Christian Character In Three Easy Steps! (You Won’t Believe #2!!!)

There is a tension in the Christians life between what God does for us and what God expects us to do. God is always at work doing something in us and for us that we can’t accomplish on our own power, but the Bible is also clear that God expects us to participate in the building of our lives. 

“Whoever hears these sayings of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock, and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock. But everyone who hears these sayings of mine and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand; and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on the house; and it fell.  And great was its fall.”(Jesus, in Matthew 7:24-27) 

Jesus is the rock on which we build a foundation of life that will stand in the midst of storms. But we build. Whether on sand or stone, we will build something. After talking about people who were commended for their faith, Paul wrote,

“Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith...” (Paul, in Hebrews 12)

Jesus is the author of our faith and the finisher of our faith. There is no righteousness we can earn or attain on our own merit. God does all the heavy lifting when it comes to salvation. However, we were not saved for complacency. We throw off everything that hinders. We lay aside every weight. God may have built the stadium, equipped it with every good and perfect gift, and put us on His own team, but we've still got to put our phone to the side, strap on the shoes and run. 


I was recently watching a documentary on Rich Froning, multiple winner of the Crossfit Games, aka “the fittest man on earth.” Most people see him for three days on ESPN once a year when he obliterates the competition. But it’s what he has done relentlessly for years that got him to the top of the podium. He didn’t build muscle and stamina a couple weeks before the games.

There are other areas of life where we can observe commitment and then see output. Certainly natural strengths or weaknesses, past experiences and opportunities (or the lack of them) have an impact on what we accomplish, but generally speaking, we get what we give. No matter who you are and whether or not life has been good to you or hard for you, there is no substitute for faithful, committed hard work to take you to a better place than you are now.

From what I can see in the Bible, it is no different with character building. God has given us the privilege and responsibility of being what theologians call “significant moral agents.” In other words, what we do matters. Reaping and sowing is a principle God himself embedded in the world.

“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap corruption;  whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Galatians 6:7-10)

 Jesus offers to take upon himself the eternal punishment for all the corruption we have sown into our lives. But whenever we plant something of spiritual or moral significance in our life, an appropriate crop begins to grow. This is the building or undermining of our character. Our training matters. Our sowing matters.

Here is a biblical truth that can be hard to accept: God does not gift character. God saves us from the eternal consequences of our sinful failure through his justification; God radically changes our identity through salvation (we are now children of God – Galatians 3:26); and through sanctification he continually transforms us into a Christ-likeness (think of the imagery of the vine and the branches in John 15)  But we still have the freedom to build or undermine our character in the ordinary moments of days, months, and years.

Now, God does not wait until we are perfect until He can accomplish something good with us. The Bible is loaded with stories of deeply flawed people that God uses for the good of the world and for His glory.  This is not about becoming good enough so God will choose you or use you. If that were the standard, none of us would ever be chosen or rise to the occasion. This is not about God noticing us because of how awesome we are. This is, however, about how the Bible shows discipline and character developing by God's grace in the slow, ordinary, plodding times of life.

 It’s not a popular thought. We live in a society that encourages us to see life not as a walk of baby steps, but of huge leaps and bounds 

  • If I am going to lose weight, I want to be the biggest loser.  20 pounds over a year is hardly worth my time.  I want to win the show on TV by dropping 100 in a week.
  • If I want a makeover, I don’t have time for small improvements over time.  I want an extreme makeover now while I am on vacation.
  • I shouldn’t have to be a singer who works my way to the top through hard work and fortitude.  I want to be an idol with a big contract.
  • If I want to learn to use the Force, now I can just close my eyes and really want to use the Force instead of train in the middle of nowhere with a little cryptic green guy (apologies, Star Wars fans).
  • And dare I say, I want God to finish working in my life now, and be done teaching me now, to get me past my struggles with sin now, to fix my marriage now, and to answer my prayers now. I don’t have time to just do the next thing.  I want the next big thing !!!!  

This past week I was reading some prophecies or predictions for 2016. Most of them were full of exciting, grand, sweeping visions of how God is going to mightily move in nations, kingdoms, and the church. That may be true - God can do that kind of work in the world, of course.  But you know what I didn’t see?

 “God has revealed to me that this next year will be full of countless times when ordinary moments of faithfulness will build His people and His Kingdom. The Holy Spirit will move powerfully and help you not snap at your kids so that overtime what you plant as a parent will lead to a good relational harvest. You will face temptation, and you will need to train: humble yourself, seek accountability, and do the hard work of resisting temptation. You will be overlooked, under-appreciated, ignored and demeaned, but God’s faithful presence will be active in the midst of this to build your character for the good of the Kingdom and for His glory.”

I haven’t seen that yet. 


Eugene Peterson once said:

“There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.”

There are no three easy steps – which is why you won’t believe #2. Anyone who tells you there are shortcuts to character are lying to you. There is no escaping this Godly practice of doing the next thing: Being faithful in the walk of life, in little things when there is no apparent inspiration, no applause, no crowd, no obvious, immediate payoff to myself.  This is the means through which God so often does His restorative work of grace in us and around us.

As I look back, as meaningful as our marriage ceremony was, the vows my wife and I gave each other offered an inaccurate view of what we would face. There is poverty and wealth, there is sickness and health, there is joy and there is pain, there is passion and there is coldness, and there is arguing and there is making up, but more often than not the majority of our lives are lived somewhere in between, not leaping from momentous event to momentous event, but taking a Tylenol and doing the next thing. And the ‘next things’ become momentous. I like how Alexander Maclaren put it:

“If our likeness to God does not show itself in trifles, what is there left for it to show itself in?  For our lives are all made up of trifles.  The great things come three or four of them in the seventy years; the little ones every time the clock ticks.”

I’m sure God can make us mature in a moment if He wants to, but if the Biblical record (and all of church history and the lives of everyone I know) is any indication, He apparently does not.. He wants us to grow up moment by moment, relying on His Spirit, reading and obeying His Word, and living in a community of His people.

Let’s go back to Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7. When the storms of life arrive, we as follower of Christ will stand not because we were strong suddenly, by surprise, contrary to all expectations. We will stand because 1) God provided a foundation for our lives, and 2) we have built our character by hearing what Jesus has to say about holiness - and doing it. 

This is how discipleship works. After God saves us from ourselves and fills us with His spirit, we commit to being disciples: following Christ, learning what it means to walk in holiness and integrity, putting one foot in front of the other day after day after day, for the good of His Kingdom and the glory of God. 

The Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26)

In Galatians 5, Paul shows very clearly what happens when we are motivated by selfishness, greed, and power: 

“Sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin.” (Galatians 5:19-21)

Paul said that when we “indulge the flesh” (v. 13) in this way, it’s as if we “bite,” “devour” and “destroy” each other (v.15). We treat other people like commodities that exist only to meet our sexual, emotional, financial, and relational needs.  If you have ever been treated as if you were disposable, you know the devastating impact of sin. Paul follows up this daunting list with a very sharp contrast:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Galatians 5:22-26)

When we are "in step with the Spirit" of God, we will have the passions and desire of God – and God is not a consumer of disposable people. Our lives will reflect the heart of God as we serve each other in love (v.13). Though there are many ways this can be seen, Paul lists nine specific ways that our lives bear this spiritual fruit.*

  • Love (agape) is serving people for their intrinsic worth, not for how they make us feel. I need to do the dishes, and leave notes, and plan dates for my wife not because I always feel like it, but because she is worthy of it.
  • Joy is a delight that comes from focusing on Jesus. It is independent of our circumstances or His gifts . Joy does not come from personal comfort or emotional highs. It only comes as a response to the person of Christ.
  • Peace is a confidence and rest in the wisdom and control of God rather than ourselves. Peace is not controlling the storm; it’s offering your situation to Christ in the midst of it.
  • Patience is persistently enduring without blowing up, giving up or lashing out. You find your stability in knowing that God is sovereign in both circumstances and timing.
  • Kindness is the ability to serve others practically, often in ways which are costly or make us vulnerable. Our hearts are broken by the things that break the heart of God, and we do something about it. It’s active empathy.
  • Goodness has to do with personal integrity. We speak truth boldly and live consistently no matter where we are or who is around us. Our thoughts, words and deeds align.
  • Faithfulness is courageous loyalty. It’s being reliable, dependable and honest even if it’s difficult.
  • Gentleness is the humble, healing use of power
  • Self-control is purposeful living. It’s the ability to pursue the important over the urgent. We understand when it’s time to relax vs. work, or spend time with the family instead vs. buddies.

