apple treePicture with me for a moment two trees in the distance. Both are heavy laden with apples. The natural assumption is that you’ve come upon two apple trees.

However, once you arrive at the base of the trees, you notice that they differ in one very important way. On the first tree, apples hang naturally from the stem, just as you’d expect. The second tree causes you to look again in bewilderment.

All of the apples on this tree have been tied onto it.

Painstakingly, someone spent hours attempting to make this tree appear to be an apple tree. Close inspection reveals the reality that the fruit was not born from the inward sap of the tree, but from the outward labors of someone seeking to create an illusion.

We can all spot the futility of such labor in an apple orchard (knowing full well that hanging apples on a tree does not an apple tree make). However, I have a feeling this might be how many of us go about our attempts to bear fruit in our spiritual lives.

Galatians 5:22-23 tells us, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

These graces show forth the beauty of the Spirit’s work in the life of a believer. The sap of the Spirit produces fruit in the life of a Christian. Yet, each of us will find ourselves in situations where we feel unloving, impatient, unkind, or lacking in joy or self-control (all of which may have occurred on this morning’s drive to the office).

Faced with our own barren tree, we often attempt to achieve in our own strength what is not growing in our hearts. We determine that we will act lovingly to that unlovable person, be kind to that annoying relative, or faithfully serve in that ministry (while grumbling to ourselves about it). We will work harder, be more disciplined, and pick ourselves up by our proverbial bootstraps and get on with it.

Now, let me clarify. Hard work, discipline, and diligent labors are good things. Even Paul said, “I worked harder than any of them” (1 Cor 15:10). But then, lest he be misunderstood, he rightly added, “though it is not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” It is the work of God’s grace, through the power of the Spirit, that fuels our obedience.

Thus, the question before us as we ponder spiritual fruit is: How can I discern the difference between keeping in step with the Spirit’s work in my life and laboring in my own strengths and abilities?

Righteousness with Strings Attached

Just like the tied-on fruit tree, when I am working out of my own strength the false fruit comes with strings attached. Two strings of self-righteousness appear, making it clear to any close observer that these are not Spirit-born fruit. The first string is judgment and the second string is despair.

When I’ve labored in my own strength and find myself somewhat successful in my efforts, the most common overflow is that of judgment. Observing another struggling to do what I’ve attained, it’s tempting to sit high on my perch and think to myself, “Well if she just did this or that, then it would go much better for her.” Thankfully, the Lord has faithfully nudged me off my perch more times than I can count. Falling face forward in the dust has a way of dismantling pride and self-righteousness. Judgment is an ugly string, exposing the illusion of fruit on our tree.

In contrast, when I’ve labored in my own abilities and come up short or missed the mark in some way, a second string appears. It’s the string of despair. How can it be that I’m such a horrible person? I’m a failure of a Christian. What use am I for the kingdom? Everyone is better than me. These are not the thoughts of a humble soul, but a self-righteous one. Should I be surprised at my own inabilities or weaknesses? My false belief that I’m not really that bad is shocked by my complete inability to change apart from the Spirit’s work. Despair is simply the other side of judgment in the currency of self-righteousness.

Spirit-Born Fruit

In contrast, how can we spot the fruit that is born of the Spirit’s work in our lives? Like a painter, the Master puts a signature on His creation:

The work of the Spirit always overflows in worship.

When we find ourselves living lives of obedience, showing forth joy and patience, kindness and love, our hearts abound with thanksgiving. We rejoice, not in our own righteousness, but in the work of the Spirit within us.

There is no judgment for others because we recognize all our works are simply a gift born within us. We do not look down on others who are struggling; we just keep inviting them to Jesus. With a heart of worship, we say to all: Come behold the King! I was lost, but now I’m found. I was blind, but now I see. The scar of prideful judgment does not mar the glow of a worshiping countenance.

In a similar way, when faced with our failures, the Spirit prevents us from despairing thoughts and inward focus. Instead, we repent and turn again to Christ in worship. Rather than become paralyzed by our sin, we behold the work of Jesus in new ways. We mourn our sin, and we rejoice all the more in our Savior. All our failures are absorbed in His sacrifice. With confidence, we boldly approach the throne of grace, finding mercy and grace to help us in our time of need.

This type of fruit is only born by abiding in Jesus (John 15:4-5). There’s no need to spend our labors tying on fruit. What we yearn for, He freely gives. As the Master Gardner tends our branch, we overflow in worship and bear the beauty of our Creator:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD;
my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. – Isaiah 61:10