Christian Character: How?
By The Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, March 8, 2020
Reading: 2 Peter 1:3-11
Welcome back to all of you for part two of a two-part series of teaching sermons that I began last Sunday, to kick off the season of Lent, which of course is a time of introspection, a time of reflecting on our lives and on our relationship with God. I don't know if you're aware that there are different “styles” of sermons but I'm doing a teaching sermon these two weeks for Lent, so it might feel a little bit like you're in a classroom. If you've been in any of the classes that I've taught like, Hearing God or the Alpha Course you're probably more familiar with me speaking to you in this style.
The topic for these two weeks is our character as Christians. Last week we talked about why our character is important as Christians, and this week I'm looking more at how we grow our characters. We want our characters to grow over time, to be become more like Jesus and that's what this reading from 2 Peter is about. I encourage you to take your bulletins home with you and read through it. It's really a wonderful passage.
As Christians, our character is something that we should be intentionally thinking about and working on, asking ourselves if we are as humble and as loving as Christ was. We ask ourselves these questions so that we can grow, so that we can, as the scripture said, be fruitful in our lives: be successful, live our best lives (lives of godliness and holiness).
Personally, the more I mature in my faith the more aware I become of the deficiencies in my own character. I don't mean this in a way that makes me hate myself. It's not in self-loathing. Because when God works on our characters and shows us the things that we need to change or sins that we may need to confess, He does so in such a gentle and loving way. It's like a parent who is encouraging their child to grow. You never berate the child; you encourage them to grow. God is like that. God will correct us. God will tell us where we need to grow. God will never beat us up over our shortcomings, so we shouldn't beat ourselves up either. We should be aware, we should grow, but not in a condemning kind of way.
It is God's desire for us that we should grow in our faith and that our character should develop over time, that we should become more like Christ. You've heard the saying that God accepts us as we are, and that's true. Whenever we come to Christ, whenever we come to God, we are accepted and loved as we are. But the saying continues: “God accepts us the way we are, but loves us too much to leave us as we are.” God changes us as we grow in our relationship. It's the same thing again with parenting. You love your toddler, but you don't want that toddler to remain a toddler. You want them to mature. You want them to grow and you want to help them to do that.
God works in our lives in this process that we talked about last week called sanctification, or from the Latin words sanctus ficare, to make holy. That doesn't mean perfect. And that doesn't mean holier than thou. Sanctification does not mean sanctimonious. It means a process of making us more like Jesus Christ.
This is not something that happens primarily through our own power. It's very difficult for us to change ourselves. I don't know if you've had that experience of wanting to change something, and you try and somehow you just keep falling back into the same old pattern. It's something that we need God's power and love to do.
In this scripture, the Apostle Peter says in verse 3 and 4, “God's divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by our own glory and goodness. Thus, He has given us through these things His precious and very great promises so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust and may become participants of the divine nature.”
That's God's will for us: to become participants in God's divine nature. So, how does God do this? That's the topic this week. How does this happen? For better or for worse - if I were going to sum it up in one sentence - our characters most often grow in uncomfortable situations. It's when we go out of our comfort zone, just like in any area of our lives. We rarely grow when things are easy and when things are comfortable right? We learn new skills by trying something a little bit harder. We strengthen our muscles by lifting heavier weights. When I'm training for a race, if I want to get better, I increase my distance or speed. I push myself out of that comfort zone. This is how our character growth happens too.
There are three different things that I want to highlight about those uncomfortable situations where our character grows, and we have an opportunity to learn about ourselves and about God. The first is our day-to-day lives; those daily pressures; those small irritations in our daily lives that can be a means for us to develop our character. For example, when you're waiting in a lineup and it's taking a long time or when you're in a waiting room longer than you feel you should have to be, do you become irritated? Or do you see this as an opportunity to exercise patience and kindness? Do you snap at the employee? Maybe this is an opportunity to try to develop compassion and kindness, patience and peace. These kinds of daily irritations are opportunities for us.
