Character for God’s Country

Discipleship is hard.



Sometimes I think that it should be easier. If the Holy Spirit was truly in control of my heart, I would be much more able to obey Jesus. If the Holy Spirit had changed my heart, I should want to live by God’s will at all times. It should be easy. Sometimes, because it isn’t easy when I think that it should be, I pretend. I put on a holy face and pretend that obeying is easy.



Sometimes it is difficult to know what to do as a Christ-follower. What, exactly, is it that we are supposed to do between our decision to follow Jesus and our death when we go to live with Him? Is it only that we are supposed to walk around telling people about Him? 

These are hard things. Too many Christ-followers, too many churches struggle with these ideas.




Recently, as I have been thinking about these sorts of things, I have been reading After You Believe by N.T. Wright. He is writing about the formation of character, what that means and how it is formed, and is also writing about how forming our character is the answer to many of my thoughts.

Wright describes our moral transformation as “a long, slow change of deep, heart-level habits”. Hard work up front to make small deliberate choices. These choices feel awkward and unnatural at first, but they allow the Holy Spirit to form our character.




This only follows what humanity seems to have always known, from Aristotle to modern neuroscience. That the very small, daily choices that you make forms who you are, it physically changes your brain. Some think that if they act before they “mean it”, they are being hypocritical. Rather, as we struggle to follow Christ, authenticity will follow. If you wait to practice virtue, to make character-choices, until you mean it, you will wait a very long time and will mess up a lot of lives in the process. 




Wright compares this idea of character formation to learning a second language. At first, it is awkward, uncomfortable, unnatural. Yet the more you work at it, the more you practice, the easier it gets. The goal? To be at home in the place where that language is spoken, to enable you to function here and now as a competent citizen of that country. The biggest compliment you could receive is to be mistaken for a native.




Isn’t that what we want? To be at home in a world that has been made perfect, that has been filled with the glory of God? To be mistaken for a native of God’s kingdom?

The habits of character is all about learning in advance the language of God’s new world. C.S. Lewis says that 

every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.

To be clear, the Bible is emphatic that we cannot form a Christ-like character on our own. We cannot work hard enough and practice long enough in our own strength to be able to become perfect. Instead, we are like members of a really awful choir. When we welcome God as our new choir director, we suddenly can hear our out of tune singing and ragged rhythms and we find a new desire to learn how to sing in tune. We can’t sing in tune immediately, simply because we have a new choir director, but the Holy Spirit gives us direction and guidance to help us acquire the right habits to replace the wrong ones. 

                                  


None of this would even be possible without the death of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us. We wouldn’t have even known that we sang horribly had we not accepted the rescuing grace of our Director.

Why, though? Why does this all matter so much? I think I’ll leave that until next week. 


art credit: bust of Aristotle, original by Lysippos; Cantoria by Luca della Robbia

You Are What You Do

“I don’t feel like obeying today.”



My eldest believes that she should only obey when she feels like doing so.

I am quick to disabuse her of this idea.

The incident does, however, cause me to begin mulling over the connection between actions and emotions, between behavior and the heart.

Is there a reason why we are supposed to obey, to do what is right, even when we don’t feel like it? Isn’t that hypocritical?

“I shouldn’t read the Bible if I’m only doing it because I have to.”

“I shouldn’t go visit Maria at the nursing home because my heart isn’t in the right place.”

Which comes first? The physical act or the heart change?


A.J. Jacobs is a humorist who writes books about the human experiments he conducts. In several of his books, he mentions the connection between his actions and his emotions. 

In The Year of Living Biblically, he is focusing on Ephesians 4.29 “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths.” when he writes this: 

The weird thing is, I think my G-rated language is making me a less angry person. Because here’s the way it works: I’ll get to the subway platform just as the downtown train is pulling away, and I’ll start to say the F-word. I’ll remember to censor myself. So I’ll turn it into “fudge” at the last second. When I hear myself say “fudge” out loud, it sounds so folksy, so Jimmy Stewart-ish and amusingly dorky, that I can’t help but smile. My anger recedes. Once again, behavior shapes emotions.

In My Life as an Experiment, he says this: 

Historically, the handshake was seen as a democratic gesture…But nowadays, I think the bow has more benefits. Though it may seem pretentious, it’s actually deeply humbling. Just lowering yourself before someone – the universal symbol of modesty – makes you feel more respectful. Behavior shapes your thoughts. 

Is it odd that I’m finding wisdom in a comedian?


Yet God did create us with physical bodies, and our physical condition, whether health or posture, does seem to affect our emotions. 



If a comedian isn’t authoritative enough, how about Aristotle?


Aristotle also believed that your actions shape your heart: 

Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a particular way…you become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions. 

He also said: 

We are what we repeatedly do. 

 So perhaps, after all, it is not hypocritical to do right things when our hearts are rebelling. 


Perhaps, instead, this is how we train our hearts to desire right things.



Perhaps, too, paying attention to our physical bodies, such as our posture while praying, can help us to keep our hearts focused.


And since finding wisdom in a comedian and in an ancient philosopher should never be enough for us, God also gives us instructions for our physical bodies in order to help our hearts become truly His: 

These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. ~ Deuteronomy 6.6-9 

Which commandments had God just given them? 


Ah. The most important of all.



Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. ~ Deuteronomy 6.5

Image credits: A.J. Jacobs from The Year of Living Biblically; cropped from The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio