The following is an adaptation of the sermon ‘Character Development’ preached by Pastor Mike White on Sunday, 1/5/2014, at CityLight Church. To listen to the full podcast please click here: http://bit.ly/JGh36j
Character. This is a word of immense meaning. We are defined by our character. Good character can be an attribute that leads others to respect and revere us, and bad character can be a trait which condemns us. Google dictionary defines ‘character’ as ‘the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.’ The world – society at large – loves men and women of good character. The Bible describes how God loves men and women of good character. So how do we develop our character? How do we become the people God wants us to be?
The vast majority of Bible characters have some enormous fault – a gap of sin in an otherwise seamless patchwork of admirable traits. Noah was fond of stiff drinks (Gen 9:21), Abraham lied and said his wife was his sister (Gen 12, 20); and David was an adulterer and a murderer. Yet there are examples of men of incorruptible character in the Old Testament. Joseph was one of these men.
The Story of Joseph
Joseph was the son of Jacob, and one of only two sons born to Jacob by Rachel. Joseph was clearly Jacob’s favorite son, as evidenced by the fact that when Jacob returned after years of exile to finally meet his brother Esau face to face, he put Joseph and Rachel last (Gen 33:2) to try and guarantee their safety. Jacob even gave Joseph a tunic of many colors (Gen 37:3); that, coupled by Joseph’s innocent tendency to tell the people around him about dreams that he probably should have kept to himself, made his 11 bothers despise him. His brothers retaliated by throwing him into a pit and selling him to a band of Ishmaelite slaves.
Yet Joseph remained steadfast in his commitment to God throughout his imprisonment. He was sold to Potiphar, an officer and captain of the guard to the Egyptian Pharaoh. Potiphar recognized the favor and blessing that rested on Joseph because of his character and made him ‘overseer of his house and all that he had’ (Gen 39:5-9). Even after Potiphar’s wife threw herself at Joseph ‘day by day’ (Gen 39:10), Joseph refused to sin. Eventually, after a stint in prison and a series of dream interpretations, Pharaoh noticed how blessed Joseph was and made him master of his own house: “Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt.’ Then Pharaoh took his signet ring off his hand and put it on Joseph’s hand; and he clothed him in garments of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck” (Gen 41:41-42).
Joseph could have responded to his divine empowerment by becoming corrupt and immoral; and we, the readers, could not have faulted him for it because it would have demonstrated nothing more than the fact that he was human. Yet God kept Joseph untainted, and Joseph co-labored with God to maintain his character. He honored his brothers and his father and all their families, and never did wrong to a single man. He remains one of the few characters in the Bible who never slipped up.
So what can we learn about character development from Joseph? The Bible doesn’t go into detail to explain how Joseph was raised, and what disciplines he practiced to become such a solid man of God. We can see, however, that the obvious constant in his life is adversity. Joseph had to experience trial and tribulation – resistance – in order to grow. Whenever we find ourselves in less-than-desirable circumstances, we would do well to remember that those situations, while often unintentional and sometimes painful, are the ones which shape us the most. This is not to say, however, that we should seek out trying circumstances; but rather that we should prepare to learn and grow from them as they arise.
How can we, as Christians, intentionally work to develop our own character? We can start by practicing certain essential disciplines. Reading and prayer should always top this list. Many Christians read works by prominent Christian authors, making the unstated supposition that such reading is just as productive as Bible reading; this, however, is not the case. There is nothing that can substitute for meditating on God’s Word, both written and spoken, day and night (Ps 1:2, Josh 1:8). When it comes to reading and praying, we often overlook the simple reality that in order to listen we have to keep quiet and sit still.
We can also celebrate success and learn to rest. We spend our entire lives struggling and striving to achieve: if we are Christian, our achievements are for God; if we are not, our achievements are for ourselves. When we accomplish something important, we must remember to take time and celebrate it, because it is that action that will motivate us to achieve again. What’s more, we must learn to rest, even as we are in the middle of a process and have yet to achieve success. Biblical rest is not defined by immobility; it is defined by our ability to trust God in every situation, regardless of the apparent outcome.
Community is of the utmost importance, and certainly should not be overlooked when we speak of developing character. Prov 11:14 reminds us that ‘In the multitude of counselors there is safety.’ We are not meant to live life alone; it was for this reason that God originally insisted on the creation of a suitable helper for Adam in the Garden of Eden (Gen 1:18). Prov 27:17 encourages us that ‘as iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.’ God puts people in our lives so that He can get counsel to us; and sometimes even so that he can get financial and material blessing to us. The end result He intends is that our countenance would be ‘sharpened’ (in other words, put a smile on your face).