For me it's traffic. I don't know what happens to me when I get into a car, but I have this opportunity then to ask myself, what's going on here? Why do I let the road rage take hold of me? It's an opportunity to think about that. I can pray, “Lord, give me patience.” But I want it right now. You've probably all heard that joke about “Lord give me patience and I want it right now.” The thing is if you pray for patience then how are you going to develop that quality of patience? Probably God is going to put you in situations that require you to exercise patience, so it's going to be out of your comfort zone.
Another way that our characters grow is in our interactions with difficult people. We all have them in our lives. A co-worker, a family member, a neighbour, an employer, an employee. As I'm talking about this, someone has probably already popped into your head as that person that tests your godly character, right? They may treat us poorly or they may misunderstand us or hate us or maybe they disrespect us. Or maybe it's just as simple as a personality clash. You know, we just don't get along with them. Some people are hard to love, right? You have to deal with them, and we're called to love them. Quite often our response is to want to avoid them. To get rid of them. To get them out of our lives. That's often what society will tell us to do.
If you read memes on Facebook or Instagram or whatever, they're all about getting the toxic people out of your life, right? Well, the toxic people might be an opportunity to reflect on yourself and grow. I would agree that boundaries need to be set and that we should get abusive people out of our lives. But otherwise, we can look at difficult people as an opportunity to grow and to produce character in us that God can use for a purpose. With those difficult people, the best thing we can do is to pray for them. It's hard to hate someone or feel irritated towards someone when we're praying for them. It really is. So, we can pray for them. We can bless them. Ask for God's blessing on their lives the same way God has blessed our lives. We can love them and bear with their bad behaviour as long as it's not abusive. As we do this, they may not change. They may continue to be as difficult as ever. But you will change. You will grow and you will become more godly.
The other way that we grow is through our suffering and our trials in life. This is difficult to understand. There are mixed opinions and thoughts about this idea that God sends us difficult situations to test us, or that God allows suffering in our lives for one reason or another. I don't want to go into that specifically today. That would take a whole other sermon. But what is true is that we will all experience suffering and trials in our lives and God will walk with us and guide us and comfort us in those times. We also have the opportunity at those times to lean into and experience the presence of God in a much deeper and more personal way. It's during those times when we learn most about who God is. We especially learn that God is trustworthy.
I've experienced significant losses in my own life. Many of you already know I've lost my dear brother and my mother as well. Many of you have experienced losses in life. I find that those experiences, which were the most painful times of my life, were when I learned the most. I learned about self-sacrificial love. I learned about my ability to give that kind of love to people I love in a time of need. Many of you have children and already know what that's like, but for me this was a profound learning experience. I learned about how God comes close to us in our suffering and that I can trust God to be with me. I also learned to be less of a people-pleaser during that time and to focus on being the person that God created me to be, to be more of a God-pleaser than a people-pleaser.
Also, in times of conflict I've had great growth. I've learned what my character weaknesses really are, and ways that I need to be more Christ-like when I'm in a situation of conflict with another person. In times of financial stress, I've developed patience to trust in God's timing and providence.
As a society it's in times of war that we really learn the value of peace and how to be peacemakers. Those of us who have never lived through a major war may not have as much appreciation for that sense of peace and peacemakers as those who have, so it's a learning opportunity.
I'm sure all of you can think of times in your own life of situations when you experienced a challenge, a conflict, or a trial, and despite the discomfort or even pain, your character became stronger. You became more focussed. More mature. More Christ-like during those times. Of course, as I mentioned this is something we can't do without God's power, but character growth does require our participation. At those times, we need to be self-aware, to be intentional. To see that we have that opportunity to grow, to lean into God because I've also seen many people go through similar trials and come out the other side bitter or resentful or hard-hearted or more self-centred. These are times when we need to lean deeply into our prayer, into our Bible study, and on our community of faith that supports us.
How do we participate then? It's certainly something that God does, but how do we participate in this process of sanctification in our lives? In verses 5 to 7 in the scripture passage Peter says, “For this very reason you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness.” And goodness with knowledge. Knowledge with self-control. Self-control with endurance. Endurance with godliness. Godliness with mutual affection. Mutual affection with love.
