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Character is Different Than We Think

One of my mentors says: “80% of life is character development.” Most of us want it the other way. We want our first 20 years to be about ‘growing up’ and the rest of life to be about successful leadership, disciple making, movement building, and world changing. We think that we can master the character stuff by the end of college, and then take on the world.

Then, we find ourselves in our 30s learning all over again what it means to be humble, when our dreams don’t come to fruition and we fail at changing the world. In our 40s, when our work becomes difficult and monotonous, we have to learn afresh what faithfulness means. The older we get, the more we see of our need to learn the basics: humility, self-control, perseverance,  love, wisdom, generosity. Life teaches us we know nothing about those things. Hardships remind us we don’t have life figured out.

We are faced with two choices: proceed unchanged or press into the character journey. You know what not changing looks like, but what about character change? In the character journey we re-learn the gospel. We cling to God. We realize that God is working all things together for our good. It just doesn’t look like the good we want; it looks even better: conformity into the image of the Son (Romans 8:28-29). In the midst of the struggles, God has been transforming our character as much as he has been using us to transform the world. We want God to work through us, but he is doing just as much work in us.

Character is Different Than We Think.

Often we get into the mindset that we are transforming ourselves at one thing or level at a time. For example we might think: first we master humility , then we start working on generosity, then we pursue faithfulness, all the while getting closer to the ‘goal.’ Essentially, we think we are moving up the character ladder. However, the character journey is actual a constant process. Christ not only redeems us, giving the status of righteousness, but also begins to transform our core. It is more like a path we walk with him than a ladder we climb to be like him. Each day we are learning many new things about who we are in Christ and how to live and we are learning old things all over again. Each day we realize that Christ has changed who we are, and is changing how we live. His divine power is giving us everything we need for a godly life. These qualities are ours and are increasing.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:3-8

The character journey is like climbing a mountain, painting a picture, or earning a college degree. It not only requires process, it is process.

Who You Are And How You Live

Character is the collision of who you are and how you live. There is an unmistakable connection to what we believe and what we do, and who we are and how we act. Everyone has character. Most of us arrive at a personal identity and a personal way of life opposed to and absent from Christ. We live out of a false perception identity based on who our parents say we are, what our teachers, peers, or even culture says we are. We are told we are sexual beings who’s urges must be satisfied, and so we act on those. We are told we are the best and most important being in the world. Therefore, look out for #1, and we do just that. We may even base our personal identity and way of life on ‘churchy’ things. For example, we are good people, raised in a good home, who know the truth, so we should read our Bibles, pray, tell the truth, tithe, and say hello to strangers. We begin with a false understanding of who we are and move forward with wrong living and deceived hearts. Mostly our deceit is in our thinking we can decide what is good and right for ourselves. That we, on our own, are living an abundant and good life. When we fall on our faces, we simply muster up enough strength, or attempt to change our circumstances enough, to change ourselves.

Personally, I think of myself as a missional expert. “I know how to start and lead missional communities and can do it better than anyone,” I say to my deceived self. This belief leads to a new legalism instead of new character. It is a legalism or self-justification around inviting neighbors to dinner, doing something every night with community, serving every Saturday, throwing a party every holiday, and sharing the gospel not out of love and belief but out of a duty to accomplish the mission. This is not the picture of godly living or transformed character we found in 2 Peter. This is a lie-filled identity and false actions. I’m not becoming more like Christ, I’m just becoming more exhausted.

Character transormation is actually found in a life lived close to God. It is in a God informed identity that our core is transformed, conformed, renewed, and recreated into his image. Character change is a redoing and repairing of a destruction from long ago. When Adam sinned, our relationship was broken with God. We, humanity, stopped walking with God. In fact, we rejected God. When we sin, we are acting different from God: distinctively selfish and prideful. The character journey is where Christ decisively transforms us into selfless and humble humans in relationship with God and others. God conforms us into his image. New identity and new way to live. This is exactly what Peter is talking about in his letter:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. – 1 Peter 2:9-12

God has made us a people, a holy, special, chosen, and mercy received people. I am not a missional expert, I’m God’s special possession. How much better is that! It is with this identity that we are called to abstain and live good lives. In the end, as Peter writes, the character journey isn’t even about you. It is not for the sake of improved leadership, or for the sake of success in the Kingdom, it is for Christ’s sake. It is Christ’s work in us. It is for his glory. 

What sort of “lessons” will be learned on the Character Journey?

What can you expect from embracing a life of change not only in who you are but how you live?

  • You can trust that God is good and nothing but pure joy exists in that trust. You see his good character everywhere. You trust he is concerned for you. You trust he is good at being in control. 
  • Persistence is possible because of God’s faithfulness. We continue down difficult paths because all we see is how abundantly gracious God is every morning and evening.
  • Weakness is strength. You will depend on God for everything. You will rely on the Spirit for the words to pray and preach. Rely on God to counsel the messy and be a husband or wife. You will come to a place where you regularly pray: “I don’t know how and I know I can’t. God empower me and walk with me. Please give me grace to do this thing beyond me.”
  • Forgiveness will be tasted and extended. You will grow to know the depths of your sin and the heights of the cross. You will look forward to opportunities to extend forgiveness to those who wrong you. When folks rebuke you and expose your sin, you will be neither offensive or defensive
  • Wisdom doesn’t look like high GPAs. It looks like studying the scriptures with an intent on living them and applying it to life. 
  • Humility isn’t thinking bad about yourself or putting yourself down in front of others. Humility is viewing God rightly and taking your proper position as his child, his beloved, and his creation.
  • Faith is obedience. Obedience is Faith. You will realize that obedience doesn’t come from getting the write Bible reading app, or setting enough reminders in your phone. It doesn’t even come from making lists or accountability partners. Obedience is rooted faith. When we believe the gospel, that we were dead but raised to life by the person&work of Jesus, we read the Bible because it is our story. When we believe the gospel, we don’t need reminders to pray, we know we can’t survive without God’s presence. We share the gospel in obedience because we believe it. We live on mission because we are recipients of the mission’s message of grace.

Brad Watson serves as a pastor of Bread&Wine Communities in Portland, Oregon. He also works as the director of GospelCenteredDiscipleship.com. Brad is the co-author of Raised? Doubting the Resurrection. His greatest passion is to encourage and equip leaders for the mission of making disciples. He is Mirela’s husband and Norah’s dad. Twitter: @BradsStories.

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