What we say and what we do may pose the most profound tension in our lives. James, the brother of Jesus and author of the Epistle, wrote about the inner conflict happening in the life of a double-minded person. It's an instability that not only can wreck our personal witness, but even our self-image. And, today, people of faith have a lot of eyes on them because of the world's expectation of what we say and what we do. Sometimes the secular world examines believers and the church through out-of-focus lenses, faulty filters that see words and actions in dichotomy. At other times, the criticism is genuine. We talk big, a lot. Mark Twain wrote, “Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.”
Then there's this biblical expectation of proven character, that which is greater than our words. It's part of what Paul wrote to the Romans, a great listing of the spiritual virtues that grow out of the tough elements of life. He wrote it like this, "...we rejoice in our afflictions because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope" (Romans 5:3-4). The HCSB translators raised the bar on the character issue by rendering "dokime", the usual term for "character", to actually mean "proven character". Doing a little word-study reveals that "dokime" is more about character that is tried and field-tested than merely conceptual. There is an experiential element to this kind of character that moves it to another level of understanding. It communicates "trustiness" both to others and to ourselves. It's character beyond rhetoric, faith that consistently stays, stands, and is strong. And, this kind of character is the product of real-time endurance.
It's thin ice, this talk about character. In one corner are the church critics, the growing population of "nones", atheists, skeptics, sophisticates, and secularists who want to define character in other than biblical terms. They dream of authenticity, realness, genuine character that elevates love, tolerance, peace, and acceptance over self-denial, commitment, responsibility, and accountability. It's hybrid character that is more self-defined than measured by any measured standard. Forgive my own cynicism, but Paul wrote, "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). There's really no debate here. The world doesn't get it!
In the other corner of this debate is the church, the Bride of Christ, his Body. Her members are hypocrites to the core, human people who are being shaped by God into the image of his only Son, Jesus. Being disciples of Jesus means that God is forming the character of Christ in each of us, using whatever means it takes. Because we have this treasure in clay pots, there's always a disconnect between our human capabilities and the actual costs of discipleship. Still, the character he is building is absolute and not relative, verified and affirmed in the pages of Scripture. Here's the kicker. This character is proven in the school endurance. What is more, this proven character is the catalyst for hope.
Here are five thoughts---
1. Authentic Christian character isn't mere words. Let's not minimize the importance of our words because they are the means of transmitting faith to others. Genuine apologetics learns and practices the wise use of words in presenting the tenets of faith. But, real character is that which is proven in the test. The test is endurance.
2. Endurance is overcoming. Jesus reminded his disciples they would have trouble in the world. In the next thought he reminded them that he had overcome the world. Overcoming didn't mean they wouldn't die or suffer. Overcomers are the humans who endure what the world gives, however horrible, and join him for eternity. That's why endurance produces hope.
3. Endurance is one of the most potent witnesses to faith. Church motion today denies spiritual endurance and therefore, communicates less than authentic character. Study the data at any number of reputable church research organizations to get a picture of the front and back doors of the church, the revolving door on the pastor's study, and the shortened tenures of ministry personnel across the board. This may be the real character issue we're hearing about so much from the younger populations.
4. Christ is our example of endurance and character. The world wants to know who appointed the church to be the arbiters of truth and character. Well, that's easy. Jesus did. He endured the cross for the joy set before him and gave us an example that we should follow. We are to emulate this character. And, that is produced in the lava of endurance.
5. Accountability factors into the endurance and character debate. Pastors and ministers, especially those with short tenure, often experience the unique loneliness of isolation. But, church discipline begins in the pastors study, and other church offices too, as well in those of associational and denominational servants. We've created a free- flowing culture of church movement where the clergy and laity can disappear without much challenge.
The long and short of this thing is that we can't talk character while our endurance numbers are so pitiful. Authentic character isn't about educational credentials, board memberships, offices held, blogs written, the number of people we baptized last year, how many mission trips we took, or buildings that were erected under our leadership. Real, proven character is how we stay and stand strong under the pressures that should attend our service.
Author Stuart Briscoe is credited with listing the qualifications of a minister. He wrote, "Qualifications of a pastor (or any Christian leader): the mind of a scholar, the heart of a child, and the hide of a rhinoceros". There's more than a grain of truth in that one. And, because it is so true, a measure of humorous irony too.
But, the real qualification is more basic. We must have the mind of Christ.
"...looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Hebrews 12:2).