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.