Plastic Fruit and Bushy Branches
I know a man who grew up during WW2. Food shortages and ration cards had become the norm. He tells the story of a day he walked past the grocers and stopped in awe as he saw a bunch of bananas. He couldn't believe his eyes. He hadn't seen a banana for a long time. Without hesitating, he sprinted through the streets declaring the news to everyone he could see. A mass of excited mums and children converged and ran down to get their hands on this precious fruit. When they got there, there were no bananas in sight. Only a bunch of plastic ones the grocer had used to decorate the shop window front. It took a long time for everyone to get over that day. He says he could have sworn they were real bananas. But when he took a closer look - he could tell they were fake.
The Plastic/Leafy Works
In this series we’ve been attempting to drive home the point that we cannot produce the fruit that is pleasing to God in our own strength. Even after we have trusted in Christ, our flesh, the residue of our old nature, wars against the Spirit, is unable to produce fruit that glorifies God and can still only produce rottenness. No wonder, then, that Christ tells us that without Him we can do nothing.
In this article we will examine what our flesh does produce inside the realm of Christian/Church life.
We could fake it until we make it. We can’t produce the fruit of righteousness/light but we can get busy with doing and make it look like we are fruitful. This is about as helpful as ordering some plastic fruit and putting it in a basket in your home. It might look the part from a distance. But close up everyone can see that it isn’t real. Worse, because it isn't actual fruit, it won’t do anyone any good.
We can decorate the leaves on our fig tree and draw people’s attention to that instead. Sure, there isn’t any fruit, but look how bushy the tree is, look how the leaves have been arranged beautifully, hoping that no one will notice the distinct lack of fruit. The problem is; God was asking for fruit, not leaves and fruit feeds people, not leaves.
The Plastic/Leafy Motives
Why is it that we so often choose to show off plastic fruit and bushy branches?
Guilt and Shame
Guilt is when we realise that we did something that falls short of God's standards. Shame is when we realise that we fall short of God's love because of our falling short of His standards. When we fall short it is good to feel a sense of real guilt and shame - because in that moment we are guilty. However, it is what we do with that guilt and shame that will make all the difference.
A person seeking to earn favour and love from God in their own strength is not resting in the unconditional love God has shown us and the unconditional acceptance that God has granted us in the finished and ongoing work of Jesus Christ in the gospel.
When this person sins, they forget that Christ graciously offers both daily forgiveness and daily strength. Instead of running to Him with confession and finding the joy of cleansing and restored fellowship through Him, they seek to make up for or cover over their wrong doing or lack of right doing with performance. This goes back to the ‘I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine mentality’. This is legalism and leads to hypocrisy.
Legalism and Hypocrisy
Legalism is when we seek to earn God's favour based upon our own merit, legalism is not so much about what we do or don’t do; it is actually much more about the motives behind what we do. Hypocricy is when we try to look the part in front of others, knowing we don't actually meet the standard God has called us to. We will try to hide our true selves from God and others through our religious performances, all the while covering over our idolatries, failures and weaknesses.
Two people can be dressed the same way, singing the same songs, doing the same acts of service and yet have very different reasons for doing it. Whatever “style” of church you attend there is the extremely subtle and sometimes even alluring draw towards the slow and debilitating disease of legalism and hypocrisy.
The Plastic/Leafy End
Let’s explore some of the end results of serving God with these false motives.
Because we are not regularly running to Christ in repentance and humility and experiecing precious forgiveness, restoration and strength by His grace, we will be doing all we do in the flesh. Our flesh, then, will be doing what it does best; sinning. We’ll just get better and better at hiding, excusing and explaining away our sin as we become more and more enslaved to it.
Sooner or later, as we are gripped by our constant failure to meet the standards of God and consistently forget to run to Christ, instead of comparing ourselves to scripture and searching our own hearts, we will begin to examine our lives based upon the standards we or others have set up instead. In other words, we'll begin to decorate our leaves.
We will begin to create standards about how we dress to church, what secondary or tertiary doctrines we believe, what ministries we are involved in, what version of the Bible we read, what we don’t watch or listen to or read, what our political views are and so on.
These things are not necessarily wrong in themselves, and it is good to know what we believe and why we believe it about numbers of topics. The problem is when we replace God's call to Christlikeness and set up these extra-biblical and attainable standards instead. The problem is when we make these things our test of godliness and maturity.
