Character: Who you are when everything is on the line

On Character

By Jim Barringer
Christian Living - Faith Readers

While at work the other day, my manager drew my attention to a t-shirt worn by a woman who had just finished playing golf. The shirt read, "You never know a woman till you meet her in court."

It got me to thinking about the importance of character, a topic that my pastor, Robert Gordon, has been preaching on lately as well. I've heard character defined as "who you are when no one is looking," but I think a better definition - as the woman's shirt indicates - might be "who you are when everything is on the line."

Let me give a few other examples. I would say that you never know a politician until he's about to lose an election. Is he going to start badmouthing his opponent, or rig the election, or take it like a man? You never know a pastor until you see how he handles a church split or having a major leader depart. Does he get manipulative and controlling, putting guilt trips on people to stay and keep serving, or does he trust in God's providence? I could go on, but you get the picture.

If character is who we are when everything else is on the line, then it's also a good measure of how close we are to truly giving God control of everything in our lives. You probably know as well as I do that times of tension and uncertainty are when people start trying to take matters into their own hands. Show me the person who can fight that instinct when all the chips are down, and I'll show you a person who really, really trusts God to take care of things.

Robert preached on Friday from 2 Peter 1. Here are a few verses, starting with verse 5: "For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ."

I see three major things worth observing about character.

1. It is possible to have faith that accomplishes nothing. Peter warns about the possibility of "being ineffective and unproductive," and he says that this is a very distinct possibility for the person who does not have the qualities he lists as part of their character. Faith that doesn't have legs, says James 2, is no faith at all.

2. Peter says we need to "add" these things "to your faith." If we need to add them, that means we don't start with them. No one rolls into the world good, or knowledgeable, or self-controlled, or patient, or godly, or kind, or loving - our inability to be those things is the whole reason we fall into sin and require salvation. Once we accept God's salvation through our faith, we find ourselves in the position of having to add things to faith, which means developing our character, in order to undo the taint of sin and be the person that God always meant for us to be.

3. If we need to add these behaviors to our character, they need to be replacing other, less desirable behaviors. We cannot be simultaneously self-controlled and impulsive; we have to be either one or the other.

When we think about who we were before we were saved, it kind of makes sense that our personalities and character would require such a total overhaul. Nobody in the history of the world has arrived at godliness or unconditional love by accident. Those things run contrary to the way the fallen world, and the fallen people within it, operate. We come into the world conditioned to think of ourselves first, to take control of our own destinies and situations, and we retain that me-first, "I can do it myself" instinct when we run into difficulties in life. That's why I believe you can tell what a person is truly made of based on how they handle situations that tempt that desire to take charge.

You will notice that the absolute apex of good character, according to Peter, is love. Unconditional love is quite possibly the most difficult thing in all of humanity, because it is so utterly contrary to that self-preservation instinct I'm talking about. C.S. Lewis said, "Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal." A person who lives their entire life in mortal fear of emotional pain will be utterly unable to open their heart enough to extend love, because everyone who loves will end up feeling pain. God is no exception to this. He speaks repeatedly in the Old Testament about the agony he felt when his people rejected him. We caused him the same kind of pain when he took the gift of life that he gave us, took the freedom he afforded us, and promptly set about ruining our lives through rebellion and selfishness. How thankful we should be that God did not allow fear of pain to stop him from showing us unconditional love!

Why does God demand that we improve our character before he gives us his best blessings? Well, you wouldn't give a seven-year-old the keys to a new Porsche, would you? A seven-year-old simply isn't ready for that kind of blessing. Similarly, there are many opportunities that God waits to give us until our character is more capable of handling it. Yet he does not simply give us the command, "Improve your character," and then sit back in a lawn chair sipping lemonade till we catch up with him. His Holy Spirit lives in us, supervising the transformation, "giving us the desire and ability to do what pleases God" (Philippians 2). He is right here with us, living in us, eagerly awaiting the day when he can shower his very best on us. He promises us that he will continue this process until we are complete in Christ (also Philippians 2), and we know because of God's character that he is always trustworthy.

So as we consider character, let us take heed of what Peter wrote two thousand years ago, which is still as true today as when it was written. Let our character be consistent - let the person we are when everything is on the line match the person we are the rest of the time. Let us begin with faith, the gift that God has given us, and make every effort to add to it until we have a character that enables us to receive the best of God's blessings for us.

Jim Barringer is a 26-year-old writer, musician, teacher, and traveler, currently finishing a master's degree from Southwestern Seminary. More of his work can be found at myspace.com/mygodisalive. This work may be reprinted for any purpose so long as this bio and statement of copyright is included.