There is a recent phenomenon that appears to be getting stronger which I have unlovingly termed ‘Church ADHD.’ Now I understand that New York City is a transient place, and I probably shouldn’t be surprised as a pastor that we see so many people come and go in our church community. There is, however, tremendous value in sitting still. Many Christians suffer from the ‘attention deficit’ component of Church ADHD: they come and sit and feign listening week after week, while not really learning because they fail to internalize the Word and let it flow out into their lives during the rest of the week. Many others suffer from the ‘hyperactivity disorder’ component of Church ADHD: they anxiously hop from church to church until they have tried available options, inevitably settling on the flawed conclusion that they ‘can’t find a good church.’ You can always find plenty of good churches; the real question is, can you become a good churchgoer? When it comes to relationships, fear of commitment is something most of us outgrow. Yet when it comes to church membership, that fear is unfortunately alive and well.
Finally, where is your focus? Cal Pierce, the Director of the International Association of Healing Rooms uses a phrase of which I have become particularly fond: ‘What you face is what you embrace.’ Although simple on the surface (and a little corny), there is incredible truth to it. Do you get pleasure from spending time with God? Does prayer make you joyful? Do you look forward to the daily activities that allow you to communicate with your Creator, or have they become empty disciplines? David models what it looks like to delight in the law of the Lord (Ps 1:2). Do you follow his example? Our relationship with God is designed to be an all-consuming fire; we should do everything we can to feed that fire and avoid extinguishing it.
Who Is Responsible for Character Development?
Have you ever read a book that was made into a movie? Sometimes – despite the visual stimulation and relative lack of effort that come with films – the book can be so much better. Why is that? It’s not the setting, and it’s not the action. It’s the character development. Watching heroes and heroines grow and developed as they rub up against the outside world keeps us engaged and excited. We saw this earlier as Joseph developed from an innocent teenager into the de-facto ruler of Egypt. When the main character of a story makes choices we don’t want him to make, we cringe; when she becomes a model citizen, we delight.
But when we read a book, who is it who shapes the personality of the characters in any story? The author, of course. It would be utterly ridiculous for any of us to read a book and expect a character to take full responsibility for his or her development, knowing full well that the author is the brains of the operation, and the only person truly able to change any character in the narrative. Why is it then, that so many of us take character development into our own hands on a daily basis? God is the Creator of the universe. Jesus Christ is the “author and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:1-2). So why do we try and change ourselves?
Let God Change You
So often, we try and take the reins into our own hands and change ourselves. We make resolutions, insist that we’ve learned from our mistakes, and try to be better; and we inevitably come up short, and end up back where we started (or even worse off)! When we try and change ourselves, we are players in a losing game. When we try and change ourselves, we are attempting to do something that cannot be done. We must let God change us through the indwelling presence and power of His Holy Spirit.
Jesus Christ did not come to abolish the Law; He came to fulfill it (Matt 5:17). But even Jesus Christ was empowered by the Holy Spirit for His earthly ministry. Who do we, as finicky human beings, think we are to try and change without His help? We need the Holy Spirit to change. The Law – the picture of the change we wanted to achieve but could not – only existed to prove that we need a Savior. Now Jesus Christ has become the picture of the change we must desire; and the Bible promises us that the Holy Spirit will make us more like Him as we behold Him (2 Cor 3:18)!
In Mark 10, Jesus asks a simple question on two separate occasions: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:36, 51). We serve a God who loves us. We serve a God who takes pleasure in the prosperity of His servant (Ps 35:27)! We serve a God who wants to give us everything we ask – provided that everything we ask is everything He Is (1 John 5:14-15). So, what do you need? In His earthly ministry, Jesus satisfied requests that spanned from simple to complex. People asked for faith (Luke 17:5), healing (Matt 8:3), and even help with doubt and unbelief (Mark 9:24). Have you asked for what you need? Have you asked for His help in making you the person God wants you to be?
Implicit in allowing God to change us is the commitment to resist change forced on us by people around us. There are many people you will encounter in life who are not concerned with you or your destiny, but only their own. If you pay attention, you will notice that almost everyone who gives you advice models their advice after their own life choices. Who are you trusting in for advice? Are they hearing from God and discerning His Will for your life? Or are they just encouraging you to make the same choices they made in a similar situation so your choice can be a confirmation that they made the right choice years ago? Do not let other people confirm their own life choices through your decisions.
God Knows How the Story Ends
At this point, a very logical question should enter your mind: ‘Why doesn’t God just change me into the person He wants me to be right now? Why wait? Wouldn’t that save us both a lot of trouble?’ God will never ‘just change’ you if you are not willing to be changed. He can’t. It would violate our free will. So why did God give us free will if He knew a consequence of that choice would be disobedience? In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis responds:
“Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata–of creatures that worked like machines–would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.”
Our choice to pursue God – to have our character developed – has to be voluntary, or else it cannot be love. What child, having been imprisoned for his entire life by his parent, could honestly claim to have been loved? What onlooker, having heard his story, would ever agree? Free will is necessary if we are to choose to love God.
The Bible tells us to enjoy the journey we call life, and that enjoyment can only start with the realization that life is a journey! Any trip worth taking takes time. Put your trust in Jesus Christ, and let God develop you into the man or woman He wants you to be.
The above is an adaptation of the sermon ‘Character Development’ preached by Pastor Mike White on Sunday, 1/5/2014, at CityLight Church. To listen to the full podcast please click here: http://bit.ly/JGh36j