March 2012 - Vol. 58

.Taking On God's Character 
– A case for Christian character
 by John Keating 
Every four years athletes from nearly every nation on the globe compete in the Olympic Games. They are chosen for their excellence in skill and discipline. Those who bring home gold medals are treated as national heroes. As Christians we are called to not only run the good race of our faith, but to strive for excellence as men and women who bring honor and glory to God. We are called to be a holy nation – a people who reflect God’s own character as he has revealed it in Jesus Christ, and who bear it proudly as citizens of his kingdom.

We Christians tend to neglect the importance that God places on our character. We can become more concerned with living a “good life” or “getting by.” We often fall into the trap of looking at the world around us and deciding that I’m not as bad as she is or I never do that sort of thing, and think that in comparison with the world we’re doing pretty well. Living the Christian life is a far more glorious call than we often imagine. For God's intention is to restore us fully to his image and likeness, to make us “perfect.” And this has implications. It means that we must be concerned with more than believing the right things and obeying certain commands. We must also be the right thing – from the inside out. As a result, although we all have quite different personalities and talents, certain qualities of character should typify all Christians because the character they reflect is God’s.

Though these often go unnoticed, the New Testament lays out some specific instructions about Christian character. It frequently presents a number of qualities to which we should aspire. Among them are such godly virtues as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, reliability, meekness, self-control, compassion, zeal, forbearance, and perseverance.

It is not at all easy to grow into God's character and to become increasingly like the Lord Jesus Christ, acting and responding as he would. But that is the goal that lies before us if we will pursue it. The temptation is always to resist, stopping short of all that God intends to do in us. His process of reforming us is often uncomfortable and at times quite painful, and the easy road of settling for less is so attractive. Our justification might go something like this: “Well, there are some pretty sizable discrepancies between Jesus' character and mine, but my faults and character defects aren't that major, and besides, nobody's perfect. Sure, I can get pretty grouchy and irritable at times, and that streak of selfishness doesn't show any signs of going away. Yes, I probably need to learn to control my tongue better, because it gets me into trouble at times. But, that's the way I am, and I've learned to accept myself and be content.”

But should we be so easily contented? If we will cooperate with God's grace at work in us, more of our faults and defects can actually change. He has a great and splendid plan for us and is not likely to settle for less, provided that we don't. The holiness of our character is a high priority for him. If we will allow it, he will never cease working to bring us to perfection. C. S. Lewis has aptly described God's work of building our character:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that he is building quite a different house from the one you thought of: throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making court yards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but he is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself. [C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan Co., 1943), p. 174]
Growing fully into the character of God, into his image and likeness, is a lifelong project. In fact, it will never be completed on this side of the grave. But God's upward call will lead us daily into a richer and better life, into becoming more like his Son Jesus, true children of our Father in heaven. 
Brokenness: The necessary step for change 
Ever since the Fall, we humans have been a stiff-necked, headstrong, rebellious, self-centered lot. And many of us have been shaped by the same forces that Paul describes to the Gentile Christians in Ephesus. We were “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air,” and “following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind” (Eph 2:2-3). To fully put on the Christian character of Christ, such as meekness and zeal, requires from us substantial internal change, because these servant-like, godly qualities wage war on the stiff-necked self-will and rebelliousness of our fallen nature. True character cannot be acquired simply by accepting the abstract theory. There must be a change within us, a death to ourselves. Some Christians have used the word “brokenness” to describe this necessary change. Rightly understood, I believe this idea can be of great use to us as we learn the character of Christ.

What is brokenness?
At least two very different images could come to mind when this term is used. One of them is somewhat inaccurate and unappealing. The other can be a valuable aid to us. One misleading image of brokenness interprets it as a condition that involves being crushed or smashed. According to this we are something like the porcelain figurine my family had on one of our basement shelves. One night when we were kids, a violent thunderstorm knocked out the electricity supply to our house. A few of us were playing together in the basement when everything went pitch black. After a few moments of consternation and confusion, I said “Okay, everybody get in single file and hold on to the one ahead of you, and we'll all feel our way upstairs.” I led the way, groping ahead of me in the dark. Unfortunately, the first thing I made contact with was that porcelain figurine. I drew my hand back quickly, but too late. It crashed to the floor and broke in several pieces. Even though we later tried to glue it together, it was never the same. Something like this may happen to people who have come through the harrowing experience of brainwashing and torture. They can come out “broken individuals” who are never quite the same again. Their spirit is crushed; they have no heart left to fight, or sometimes even to live.

This image has also been used of one who suffers a crushing personal defeat or humiliation. For example, in 1938 Adolf Hitler took over Czechoslovakia. Hitler accomplished this feat without a fight by summoning Czechoslovakia's president, Dr. Hacha, to Berlin. There, the Czech president, an old man in ill health, was kept up most of the night, mercilessly browbeaten by Hitler and his aides, and threatened with the destruction of his people. Finally, in despair, he consented to sign a statement that authorized the entry of Hitler's troops into Czechoslovakia. Hacha left Berlin defeated and utterly humiliated, a “broken” man.

Now, this is not the kind of “brokenness” God wants to do in changing us. He does not wish to crush us, to leave us in a weak, decrepit, or miserable condition. How could we be strong, forceful, and confident in serving him we were like that? We would be defeated rather than victorious.

