Fruit of the Spirit: Love Comes First

March 6, 2023 Jennifer Gross

At youth group, the teens in attendance were engaged in a very lively discussion, during which, my daughter said something slightly off the mark theologically. I immediately corrected and expanded on her words—matter-of-factly, I thought. I was one of the youth leaders, after all. It was my duty to make sure the kids understood everything correctly. The discussion continued, but without my daughter. Her head went down, and she said nothing else.

When we got home, she turned to me, “You made fun of me!”

I was floored.

“No, I wasn’t making fun of you! I was just correcting what you said.”

“Mom,” she said, almost in tears, “you didn’t listen. You didn’t even let me finish my sentence.”

She walked away, and I replayed the interaction in my mind. I still thought that her original comment was not quite correct—but I had indeed jumped in quickly, intent on telling the teens the right thing. She felt demeaned and shamed. I might have been right theologically, but I had not acted in a loving way toward her. I apologized.

Love by the Spirit

In Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. He admonishes his readers to live by the Spirit, not by the flesh. What is the evidence that someone is living by the Spirit? Paul writes:

“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)

The first fruit listed is love. The Bible, and especially the New Testament, has much to say about love, but as I thought about this incident with my daughter, the first few words of 1 Corinthians 13 came to mind.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2)

The moment when I corrected my daughter, I chose knowledge over love. My first reaction upon hearing something I disagreed with was not, “how do I show love in this situation?” It was, “I must make sure we get this right.”

Of course, when discipling the next generation, we do want to make sure that their faith is rightly grounded in the truth of Scriptures. But if we take those 1 Corinthians verses seriously, we see that how we interact with people is more important than making sure they “get it right.” Did my daughter remember the point I made in our discussion, or does she only remember that Mom interrupted her and embarrassed her in front of her friends?

Jesus’ teachings on love

Another familiar Bible passage comes to mind when I ponder what love looks like in relationships. In Luke 10, Jesus and a lawyer have a conversation about what one must do to inherit eternal life. The lawyer knows his Scripture. He says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27). Jesus affirms His words, but the lawyer presses Jesus further, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).

Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37). Most Christians, and even many non-Christians, know the story. The religious folks, the ones who have right doctrine and diligently attempt to follow all Jewish laws, fail to love the man beaten on the side of the road. They decide not to take the risk of becoming ritually unclean by touching a man who might be dead. They fulfill the purity laws but break the law of loving their neighbor.

The Samaritan—from a group despised for, among other things, its departure from Jewish mainstream theology—nevertheless fulfills the law of love. The Samaritan “went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.” (Luke 10:34).

Love shown by Jesus

Being right is not a fruit of the Spirit. And frankly, that’s a struggle for me. Being right (or, at least, believing I know what’s right) makes me feel safe in my faith. Knowing the law and following the law, keeping myself “clean” like the priest and the Levite, is quantifiable and predictable. Love is risky. Love doesn’t make rules about who is and isn’t our neighbor. Being right does not require sacrifice, but love motivates us to lay down our lives.

Jesus said His harshest words to religious people (like me), the ones most concerned with doing everything right and making sure those around them knew what was right, too. Jesus was excoriated for eating with sinners and tolerating—yes, even loving—prostitutes, tax collectors, and others who were clearly outside of the religious establishment.

Still, after Jesus saved the adulteress from stoning (John 8:11) and after He healed the man by the pool of Bethesda (John 5:14), he told them “sin no more.” Love does not overlook sin, and love does not mean never correcting those in our care.

But Jesus and, later, His apostles teach us that love comes first. “We love because He first loved us,” writes John (1 John 4:19). Jesus came to us not to lay down the law but to fulfill the law. The first fruit of the Spirit is love, the kind of love that Jesus showed through His life, death, and resurrection.

Love comes first, and the rest of our faith flows out from that deep well of God’s love, given to us.

Scripture: ESV®.

Each session of Golden Fruit will focus on one fruit of the Spirit and consider how the lives and stories of nine biblical women convey that characteristic.

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