This episode focuses on developing a good character and the seventh part of spiritual maturity.
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“So Dr. Embry, what can make this paper great?” I’m talking to a student in one of my classes. We’ll call her Sharon, which is not her real name, but this kind of student is very real. “I mean I’d love to get an even higher grade next time.” I’m looking at the paper. She got a 98. What she doesn’t know is she has the highest grade in the class. Her paper had a few careless errors which would be easy to fix in a rewrite. “Well, Sharon, this is already extremely good.” “Yes, but what would make it better.” “Sharon, there’s not much to make better. Fix the few mistakes and I think you’ll be fine.” “But next time I want 100. What should I do to get 100?” Sharon will call me half a dozen more times. In some ways I appreciate students like Sharon. They are aiming for perfection. They want the satisfaction of writing the flawless sentence arranged in flawless paragraphs with a flawless structure and flawless reasoning. She’s chasing a number which means she is error-free. But there’s a part of me which wants to take Sharon’s anxiety and give most of it to Susan. Susan is hard to reach. She never reaches out for help. But her writing is bad. She misses deadlines, and when I ask her how things are going she gives me some obvious excuses. Susan seems checked out. But when I talk to her, she tells me how important it is to her to be getting her degree. She tells me this is a lifelong goal. She tells me how much she appreciates my understanding and she’ll get around to finishing her next paper as soon as she can. In college, people like Sharon rarely need help but constantly seek it out, and people like Susan can’t see how desperately they need it. Sharon thinks she underperforming while Susan thinks she’s doing at least okay. If I asked Sharon, I think she would recognize she’s a driven student, but if I asked her if she’s a good student, I feel pretty certain she would say she’s trying hard. If I asked Susan if she was a good student, she would say yes. As the guy who grades both students, I’m often struck by how often they are blinded to how good they are, either way..
The seventh part of spiritual maturity is being the right things and I think Sharon and Susan do a pretty good job of showing you the extremes. Sharon and Susan aren’t individuals, but I can think of dozens of students who are my Sharons and Susans. We tend to gravitate toward one extreme but we probably aren’t exactly like either. Being the right thing has everything to do with character, and it pulls together the other six parts of spiritual maturity. My argument here is when you are the right things, you tend to learn the right things, do the right things, think about the right things, have the right relationships, aim for the right things, and have the right attitudes. You still mess up each of these, but you’re trying. But I’m not sure we always have a good window into how well we are being the right things.
Character is one of those old fashioned words which has given us thousands of great quotes. Lao Tzu said, “watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” Martin Luther King, Junior, said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Og Mandino said “sound character provides the power with which a person may ride the emergencies of life instead of being overwhelmed by them.” Calvin Coolidge said, “industry, thrift and self-control are not sought because they create wealth, but because they create character.” You probably have your own favorite quote about character. I agree with all of these and many more. But there’s a real danger in collecting these pithy sayings or bumper sticker slogans to represent something which represents who we are.
We can confuse character with things like reputation or habits. And certainly character is related to both. The character we have is often shaped by the habits we have gotten used to, and those habits tend to give us a certain reputation among some people. But it’s not the same thing. Look Jesus had a bad reputation among many of the Jewish leaders, but did he have a bad character? You know the answer to that.
Sometimes we use character to mean someone who we like. I use it in that sense a lot. If I say someone has character, it really means she has good character. It’s not exactly she has a good reputation, but she probably does. But there’s a core to her which I think is good.
However, when we talk about character we mean two different but inseparable ideas. It’s both the identity we say we are, and the thing we’re trying to be. For example, when do you go from someone who likes to bake or being a good baker? Or someone who is pretty good at golf or being a good golfer? Or someone who is trying to be a good Christian or being a good Christian. The short step from trying to be to being something seems like a pretty big step, doesn’t it? But when you choose what you are, your values become pretty clear. Being a good Christian means you’ve chosen Christian values. Christianity is your identity. But you don’t always do that well. So it’s also what you’re trying to do. You’re a Christian who is doing his best to live Christian values.
Let me say the same thing a little differently. Have you ever noticed how God uses family terms to explain our relationships? He is our father, we are his sons and daughters. We are brothers and sisters to one another. Why does he identify himself as a father. Well, by saying that it means he’s someone who has an incredible love and interest in us. He’s like your dad. We matter to him because we are family. The character of God is the same as a loving father.
I don’t think it’s a mistake God uses the family relationship to reflect our spiritual relationship. I really think our families were given to us to explain our relationship to God. In Luke 20, the old sect of the Jews called the Sadducees gave Jesus a logical puzzle and talked about a woman who had married 7 brothers one after another. One would die, so the next would marry her. Then they asked whose wife she would be when they were resurrected. Jesus tells him in heaven you don’t get married. In other words, the whole idea of family doesn’t mean anything in the afterlife. God made us families so we could better understand our relationship with him.
Okay, that might be interesting, but what does it have to do with being the right thing. Didn’t Jesus say you can call him lord all day, but if you’re not doing the right thing, you’re just fooling yourself. Well, yes. He did in Luke 6. So how does giving yourself a name change who you are? How does calling yourself a Christian mean you are a Christian?
It’s precisely the same way I’m a husband. My decisions affect both my wife and me, so I shouldn’t think like a single guy. Does that mean I don’t sometimes think like a single guy. Well no. I mess that up a lot. I do stupid stuff. But I’ve chosen to be a husband in a relationship with my wife. And that means when I make stupid choices which don’t line up with being a good one, the marriage didn’t stop. My role as a husband isn’t limited to just me. As long as my wife is still in it and says she’s wanting to keep trying that means I’m still in it, too. I’m still a husband. Our relationship is still working because we’re still working at the relationship., it doesn’t mean I should get away with it. It means I need to get back to acting like a husband because that’s what I am.
Being the right things doesn’t mean you are always right. Christians don’t always do the right things, know the right things, think the right things, have the right relationships, have the right attitudes or aim for the right things. It means when those things do get off course, because we chose to be a Christian, and because God isn’t done with us, we try to fix it. My relationship doesn’t end because I did something stupid. My relationship is done when I call it quits or God does.
Yes, but doesn’t sin break our relationship with God? Yes, it does. But God took the punishment for your mistake and says try again. Do better.
You know you can have some really big fights with your family, you can have huge disagreements. You can have shouting matches over Thanksgiving and amazing misunderstandings. But you’re still family. As long as you’re willing to call yourself a husband or wife, son or daughter and your family is still willing to claim you, you’re still in.
The only way to get out of your relationship with God is to throw in the towel. To quit. To stop trying to be a son or daughter and say you’re done. Because God is never done with you. In Hebrews 13 God tells us as long as we’re ready to be in a relationship with him, he will help you be the right thing.
Okay, but I know my character isn’t what it should be. I know I have room to grow in being a better Christian. Good. Many simply get comfortable with being in the same place. It takes some real spiritual maturity to see you could get better. Gordon MacDonald is the author of Ordering Your Private World. In it he asked this question. “Are we going to order our inner worlds, our hearts, so that they will radiate influence into the outer world? Or will we neglect our private worlds and thus, permit the outer influences to shape us?” In other words, if you want to be better, go learn more. Go do more. Think more. Build more good relationships. Set more good goals. Get a better attitude. And when you do, you’ll get better. You’ll be better.
Our reasons to be the right thing or be in a relationship with God often changes over time. We don’t often stay in relationships for the same reasons we first get into them. The reasons we decide to marry someone is often different than our reasons to stay married to someone. Our motivations begin to change. For example, when I was a kid, my dad told me to go mow the lawn or I would get some kind of punishment. After a little while, my dad saw that money was also a pretty good motivator. So he told me I could make some money if I mowed. But today, sometimes when I visit home, sometimes I’ll mow the lawn because I love my dad.
Often our relationship with God may start because we fear punishment. Then after awhile we may look for the reward more. And by the way, those are perfectly good motivations. Punishment is real. Heaven is real. But God’s love is also real. Hopefully there comes a point where we are the right thing because we love God that much. He’s changed our values. He’s helped shape our character. And ultimately he’s changed everything about us for the better. That’s a pretty good reason to be the right thing.
My Sharons may be too hard on themselves. They may not recognize they’re already a good student. And my Susans may be too easy on themselves. They may be a little too generous in what kind of student they are. But as long as my Sharons and Susans keep trying, they’ll keep learning. And they’ll keep growing.