The other day I was thinking about all the contentious folderol Christians get themselves involved in — not just in arguing about hot-button issues against the secular world, but in arguing among themselves.
I decided I'd write a column on how Christians really ought to act, if we weren't so busy acting like ill-tempered birdbrains.
I was about halfway through my list of do's when I realized the list had already been done. About 2,000 years ago. By St. Paul. It's in the New Testament.
Paul called his list "the fruit of the Spirit."
These, he said, are traits exhibited by disciples of Jesus Christ when they allow themselves to be led by God rather than by their own putrid flesh.
Before I present Paul's list, I should admit I don't particularly exhibit all these fruit myself with any consistency. But at least the list gives me, and perhaps you, standards to aim for:
Love. The Greek word Paul uses is agape, which connotes a certain type of love. It's an act of the will rather than a gooey emotion.
Agape means we behave in a loving manner toward everybody — we're gracious to the annoying, we feed our enemies — whether or not we actually want to do it. Agape is love that's independent of our feelings.
We allow our will to override our emotions. We don't have to like a person, necessarily, to show him agape. He doesn't have to deserve it. We just do the loving thing because that's what the Lord commanded us to do and we're his servants.
Joy. Christians aren't supposed to be the neighborhood's apoplectic, wild-eyed, raving doomsayers. According to Paul, we ought to be the most joyful folks on the block. Or in the workplace. Or in the public square.
We've heard Good News. We know grace permeates the world — and the heavens. We know that everybody's been granted a second chance, and a 10th chance and a 100th chance. We've been sent to preach freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Peace. Jesus said it early in his ministry, and Paul reinforced it: Being God's children, we've been commissioned as peacemakers. We're to help others find peace of mind. We're to promote healing between warring siblings and warring nations.
But to accomplish any of that, we first must find peace within our own souls.
"Let not your heart be troubled," Jesus warned, which implies that each of us decides whether or not he'll walk in internal peace, and thus be equipped to direct others.
Patience. Personally, I want what I want, and I want it yesterday, and I want other people to get out of my way and let me get at it. I fume when I'm stuck in traffic and fume worse if I have to sit more than 10 minutes in the doctor's waiting room.
But I do concur with Paul's wisdom here, in theory.
Most things don't happen in our preferred timing. It's great to be able to take the long view, to enjoy the journey, to not let other people's foibles irk you.
Or so I hear.
Kindness. I've written this before, but the older I get, the more I find that few things appeal to me as much as being treated kindly. When I'm choosing new friends, their kindness trumps their talents, their net worth, their looks.
That being the case, it ought to behoove me, and I hope it does, to treat others the same way, to make an extra effort to be polite, generous and friendly.
There's no great mystery to this virtue. Bottom line: Be nice.
Goodness. My interpretation here is that we should keep our hearts clean and assume the cleanliness of others' hearts.
"To the pure, all things are pure," the New Testament tells us.
That is, we should try to live without guile. We should act the same whether we're speaking to some CEO or to a janitor. We should abolish gossip and subtexts and passive-aggressiveness and manipulation from our conversations. As the Bible also says, "Let your yes be yes, and your no be no."
And we should assume, until proven wrong, that others are doing the same.
Faithfulness. There are a bajillion clichés about faithfulness. They're all true: "Ninety percent of success is just showing up"; "If you find yourself walking through hell, don't stop"; "It is he who endures to the end who will be saved."
It's another simple principle. But simple doesn't mean easy.
Still, there are few virtues as effective as the willingness to keep on getting up every morning, be there a monsoon or a drought, in good health or bad, to do what we're supposed to do, regardless of others' actions.
We're to keep doing right because it's right, not because it always feels good.
Gentleness. Our society sometimes seems to have been overrun by arrogant boasters only interested in punishing the fallen and deriding them. Christians are called to be the counter voices to that, to be those who speak for mercy, humility and encouragement, to be those who pick up the fallen rather than spit on them.
Self-control. All these traits unfortunately run contrary to our baser instincts. To manifest the Spirit's fruit, we must learn to quiet our own egos and vindictiveness. We must put aside our lower desires and discipline ourselves to behave as emissaries of a loving God. That takes a lifetime of effort and mindfulness.