Cause and effect is uniformly embedded throughout creation. Jesus spotlighted it when he compared human nature to the natural world: “So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit” (Matthew 7:17-18).
Your character, like the DNA of a tree, determines the nature of your fruit. The coding runs so deep that nothing can be done to change this cause-and-effect reality. Your character consists of a habitual mix and intensity of motivations. Your character sets the course for how you are going to conduct yourself as you move through life.
Effortlessness. It is easy and natural to act out in ways that are consistent with the kind of person that you are on the inside. Jesus’ words “every good tree bears good fruit” state a simple fact. There are no exceptions. Good behaviors flow effortlessly from good character. Apple trees never sweat trying to make apples. Their fruit is a natural consequence of who they are on the inside.
Think of all the anxiety, hard work and frustration people go through trying to change themselves from the outside in! Entire industries are built upon the desire that people have to transform their lives. Motivational speakers peddle their wares in front of the hopeful masses. All of this frenzied activity goes on in spite of the fact that “fruit changing” is a failed approach. There must be an easier way.
Consistency. It is senseless to expect a person to act consistently different from who they are on the inside. People inevitably act out in ways that expose the nature of their “tree.” Thorn bushes, no matter how hard they may try, can never produce apples.
Jesus drew a firm line in the sand when he said, “nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.” If we stopped right here, things would appear hopeless for the bad tree. You are what you are! If you have bad motivations, they produce bad character and your bad character will keep you behaving badly. We see this destructive cycle in the lives of people all around us. Is it possible for a person with bad character to change their fruit? Evidently not! But don’t give up hope. Jesus established another way.
Tree changing. Jesus revisits the tree metaphor a few chapters later in the book of Matthew and reveals a greater and incredibly liberating truth about human nature: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit” (Matthew 12:33).
“Make the tree.” What a concept! “Tree making” introduces an entirely new approach to personal growth. If you can’t change your fruit, then change your tree! Having a “good tree” means that you will not have to worry about bad fruit. Good trees naturally produce good fruit. In this verse Jesus introduces the possibility for radical, transformational change. It begins on the inside and works its way outward into our relationships with our self and others.
Contrast this with every worldly method for self-improvement. They fixate on “fruit changing”—that is, changing your outward behaviors. The Creator calls this a colossal waste of time and energy. Transformation begins when we understand and obey the command, “Make the tree good . . . or make the tree bad.” Jesus leaves no room for any middle ground, or he would have said, “Make the tree better.”
The words make the tree good are some of the most hope-filled words in the Bible. The implications are mind-boggling! They mean that I can do far more than just change some of my behaviors. I can become an entirely new person! A thorn bush can be supernaturally transformed into an apple tree. Jesus did not come to give you a better life but to give you a new life. We will explore in great detail, at a later point, how a person can make their tree good. The possibilities for personal growth have now become endless.
Fruit inspections. Melissa was constantly bothered by the way her husband, Bob, acted. Everyone at church who was within earshot of Melissa knew all about her many grievances. Melissa disregarded the wise counsel of those around her and continued to unleash a daily tirade of brutal and degrading criticisms on her husband. Bob, who had a passive personality, eventually began to experience panic attacks. Melissa’s criticisms only increased in their severity. Then it all came to a sudden end. In a deep state of depression Bob shot himself at the age of twenty-eight. Melissa wept bitterly as I conducted the funeral. She served as an unforgettable reminder of how toxic we can be in our attempts to change the behaviors of others.
It is easy to get caught up with how people act, or what has been called “fruit inspecting.” The closer someone is to us, the more emotionally vested this activity becomes. When we see our spouse or our children acting in ways that trouble us, we feel a compelling urge to confront the behavior. Sometimes this is a healthy part of accountability. Often it is counterproductive meddling. We are kidding ourselves if we think that endlessly inspecting and chiding behaviors will bring about the kinds of changes we want to see. “Fruit fixation” is a failed path. You have Jesus’ Word on it.
Successful interventions. The way to constructively deal with those who are misbehaving or underperforming requires an entirely different tack. Anger is a natural reaction to the way some people act, but anger does not change lives. God has called us to move beyond anger in our relationships. Love has learned to pause and ask a deeply meaningful question: “Why are they doing that?” Outward actions are always symptoms of much deeper issues. If your child or spouse has any real hope to change and grow, it will require a treatment regimen that goes far deeper than addressing their visible behaviors. If you desire to be a helpful change agent, you will need to gain true insights into why people do what they do. Effective life coaching must always penetrate to the level of one’s motivations.
The same is true regarding our own behaviors. Personal growth begins when we ask a basic question about ourselves: “Why do I do what I do?” The answers to this question lead us down the only true path toward personal transformation.
Allen Ratta and Larry Osborne, Making Spiritual Progress: Building Your Life with Faith, Hope and Love (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014).