Developing Character

Romans 12: 3-11

Go to Amazon. com and type in the word, Purpose, and you will encounter not only The Purpose Driven Life which has sold three million or more, but also The Pursuit of Passionate Purpose and The On-Purpose Person and In Pursuit of Purpose and The Noble Purpose and 6,862 other such titles. All of which says to me that a sense of purpose is in short supply out there.

Students are unable to engage in their studies because they have no sense of purpose. A young woman comes to talk after her second year of college. She had done beautifully until this point in time. Now the drive has gone out of her. “I just don’t know what I want to do with my life.” Did you know that fifty percent of the young people who enter college, never graduate?

A middle-age man says his job bores him. The mother with grown children thinks she needs a job. The retired fellow finishes five years of projects in one year and wonders where to go from there. For so many in our time life seems aimless, empty, without direction.

What do people live for? There is probably a greater smorgasbord of possibilities today than there has ever been. For the young it is not only studies but even more the myriad of extra-cirricular activities offered, all the way from music, computers, Latin club, to athletics. And out beyond the learning years it comes down to the search for a spouse and family and home and successful career. As the years roll on good health becomes more important, and a circle of friends, and travel and a place in the sun. In all these we invest our days.

But all this seems not enough. Do all these externals, these activities, these things truly sustain us in the long run? If so, why aren’t we as a people happier in these relatively prosperous times? Why does the good marriage seem so difficult for so many? Why are we so troubled about our children? Why the restlessness of many in their career? Why the hungry hunt for diversion, for relief?

Psychologists and social commentators suggest that increasingly we live in a culture focused on what some of them call the cult of selfism. In an important little volume entitled Psychology as Religion, The Cult of Self Worship, Paul Vitz, Professor of Psychology at New York University, argues that under the guise of a therapeutic mentality a widespread set of assumptions has taken over many minds. The assumption that everyone has a right to happiness and ought to be happy. The assumption that all we need is to develop a better self-image, self-esteem. The assumption that therapies, or pharmocologies, or spiritualities can do it for us. And all this has led growing numbers to preocupation with wants and needs as priorities in life over against objective reality, the demands of religion or the needs of others. Paul Vitz, a university psychologist, identifies this as a pervasive and growing idolatry of the self.

He quotes other researchers and colleagues. For example, a research psychologist by the name of Philip Cushman observes that a new American self, emerging since World War II, has a deep need to spend money and indulge impulses. An earlier self was much more focused on developing a moral and religious character, while the more recent self has been concerned with a secular personality, more other-directed and less self-reliant, inner directed. The earlier more traditional self was rooted in interpersonal relationships, anchored in an extended family, in neighborhood and small town communities and in religious faith.

Again, Dr. Herbert Hendin in a study of several hundred elite college-age young people, found among them a culture marked by a self-interest and egocentrism that increasingly reduced all relations to the question: What am I getting out of it? Society’s fascination with self-aggrandizement makes many young people judge all relationships in terms of winning and losing points.” In his interviews religion appeared not to be a major concern.

With this understanding of the individual as largely an autonomous center of wants and needs, there has come along at the same time a commercial world that is more than happy to appeal to these wants and needs, this self-centeredness.

Dr. Vitz, writes: “Some years ago, as I was flying to another city, the self-based advertising struck me as especially frequent and odious. When I arrived at the check-in counter, I saw fliers and posters put out by the airline I was taking that assured me: ‘You are the boss, you are the boss!’ Arriving at my destination, I picked up my bag next to an auto rental counter with posters that boldly stated: ’Let us put you in the driver’s seat!’ As I left the airport, at a nearby intersection a fast-food restaurant was festooned with banners announcing ‘Have it your way!’ It occurred to me at that moment that self-theory could be summarized as the Burger King theory of personality.”

Now there is little question that this all is happening more by cultural drift rather than diabolical design. But it does represent a powerful seductive perspective and a pervasive attitude that runs counter to Christianity. Indeed in all traditional religion, the need to constrain individual desire and reign in the impulses of the self are seen at the center of self-understanding and the way to any kind of happiness and fulfillment.

Enter the world of the Bible and what do you hear? You hear a word not about us, about our psyche, but about the grace of God, a love that comes to every human soul unconditionally even though undeserved. And to what end? Not to make us comfortable with ourselves, but to liberate us from ourselves toward growth into what God wants of us, live by his will and purpose. He who puts self behind, says Jesus, finds life. Your major project in life, according to Jesus, is building a life for God. He who hears and does these words of mine is like a man who builds— builds what? A certain kind of spirit and character, the one we see in Jesus.

When you turn to the Bible with the question, “What does my life mean?” it is like entering a different world, the world of character and morality, the world of care about others as human beings and neighbors.

Paul begins the 12th chapter of his letter to Christian friends in Rome with high words about search for the Will of God. But then he goes on to talk about what? Where does he put the focus when it comes to the question, “What shall I live for?” Again and again, Paul puts the focus in life on the struggle to become a certain kind of person. He puts it on the effort to be good, to loathe evil, to show respect and affection, to be sincere, and so to serve God. The meaning of our days here is the never ending struggle to create the kind of person God wants us to be. It is in this sense that we are all artists and our art is a life well-lived for him.