 This is what “faith expressed in love” looks like when we walk in step with the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. We bear beautiful, nourishing fruit. Unfortunately, each of these fruits has a counterfeit  that can subtly work its way into our life, distorting our view of God and harming our relationship with others. 

  • The counterfeit of agape love is selfish love, where you care for others because of how they make you feel about yourself. You feel like you would do anything for that spouse or friend – but really, it’s only for as long as they please you. If they don’t, you move on or withdraw.
  • The counterfeit of joy is happiness or elation. You feel good as long as you have money, health, affirmation, success, and a schedule that’s just like you want it. It’s a feeling based on the gift instead of the Giver. It’s not liking your spouse’s attempt at showing love because it’s not how you wanted it to be, or being angry at a good friend because they forget your birthday. 
  • The counterfeit of peace is indifference or apathy. People think you are calm; really, you have just stopped caring.  You look like you can handle family issues with a spouse, kids or friends well – but it’s only because you’ve stopped investing any emotion in them.
  • The counterfeit of patience is cynicism. You don’t blow up, lash out, or quit because you expected the worst anyway. People say, “You are so understanding and patient with your kids. I don't know you are able to let them learn the hard way and love them anyway.” You know – you just assume the worst, so anything good that happens is a pleasant surprise.
  • The counterfeit of kindness is manipulation. You do good things to be noticed and given something in return. People say, “Wow, you are generous with your time (or money).”  But you did it so they would say that. If nobody noticed, you would probably stop doing it.
  • The counterfeit of goodness is obnoxiousness. It’s being truthful but not loving. You might not be a hypocrite, but you’re a jerk. Nobody seems like nobody seems to love it like you do.  Maybe they do like truth but they just … don’t… like … you.
  • The counterfeit of faithfulness is enablement. You are loving but not truthful. You might be loyal but not bold, and as your friends implode you never challenge, you just love them for who they are.
  • The counterfeit of gentleness is patronization. You help, but it's a kindness that reminds the recipient and others that they are lucky they have a powerful person like you around.  You feel good about yourself, but others leave diminished and ashamed. 
  • The counterfeit of self-control is willpower. Self-control is purposeful prioritization for the sake of others. Willpower is selfish control so you can boast about yourself or judge others more successfully.

This counterfeit fruit can feel very real. It can at times move us emotionally, make us feel close to God and others, and even temporarily provide the solace we seek. But it’s ultimately empty and frustrating. So what was the solution? How do any of us move from counterfeit to real? 

In Galatians, Paul has laid out an understanding of how a God of grace works with us. God offers us a covenant (of salvation); Christ pays our penalty for breaking it (forgiveness); God adopts us into His family (giving us righteousness, or right standing); His indwelling Spirit begins to changes us (sanctification); and our lives bear new spiritual fruit. These things have nothing to do with our effortThese are all in a sense passive. 

But Paul has more to say. Christ was crucified for us; we crucify the flesh (v.23); the Holy Spirit indwells us; we must walk in step with the Spirit (v.25); God grants us righteousness; we have to avoid becoming conceited (v.26). This is an active, ongoing process on our end. This is very different from how Paul talks about the gifts of the Spirit in his letters to the Corinthian church. The gifts are given as God sees fit. God gives some to some and others to others, and there is not indication in Scripture that it has anything to do with our actions or spiritual maturity.

The fruit, however, is meant for everybody, and experience and expression of the fruit of the Spirit is in some way connected to our commitment to “walk in step.” So what does our contribution look like when it comes to bearing fruit? I believe it can be summarized in three general categories: 

  • Praying (for the freedom of God’s Spirit)
  • Studying Scripture (for the ‘steps’ of the Spirit)
  • Stepping (because we reap what we sow)

For example, if you want to experience genuine, selfless love, pray for the Spirit’s influence, study the Scripture, and look for opportunities to serve people for their good, not yours.  If you want to experience genuine joy,  pray for the Spirit’s influence, study the Scripture, and continually re-focus on the person of Christ in the midst of all your circumstances. If you want to experience genuine gentleness, pray for the Spirit’s influence, study the Scripture, and continually looks for ways to use your influence with humility.

The more we step with the Spirit purposefully, the more we will step with the Spirit naturally.


* I am deeply indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for my understanding of Galatians. The explanations of the fruit and their counterfeits are largely his, with some changes and additions of my own.