We have that faith, but we grow by supporting it with goodness, with acts of kindness. It's that practice of godly living. We support goodness with knowledge. We educate ourselves. We participate in the Bible studies or in the courses that are offered through the church. We read books about faith or about how to grow our character. We support that faith with goodness with knowledge, and all those things.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, and I'll quote this because it just sounds so wonderful, it's so vivid. “We sow a thought and reap an act. We sow an act and reap a habit. We sow a habit and reap a character. We sow a character and reap a destiny.” The things that I want to highlight now follow this logic. I want to offer you some practical steps about what you can do in this process of character growth in your own life.
These things are true no matter how far along you are in your Christian journey. If you're a life-long Christian or if you've just recently started trying to grow in your faith, these illustrate the fact that we can strive towards godly, holy character. We can recognize our successes along the way, without overwhelming ourselves, beating ourselves up, or feeling that we're worthless unless we're perfect.
I'll focus on three different steps.
The first is to choose one godly character trait and pray about it. The first thing we want to do is pray about it. You don't want to just go into it thinking, ‘oh, I've got to change everything about myself. I've got to change my whole life.’ That's just going to overwhelm you. But you can choose one godly character trait and ask God where you need to improve and how to improve it. You can also ask your spouse, because your spouse can probably identify a character trait that needs to grow in you. They'd probably be more than happy to offer that feedback too!
You can look at the scriptures. A good place to start is to reflect on the fruit of the spirit. Those things in our lives that grow as our faith grows. That's from Galatians 5, which says “For the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Any of those character traits is a good place to start and most of us probably need more of these qualities anyway. Or you can start with a character trait that you admire in Jesus such as humility. Pride and defensiveness are a big character struggle for many people, me included. We can look at Jesus and choose that quality of humility or love and model ourselves after Him.
The second step is to identify a time that you failed in your character. This is not, again, to condemn yourself or to beat yourself up for it or tell yourself you're worthless. The point is to get to know ourselves. When we identify a time we failed, we can see when we're most likely to experience a failure in that character quality. What situations tend to draw out the worst in us? We can be more aware of that, watch for it and work on it.
The third step would be to learn, memorize, and meditate on scriptures that relate to that character trait. If you find yourself in that situation where you tend to fail, you have these scripture verses that you can meditate on. The word “meditate” again, is from the Latin, meditari, which means to ponder. Meditation in a Christian sense is not about emptying your mind, it's quite the opposite. It's about filling your mind with God's thoughts, thoughts of godliness, with scripture. A synonym for meditate is to ruminate. That's what cows do, right? When they chew their cud, it's ruminating. Meditating on scripture is pondering it or chewing on it.
The best way to do that so that it'll help us in our character growth is to memorize those key verses. I have an app on my phone that is called, conveniently, “Bible Memory”. I choose scriptures and memorize them so that I can meditate on them when I'm running or driving, or when I'm going about my day-to-day life. If you can't find a scripture that relates to your character trait that you want to work on, I can certainly help you to find some. How this helps with character growth is that often when I'm in situations that require me to exercise godly character, these memory verses - because they're right there - will pop into my head. For example, when I'm dealing with difficult people, which happens from time to time, I can reflect on Ephesians 4:32, which is “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.’ I can keep that in my mind and remember to be kind and to be tender-hearted.
Sometimes memory verses will come to my head when I need comfort as well. When I'm fearful, for example, and I need to trust in God, then something like Romans, Chapter 8 will come into my mind, “For I am sure that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor death nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” That's an important scripture to have in our heads to bring with us as we go about our day-to-day live.
These are just three of the steps. If you want more steps come and see me during the week. I can give you lots of steps that you can take and lots of things that you can do, but I wanted to focus on three this morning that we can do to help, to participate in God's divine nature.
A couple of weeks ago you may remember that Dr. Stirling told the story of the boy who was fishing with his father and the father caught the first fish and the second fish. The boy said, “I prayed for it. I knew we'd catch something because I prayed for it.” The third time they didn't catch anything and the boy said, “Well I didn't pray for it because you didn't put any bait on the hook.” Character growth is similar. We need to pray about it. We need to pray for it because it's God's Holy Spirit that affects growth in us, but the steps that we take are like putting the bait on the hook.
Thanks be to God. Amen.