That’s the challenge that an old faith puts in front of us. The challenge to find our ultimate purpose in the kind of person we are making of ourselves, no matter the other fine opportunities that over the course of the years fall our way and then with time fall away. Life for God and before Him is our ultimate goal and it is finally a work always in progress. And as we give ourselves to this project, we begin bit by bit to experience some of life’s richest satisfactions. As Dante put it so long ago, “In his Will is our peace.” Not in career, not even in the dear loves of life, not in the great crusades, rather in conformity to His will.

Parenthetically, this goes far beyond the concern about our moral flabbiness as a people that we read about daily. That is a concern, of course, the moral coarseness of much of modern life. But that concern is often superficial, a concern only that people play by the rules as they go about their business as usual. In this old faith, morality in its richest and most meaningful sense is more than a matter of rules, it is the whole ball game. To grow to be good people is the goal.

And such a goal, however individual a challenge, does have social consequences, tremendous social consequences. For finally, not only our own personal peace and satisfaction, but everything from our legal system to our market economy, to the health of both individuals and families, depends upon the presence of a significant number of good people, good in the sense that they are growing in both character and caring, integrity and involvement.

Max Stackhouse of Princeton points out that there are two key theological convictions that support democratic prospects: first that humans are made in the image of God, and second, that God calls each person to live a godly life that is manifest in the development of excellence in all areas of worldly life. But what is the major social problem in many countries today? The loss of an ethic of responsibility, indeed righteousness, among the masses. A nation cannot be great unless its people are good.

Indeed, the reason the Christian church grew in its first centuries was not because of charismatic preachers or powerful political allies. It grew because of the quality of the lives of the average believers. Rodney Stark is professor of sociology at Baylor University. In a study entitled The Rise of Christianity, he describes the almost miraculous growth of Christianity in those early years, from about 1,000 adherents in the year 40 AD to over 6 million before it became the official religion of the Empire. And why did it grow? Because of the quality of person exhibited by the Christian community, their honesty and integrity, their willingness to risk themselves in caring not only for their own but for the larger community. Their manner of life stood in such stark contrast to that of the pagans.

And yet the findings in numerous national polls by the Gallup Organization and The Barna Group are simply shocking laments theologian Michael Horton. Gallup and Barna hand us survey after survey demonstrating that Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered and sexually immoral as the world in general. Break up of marriage is more common among “born again Christians” than in the general population. White evangelicals are the people most likely to be racist.

So the ministry of Christians to the world is to be the church, to be people who clearly live the affirmation and constraints of their faith, whatever the cost, whatever the inconvenience to the imperial self. What we are about in our life together, as adults and children, is the formation in us of character and caring. Someone has written, “Character counts. More than any other factor, it determines our reaction to adversity, temptation, sorrow and approaching death. In every worthwhile aim, it determines our success. It shapes our influence over others; it decides our destiny. It, and not happiness, is the true end of life. It is the only possession truly our own, the only form of riches immune from the acids of misfortune, the only treasure that cannot corrupt the owner, the only wealth we take with us when we die.”

Another important dimension of the character that constitutes the meaning of our days here is the disciplined contribution of our gifts. Here again this old word is counter-cultural. We think we know about the important gifts and who has them. The gift of high IQ, the gift of artistic or athletic ability, the gift of drive and ambition, the gift of persuasion and popularity, the gifts we think make a difference.

Not so with this old story. The gifts he recites are quite surprising and egalitarian. The gift of inspiring others. The gift of administration. The gift of teaching. The gift of good counsel. The gift of generosity. Ever think of that as a gift? The gift of helping others in distress. All examples of gifts of character and personality. And everyone has his or her share; we all have our unique and important combination which is absolutely indispensable to the whole. What a different way of picturing human community than the current picture, where wealth and celebrity, power and charisma are presumed to shape the future.

But they do not. The future will be shaped not in Washington or Wall Street, but it will be shaped by followers of Jesus who give themselves and their lives to the learning and spirit and discipline that can inch the world slowly but surely toward another Kingdom and that can grant the peace and satisfaction of a life lived for its King.

One of my favorite pictures of a life well-lived, a life of character, a life of dedication to God and neighbor beyond the self, is seen in a eulogy written many years ago by William Allen White, the great Kansas editor. He wrote it upon the passing of an old friend, “The other day in Emporia, the longest funeral procession that has formed in ten years followed John Jones three long miles in the hot July sun out to dry Creek Cemetery…The reason so many people lined up behind the hearse that held the kind old man’s mortality was simple; they loved him. He devoted his life to people. In a very simple way without money or power, he gave of the gentleness of his heart to all around him. We are apt to say that money talks, but it speaks a broken, poverty-stricken language. Hearts talk better, clearer, and with a wider intelligence. This old man with the soft voice and the kindly manners knew the language of the heart and he spoke it where it would give zest to joy. He worked manfully and with a will in his section of the vineyard and against odds and discouragements, he won — time and again. He was infinitely patient and brave. He held a simple, old-fashioned faith in God and his lovingkindness. When others gave money — which was of their store —he gave prayers and hard work and an inspiring courage. He helped. In his sphere he was a power. And so when he lay down to sleep, hundreds of friends trudged out to bid him good-by with moist eyes and with cramped throats to wish him slumber.”

But John Jones was not born that way. Purpose for your life? The purpose of goodness and of giving. It will grant you great joy along the way and will go with you all the way. With unflagging zeal, aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.