The second and more accurate image of brokenness is really quite different. I can best depict it by describing a movie I saw many years ago. It was the story of a young American Indian boy and a great, white, wild stallion. This horse was well known to the Indians of the territory, but no one had succeeded in catching, much less riding, this magnificent animal. The young Indian went out into the wilderness, and with great patience, love, and firmness succeeded in catching and then training the proud, wild beast to the point that it obeyed him, carried him bareback, and stayed loyally with him to the death.

This is a good analogy for the kind of brokenness that applies to us. The Lord is certainly not much like the Indian boy, but we are a quite a bit like that wild horse, whom the Lord must corral and then “break” with love, patience, and firm discipline. This notion of “breaking” a horse is frequently used by cowboys, not in reference to crushing a horse's spirit, but in regard to taming his wildness and curbing his will so that all his strength and ability can be harnessed and made useful.

Herein lies a key to character traits, such as meekness and zeal. Our strength must be tamed and channelled by God if we are to be his profitable servants. While he loves us even in our wild, untamed condition, we will only be of limited use to him until he has “broken” and trained us. Once broken, we go from being headstrong, wilful, selfish, and unpredictable to being responsive, obedient, and trustworthy servants of God. There is no diminishing of strength entailed in being broken. If anything, our strength increases as we submit ourselves to God's training, because our strength is properly channelled and harnessed.

Breaking self-will
A fundamental internal change – this is what brokenness is all about. Part of this change involves letting go of our stubborn wilfulness and our determination to get our own way. This letting go should characterize our thinking about major decisions we must make (eg. What should I do with my life? Should I take that new job? Should we move to another city?). We must be free to do God's will, which sometimes coincides with our own will but sometimes does not. This change should also characterize our approach to the small issues of our daily life, where our tendency is to push for getting our own way, even when it matters very little. We would do well – when there is nothing more at stake than our own preferences – to insist less often on what we want, and to let others have their preferences more frequently. This is especially true in marriage, where both husband and wife must each undergo a certain breaking of their preferences and self-will.

For some of us, a problem with self-will is not immediately obvious, since it only surfaces on certain occasions. It tends to rear its head precisely at those times when we are crossed, when things don't go the way we want them to, or when others find fault with us. For instance, one women I know (we'll call her Sandra) is a very nice, kind person. She's generous and agreeable. But when Sandra wants something, she wants it. And she doesn't graciously take no for an answer, even from those who have authority to decide. At the first resistance to her will she prods and cajoles, but if the no remains no, her eyes begin to flash, her voice gets sharp, and she can become pushy and even nasty. Or take my friend Bob. He's a very talented and likable fellow, who makes a good first impression. Bob, however, is a firm believer, in the infallibility of his own opinion, and in the vast superiority of his way of doing something over all comers. A while back, Bob, who teaches catechism in his Catholic parish, was corrected by the director of his program for taking a different approach to the material than the one they had agreed upon. Bob got irritated and defensive, tried several justifica¬tions of his methods, and showed great unwillingness to make the minor changes that his director required.

Sandra and Bob still have a lot to learn about Christian meekness. Some of the necessary internal breaking of self-will still needs to take place. Having their self-will broken, though, won't mean that they will become weak-willed or will lose all their capacity for having strong opinions or preferences. In fact, it is a great virtue to have a strong will, provided that it is exercised toward the proper ends. As Christians, we are to strongly exercise our wills toward the accomplishment of God's will. At the same time, we must learn to lay down our own will: our attachment to our own way, our preferences, and our desires.

Breaking wildness
The white stallion in the movie manifested his wildness by reacting violently whenever he was confronted with difficult circumstances. For example, if a man tried to approach him, he would react in fear, turn tail, and race off like the wind. When another stallion attempted to challenge his domain, he snorted and neighed with anger, pawed the ground, and charged in full fury with hoofs flying and teeth bared.

As with the horse, there can also be a streak of wildness in us that needs breaking – a tendency to violent, emotional reactions when facing difficult situations: for instance, a tendency to freeze, or else to bolt and run in fear, or a tendency to lash out in anger. Being broken of our wildness means learning to overcome the unruly emotional reactions within us in such a way that we are free to make the response which is proper to a servant of the Most High King.

Being broken, even in the sense used in this article, is always a trying and painful experience. But there is no way around it for those of us who would take on the character of the Lord. Our strength must be brought under God's control, and our self-will and wildness must be broken in order to bring about the full internal, change that frees us to be true servants of God.

[This article is adapted from the book Strength Under Control: Meekness and Zeal, by John Keating, first edition by Servant Publications in 1981, second edition by Kairos Publications 2011.]
John Keating is Vice-President of the Sword of the Spirit and a frequent speaker for Kairos and Sword of the Spirit conferences and seminars. He is an elder in the Servants of the Word, a missionary brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He currently lives in Manila, Philippines.
See previous articles
by John Keating
> Going Against the Tide: Lessons in Faith and Courage from the Book of Daniel, Part 1
> God’s Servants in the Fiery Furnace – Lessons from the Book of Daniel, Part 2
> Joshua Takes the Lead: "Be Strong and of Good Courage," Part 3

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