Christian Character: Why?
By The Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, March 1, 2020
Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent, which began on Wednesday. Lent is a wonderful season in the church year. It’s not considered one of the more joyful seasons, but it’s a time of introspection, of reflection on our lives in the eyes of God, whether there are things that we need to leave behind, or things we need to do more of, ways that we need to grow, sins that we need to turn away from. A time of reflecting on all of that, but also on God’s gift of forgiveness, of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
To kick off this special time, I wanted to do a two-part series of teaching sermons. By teaching sermon, I mean, a little bit different style of preaching than what I typically do. It’s going to be more pedagogical, and I hope that works for you, I hope that keeps you engaged.
The topic is Christian character: How we live our lives, make decisions, think, and behave. The question that I had is, does this matter? Does our character matter? Does it matter how we live our lives? Does it matter that we live our lives with integrity according to the values of our Christian faith? When we’re faced with a choice to make, or how to deal with a situation do we choose according to the wisdom of the culture, go with the flow, and do what anyone else would do in that situation? Or does the wisdom of God factor into things? Are we meant to be guided by God’s call on us, by God’s wisdom? When we face choices in life how do we decide, and does it matter? I would say – and I don’t think this is going to come as a big surprise to you – the answer is: yes, it does matter.
Being a Christian is more than being a good citizen; it’s more than being a decent human being. It’s more than being nice and coming to church on Sundays. It’s more than that. I believe that how we live our lives as Christians matters deeply, and that our relationship with God and with Jesus should change the very essence of who we are. That should really reflect in our behaviour.
Now this thinking used to be a given. Christians were called to hold to a higher standard, but that thinking has kind of fallen out of favour because it became an issue of pride in some circles. This idea that we hold ourselves to a higher standard meant that some people felt “holier than thou” and self-righteous - that they were made right with God because they were living the right way; and that left a bad taste in people’s mouths.
What I’m seeing now, and what I’ve experienced myself, is this sense that as Christians we need to prove to the world that we’re just like everyone else - and we are in some senses; but we’re called to live to a higher standard. There’s a sense that we need to prove that we’re cool, that we’re not like “those” Christians. We don’t want to be perceived as being sanctimonious or holier than thou.
So, being a Christian - and if you look at the word, it’s a Christ-ian - being a Christ-ian is part of our identity in the same way that being a Torontonian means that we live in Toronto: we’re residents of the City of Toronto. When we’re Christ-ians it means that being a follower of Jesus’ way of life defines our identity. That’s who we are. We identify as someone who is following Him, who is striving to be more like Him and to do things that He taught His followers to do. To think like He did. To have His heart. To have His mind. We strive for that, but it’s not easy. In fact, I would say it’s impossible to achieve “this side of the Jordan.” Yet, it’s what we’re called to strive for: that perfection, that higher standard. We’re called to think about where we’re falling short, how we can do better, and to pray to God to help and strengthen us to do better.
That struggle is reflected in St. Francis of Assisi, who used to refer to himself quite famously as Brother Donkey, which is a great term because it implies that our humanity is a precious part of who we are. He calls himself “Brother” Donkey. But it acknowledges as well that we need to learn to exercise self-control over our lives, to bring ourselves, by choice, into submission to Christ, much in the same way that a rider needs to control and guide a stubborn donkey. That’s the struggle that we have as Christians: to live up to that standard, knowing that it is not possible.
Let’s look at today’s Scripture from Thessalonians. There are parts of the New Testament where we can read that some of the Christians in Paul’s time believed that because they were forgiven of their sins, free from living under the law of Moses, with their salvation assured, they were saved from death through their faith in Jesus – that meant that it didn’t matter how they lived. “We’re saved, we’re free from that, so we can do whatever we want, we can live however we want.” But Paul was very quick to correct them. For example, in Romans 6 Paul very strongly counters the idea that, because they have received God’s grace and forgiveness, that they should keep on sinning in order to experience more of God’s grace and forgiveness. That was the mindset, that if we sin more, then we’ll receive more grace. Paul said that’s not really a good way to approach the Christian life. And that’s not necessarily what the Thessalonians were thinking, but you can see in this passage how that issue is something that Paul is conscious of. Paul is aware of the tendency to fall into that way of thinking.
He wrote to the Thessalonians that living life as a Christian is a process. It’s not a one time thing and then you live however you want. It’s a process, it’s something that we practice, it’s something that involves growth and maturity. The idea is that we’re not just born into a Christian home and magically, automatically Christian. We don’t just attend Sunday school for a few years as a child and then go through confirmation and then we’re through, as though we graduate. If we come to faith later in life, we don’t just have this one-time conversion experience and then that’s it. No, these things are just the beginning of a lifelong process of learning, growing, and developing Christian character.