Serving God and others in our own strength will soon become exhausting. Eventually it will lead to us feeling how Martha felt. We may think we can get better at covering over our bitterness, resentment, insecurities and discouragement, but there will be no real fruit in what we do. We will soon forget or neglect to look within at our own failures and we will start to point the finger at others for their failures.
David Brainerd, speaking to people in his day, challenged them to “not set up their own frames as a standard to try all their brethren” and a week later to “not make our own frames the rule by which we judge others”. Their temptation, as well as ours, was not only to set up extra biblical standards to find pride in, but to start judging others by these standards that we create. In other words, we won't just begin to focus on decorating our leaves; we'll create a leaf decorating competition.
Instead of examining ourselves in the light of scripture, we will begin to examine others in light of our standards. That will be far less painful and far more gratifying to our flesh. It is easier by far to judge others by our own self established standards and watch them fall short than to allow the scriptures to cut down into our own hearts to expose us.
When Christ told us to remove the beam from our own eye before dealing with the speck in our brothers He wasn’t necessarily saying that we have more sin than our erring brother or sister but rather, that we know more about ourselves than we do about them. We live with our own sinfulness 24 hours a day. If we were honest and humble we could see how sinful our words, deeds, thoughts, attitudes and motives are. We know there is a massive beam in our own eye. The speck doesn’t necessarily mean that they have sinned less than us or that their sin isn't serious. It speaks of the amount of their sin we see in comparison to our own. Our 365/24/7 sin for the years we have been alive compared to that one sin or even that seventy-times-seven sin we have seen in the other. Weigh it, beam face, the amount of sin we see in them pales in comparison to the amount of sin we see in ourselves.
Have you noticed that the Plastic/Leafy Motives and the Plastic/Leafy End seem very similar. That's the point. As we are motivated by guilt and shame which leads to legalism and hypocrisy which leads pride and judgement, a vicious, fruitless, leafy circle will begin. I've been there more than I'd like to admit.
Truth is so important. However, if I believe that godliness and Christian maturity is in how much doctrine I know and am correct in, or in how well I am able to defend my views or parse the greek, then I can read a good number of sound theological books, learn the best arguments for my secondary doctrinal positions and become happily prideful in my knowledge and judgmental towards those who don’t know as much as I know or who don't believe exactly as I believe.
Serving is so important. However, if I believe that godliness and Christian maturity is in how I dress, or in how busy I am in church programmes or in what others think and say about me, then I can dress well, slap on a smile and get busy with ministry and be happily prideful in my outward performance and human applause and judgemental towards those who don’t do as much as I do or who do things I wouldn't do.
Discernment is so important. However, if I believe that godliness and Christian maturity is in my ability to see the errors, weaknesses, failures and sins of my brothers and sisters in Christ or in the unsaved world around me, then I can point the finger, find a microscope for my brothers speck, criticise, accuse, gossip and slander and be happily prideful in my “discernment”.
But, if I believe that godliness and Christian maturity is in my conformity to the image of Christ’s character, then as I examine my life in light of His life I will be daily broken and humbled over my failures to be like Him and daily grateful and overwhelmed by the beauties and glories of the grace of God that He is still faithful to His promises to me and still faithful to the work He began and will complete in me. Here, and only here, centred in and focused on the beautiful character of Christ and His incredibly rich daily love and grace towards me, is there any hope of bearing fruit.
Bearing Fruit Series:
Up the Apples and Pears (Christian Fruit, article 1)
Pulling a Martha 1 (Busy but Fruitless, article 2)
Pulling a Martha 2 (Responding to Christ's Love, article 3)
Not Needed, Loved (A True Perspective of Service, article 4)
Wild Grapes and Empty Fig Trees (What our Flesh Produces, article 5)
Plastic Fruit and Bushy Branches (Legalism, Hypocrisy, Pride and Judgement, article 6)
The New and True Vine (Jesus, the only God-pleasing, fruitful human, article 7)
My Hope is Built on Nothingness (How to Abide 1, article 8)
Don't Stop Believing (How to Abide 2, article 9)
Alan Campbell is from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He came to Christ as a young adult and trained for ministry at Bethesda Free Church, Sunderland. Alan ministered in Bethesda as the Associate Pastor until 2019 and now ministers at Union Chapel, Bath. From time to time he teaches at North Cotes (NTM/Ethnos 360) College and The Theological College of North Staffordshire. Alan travels across the UK, Ireland, Europe and the States speaking at universities and equipping churches and campus ministries to share the gospel in a post-modern context. He is passionate about helping the believer to root their identity more and more into the person and work of Jesus Christ. Alan is married to Victoria.