No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit.1
Jesus talked about the difference between good and bad people with directness and clarity we don’t often hear repeated. He certainly never claimed we could be perfect. He died, willingly, knowing that was the depth of our need for God’s help. But at the same time, Jesus was very clear about standards of behaviour that we could follow, despite our imperfect ethics. He continually reinforced how critical it was for us to follow those standards, for the sake of others. Comparing people to good and bad trees, he said:
Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.2
The Psalms agree with this standard of goodness. It’s not about being perfect. Instead, they celebrate the sincere pursuit of right behaviour, including in our responses to God.
The author of Psalm 1 believed we could make good or bad choices, that we didn’t have to act like wicked people. We could be different, and better off for it:
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,3
Good people hold honest views of themselves
In the Psalms, and elsewhere in the Old Testament, it is clear that a good person still needed to have a relationship with God that acknowledged their sinfulness. They still needed to offer the sacrifices for sin, and even the best person did not approach anything like God’s goodness. Good people held honest views of themselves, including their need for God’s grace. Those basic principles didn’t change in the New Testament. The Apostle John made it clear, again, no one is perfect:
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.4
But John also said, just a paragraph or two later, that we could get some things right:
Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person.5
John sounds like he’s describing someone who has good character and is aware of their need to grow. That’s a pretty healthy person to be around.
After his catastrophic moral failure in the rape of Bathsheeba, the murder of Uriah, and coercion of those under his command, David wrote:
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.6
If it’s true this psalm was written by David,7 his horror at the harm he had done shows much-needed humility and sorrow.
Abusers duck and weave
The story of Saul lying to Samuel gives us a classic example of an abuser avoiding blame. When he kept the plunder from attacking the Amalekites, he:
- Was warm and friendly to Samuel while lying to him8
- Shifted the blame to his men, but spiritualised their actions, like, “If anyone was bad, it was them. But actually they weren’t bad either.”9
- Denied his disobedience and tried to gaslight10 Samuel about what the original instructions had been11
- Repeated his blame-shifting and spiritualisation12
- Claimed he had only sinned because he was afraid of his men13
- Tried to physically restrain Samuel from leaving, tearing his clothes14
- Said he had sinned but begged Samuel to help him save face15
If you have spent time around abusive people, you might be very familiar with non-apologies, denial, blame-shifting, and gaslighting.
It’s clear in the Old Testament that a wicked person could make the same sacrifices as someone good-hearted and still be out of favour with God. Cain, for example, offered a sacrifice to God, but God was not pleased with the state of his heart.16 Presumably, Hophni and Phinehas made sacrifices for their own sin, yet the Bible is clear they did not know God and came under his judgement.17
In the New Testament, we don’t have the overt outward show of the sacrificial system to go by, but in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, it seems reasonable to assume they were members of the church and self-identifying as Christians. Yet they were condemned. Peter’s words to Ananias are interesting. He said:
“How is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit?”18
Again, both the state of a person’s heart and their behaviour matter.
This is about good character, not salvation
If it’s not already clear, I’m not coming from a universalist19 point of view. Our response to God matters. Neither do I believe there is any standard of goodness human beings can reach that is enough to gain salvation by our merit. So, if this talk about goodness isn’t about our salvation, why does it even matter?
It matters because people matter. They matter now, while we are still alive. All of the 10 commandments20 are about relationships. Then, when Jesus summarised the Law and the Prophets, both commandments were, again, about relationships.21 The practice of love towards God and other human beings is important in itself.
It’s interesting that Jesus said the command to love our neighbours is like the command to love God. He might have meant that in a number of ways, but it does remind me that our neighbours are made in God’s image. Just like us, he has given them great worth, and when we mistreat people whom God has created with such love and care it reflects on our own relationship with God.
No good tree bears bad fruit
We will have more of a look at what Jesus said about building a strong foundation, and the way that’s described in Psalm 1, but there is some great news here. God created us in his image, and it makes up the core of who we are. Sometimes it takes time to sift through the mess, looking for the part of us that aligns with God’s character. Other times it takes just a moment, and the path of love or some other guiding ethic is clear.
Tuning into that guidance develops strength and resilience. It shows in our character. Then, even if an abuser has attacked our sense of self, one thing we can know for sure is when we practice love towards others, that’s really us. Good character is a natural outcome of this kind of investment in reflection and practice, and we don’t have to be perfect to make a difference.
Meanwhile, we can use the test of good and bad fruit to guide our warning flags. Even if a person uses spiritual language, goes to church, or claims to be a Christian, if they are practising harmful behaviour, that’s an orange or red flag, and we can know to be on our guard. No good tree bears bad fruit. Cain, Hophni, Phinehas, Saul, Ananias, Sapphira, and many others all said and did things that looked spiritual, but they were not worthy of trust.
Steve WadeJesus was very clear about standards of behaviour that we could follow, despite our imperfect ethics. Click To Tweet
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- Luke 6:43
- Luke 6:44-45
- Psalm 1:1
- 1 John 1:8
- 1 John 2:4
- Psalm 51:16-17
- Psalm titles are not generally seen as part of the original text, and there are varying opinions about their accuracy
- 1 Samuel 15:13
- 1 Samuel 15:15
- Gaslighting: the action of tricking or controlling someone by making them believe things that are not true, especially by suggesting that they may be mentally ill. Cambridge Dictionary
- 1 Samuel 15:20
- 1 Samuel 15:21
- 1 Samuel 15:24-25
- 1 Samuel 15:27
- 1 Samuel 15:30
- Genesis 4:1-16
- 1 Samuel 2:12
- Acts 5:3
- Universalism: a theological doctrine that all human beings will eventually be saved. Merriam Webster Dictionary
- Exodus 20:1-17
- Matthew 22:35-40. Love for God: Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Love for others: Leviticus 19:18