There is, in the Christian faith and in Christian doctrine, that sense of a one-time event known as “salvation,” which is a term that we don’t talk about much in United Church circles. The popular understanding of the word “salvation” has been shaped in our culture by this notion of it being something we do, that we say the prayer and then we get saved. I had an experience of that understanding of salvation when I was fourteen. I was going to the United Church, and there wasn’t a youth group, so I started going to the youth group at the Baptist Church, and that was an eye-opening experience. I learned a lot about different ways of understanding the Christian faith there. One of the things that they taught me was that you need to be saved.
It just so happened that there was a really cute boy that I had a crush on, and he offered to go into a room with me and help me to pray this prayer of salvation. So that’s what I did. I prayed the prayer and I got saved.
Later in life, as I got to be a teenager, I stopped going to church, I fell away from the faith like a lot of teenagers do. Then I went to university and discovered a whole new world of university parties and was not necessarily following God at that stage of my life. I used to joke about it at parties: “Oh yeah, I was saved when I was fourteen.” The ironic thing is that obviously, God had the last laugh, because once you give your life to God, you might wander in life, but He’s never going to let you go.
The idea of salvation as a gift that we receive is a legitimate Christian doctrine with a depth of meaning. Our Protestant understanding of salvation is quite deep, and salvation is a one-time thing, but it’s not something that we do through saying magic words. It’s something that God did, and it’s done. God did it once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That’s the one-time event of salvation for all of us. Understanding that sense of salvation is important.
Paul teaches the Thessalonians that as important as it is to know that we’re saved, we’re forgiven, and we’ve inherited eternal life, it’s equally important to live holy lives. The biblical understanding of the word “holy” is that we’re set apart to live lives that are according to a godly purpose; that God created us and saved us for a purpose, and that is to live godly lives, to think differently than the world thinks, to see things differently than the world sees things. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re better than anyone, it certainly doesn’t mean that we’re perfect or ever will be, just different. We see things differently from the way the world sees things.
In this passage we read that Paul had already given them the basic teaching, the basic rules or guidelines for holy living, when he first taught them about Jesus. He explains to them that it’s a process. In verse one he says, “As you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, you should do so more and more.” We learn how to live according to God’s purposes and then we have to put that into practice. I think for example of Malcolm Gladwell - many of you have probably read his book, Outliers. He talks about how it takes ten thousand hours to get good at something. Whether that ten thousand is an exact number, who knows? But this applies to the Christian faith as well, that living out our Christian faith, living according to godly values, takes practice; it’s no different than anything else: you have to work at it, you have to practice it again and again.
Paul says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” What is our sanctification? The process of doing it more and more, practicing the way we ought to live, is what’s known in Christian doctrine as sanctification. The word “sanctification” comes from two Latin words, one of which is sanctus, meaning “holy,” and ficare, which is “to make.” So, sanctus ficare – sanctification, is to “make holy.” Sanctification is a process of growing in Christian maturity and growing in godly character. It’s a crucial component of being a Christian. Like I said, we start as a child, or when we’re confirmed, or when we have a conversion experience, but it’s a process that we go through, and it’s not optional, it’s not just an add-on to the Christian faith, it’s a crucial component of it.
Paul actually says that if we don’t desire to grow in character, if it’s not something that we’re striving for or seeking for our lives, then we insult God’s spirit of grace. In verse 8 it says, “Whoever rejects this rejects not human authority, but God.” It’s not about what I'm saying. You can take or leave what I'm saying, this is what God says. So whoever rejects this, rejects not human authority, but God, who also gives His Holy Spirit to you.
This is an important part of Christian doctrine, including in the Protestant tradition. Martin Luther said this about it, “Sanctification is the Holy Spirit’s work of making us holy. When the Holy Spirit creates faith in us, He renews in us the image of God, so that through His power, we produce good works. These good works are not meritorious,” - so we don’t do it so that we can earn God’s love- “but show the faith in our hearts” - we do it because we’ve received God’s love. He says that “sanctification flows from justification; it’s an ongoing process that will not be completed or reach perfection in this life” - it’s not something we’ll ever perfect; we’ll have many failures. I've had, in this process of growing in Christian character, many failures. But those are the times of deepest learning and growing. If you approach them through prayer and repentance, they can be powerful times of growing in godly character.
John Wesley said of sanctification, “It is that habitual disposition of soul. A disposition of soul, in the sacred writings, is termed holiness, which directly implies being cleansed from sin, from all filthiness, both of flesh and spirit, and by consequence, the being imbued with those virtues that were also in Christ Jesus. The being so renewed in the spirit of our mind as to be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. It’s that cleansing and renewal and having the mind of Christ.”
This is important. Being Christian – how we live; our character – does matter. These are some of the biblical and theological reasons. But I also want to highlight some of the practical reasons why growing our character as Christians is important. How will this be reflected in our lives? How do we benefit from it? I could spend all afternoon talking about it, but in the interest of time, I’ll just highlight a few of the most important.
