining—and glorify the Father in heaven.
As you begin this year, seek to cultivate fruitfulness in your life this year instead of simply trying to increase productivity or improve efficiency. You need more than self-help hacks for your hectic life. Allow the Holy Spirit to provoke something much deeper—something that will shift you internally, transforming your entire posture and way of being.
Here’s what being intentional about cultivating fruitfulness can look like: Begin by taking time to stop and reflect on the past season. Then listen for a word for the season ahead. Next comes the slow and deeper work of taking an inventory of your rhythms—default or desired—in key areas of life. Finally, after you determine which handful of practices need to be embedded in your life as regular events, enshrine them in the calendar. It’s an intentional way of cooperating with the Spirit’s work of making us more like Jesus. If you want more guidance, my wife, Holly, and I walk through each step of this process with simple practices along the way in our new book The Intentional Year.
As my father-in-law knows, the good kind of growth happens on purpose; cultivation requires intentionality. Weeds grow on their own, but fruitfulness flows from faithfulness. Growing as a Christian means abiding in Jesus and allowing the Holy Spirit to produce fruit in us for the sake of others.