First, having godly character enables us to live fruitful lives. It enables us to live our best lives, our most successful lives, not in a worldly understanding of success, but in the sense of integrity.
If we truly believe that Jesus loved us enough to die for us, then wouldn’t it make sense that the way He calls us to live is for our good? He’s not going to say, I love you and I’m going to die for you and now I want you to be miserable. No, it’s for our good. So, wouldn’t it make sense that He did this because our lives have meaning and purpose? Developing a godly character clears away the voices that confuse us. When we have godly character, it frees us up from the things that distract us from living our best lives, from living fruitful, purposeful lives that God intends for us, lives that help to build up other people and the kingdom of God.
Ungodly character is self-serving, it’s not purposeful. Rather than drawing people to Christ, which godly character tends to do, it repels people away from the church, and often away from God. We all know - and sadly there are many cases we’ve read - of church leaders who had ongoing patterns of ungodly behaviour, and how that hurt people, how it hurt the church. Ungodly character is self-serving, but a godly character helps us to live our lives. Ungodly character distracts us from the good things that we could be doing. Living a life without Christian character, distracts us from the good things that we could do.
If you've ever had the experience or known someone who had the experience of telling a little white lie – you made a mistake, but didn’t want anyone to know about it, so you lied about it. Then what happens? You get caught in this vicious circle of having to tell another lie to cover up that one, and of having to remember who I told that lie to. It’s a lot of work and stress. Whereas, if you're just honest from the get-go, then you don’t have to worry about that, you can just seek forgiveness for the mistake we made and get on with life.
It takes a lot of work to make sure that an extramarital affair is kept secret, or that unethical business practices don’t become publicly known. When we’re engaged in that kind of behaviour, it takes a lot of work to maintain, work that we could be putting into good purposes. It distracts us – ungodly character is a distraction from living our best lives. When we focus on developing godly character that is going to push out the confusing voices, those voices that tell us, “Everybody does it this way, or you know, it’s fine” – those confusing voices. Then it allows us to live in the centre of God’s will for our lives, and that is where we’ll live the most successful, fulfilling lives. It’s where we’ll be the happiest, where we’ll feel the most sense of purpose and meaning for our lives.
Another benefit is that it keeps us from falling away from the faith. When we live in obedience to the way that God has called us, what happens? We know that God is calling us to forgive, and if we don’t forgive then we’ll never understand why we’re supposed to forgive. When we do forgive someone who has hurt us, what happens? Suddenly we understand the blessing of our obedience, that doing things the way God has told us to do them brings this tremendous sense of blessing.
And that renews our faith. So, there’s this sense that faith brings obedience, which brings greater faith. If we don’t live in obedience, then we don’t grow in our faith. The Book of James said that if our faith doesn’t result in changed behaviour, changed attitudes that change life, then our faith is dead. “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:26)
There are so many other benefits, but I want to briefly mention a few of them without going into much detail. Some of the other benefits are that godly character qualifies us for leadership in ministries in the church - it qualifies us to lead up programs and committees and small groups. Godly character strengthens us and helps us to resist temptations and evil in our lives. Godly character reveals Christ to others - when we live with Christ’s character in us, people see Christ in us and experience the love of Christ through us. Godly character allows us to experience the abundant life that Christ promised. It helps us to discover who we are in God’s eyes, what our God-given gifts are, why God created us, and therefore, how we can best serve the kingdom of God in a way that will be most fulfilling and satisfying for our lives.
The best part of this is that it is God who gives us the grace to live holy, sanctified lives, lives of godly character, because God gives us the Holy Spirit who empowers us to grow our characters. When we grow our characters, we experience the presence of God in our lives in a deeper and more tangible way. Paul in this passage says, “You yourselves have been taught by God to love one another.” You experience that feeling of being taught by God, of God speaking to you. Then there are some things that nobody has to teach you; there were things that Paul didn’t have to tell them, because they knew, because God had spoken to their hearts, they had experienced the presence of God for themselves.
God also speaks into our hearts. God guides us, and we need to take the time to listen, to hear and to follow. A lot of times, if we’re familiar with Christian teaching and Christian principles and we listen to our consciences, we’ll know what we ought to do and what we ought not to do; but what happens is that we can ignore our consciences to the point that we silence them altogether.
Next week I'm going to talk about the “how” of Christian character. This week is about the why; next week is about the how: How we grow in godly character. I'm not going to stand up here today and say, “Well, you know guys, you've got to grow in godly character; just go and do it.” No, it’s something that God does in our hearts, but we can participate in it if we learn how. The first step in growing our character is to admit that we need to. If we can't admit that we have areas where we need to grow in our character, and that we can't do it alone, that we need the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, then we’ll never get there. That’s going to be the first step.
We can do that; we can do that right here, right now, whenever we’re ready to reach out to God and to ask for it. Next week I’ll talk about more of the practical steps and what God does and what we can do to grow our characters. Thanks be to God. Amen.