How Far One Descends
If Character Is The Cream
That Rises To The Top
In my last post I focused on character development in the next life, after death, and my ideas were motivated by Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Rob made some interesting remarks about post-death character development for both Christians and non-Christians alike. What he said doesn’t fit comfortably in most theological schemes.
Conventional wisdom says death is the point at which all winning and losing is final. It’s a finish line not a transition, meaning, of course…
The saved will be transformed into a fully complete and finished state of absolute, never changing, never ending perfection and bliss.
And the unrepentant are fixed forever in a state of never ending corruption and condemnation. There is no turning back, looking up, moving forward or thinking again. It is over, finished and done, for everyone.
Love Wins says otherwise.
But post-death issues isn’t the subject of this article. Character development is.
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Rob also emphasized the importance of building character in this life, so much so that some accuse him of teaching “salvation by works.”
Don’t believe it. The same people who twist Rob’s ideas about character, emphasize the development of character in their teachings also. The hypocrisy is, other than compiling long lists of things-not-allowed and projecting loads of shame on those who falter, they do very little to make a difference.
And, if death isn’t final and character will continue to develop in the next life then a good question to ask is, “Where will the after-life development begin?” The answer is obvious. It will start in the next life where you left off in this one. If you are 85% at death you’ll start there. If you’re only 25% you’ll start there, so the more you do now the less you will need to do later.
Rob’s ideas seem strange because popular teachings actually work against character development. Eternal security is a good example. Conservative theology teaches that salvation can’t be lost. Any character shortage at death won’t effect your eternal destiny. Your salvation is secure – eternal security. And, as I’ve already mentioned, these same schools of thought imply we will be upgraded to 100% perfection at the moment of death. If that is really true, why bother doing the hard work now?
If the good qualities I don’t develop in this life will be immediately added at death what real motivation is there to do anything other than hold on and wait?
Not too worry. I do believe in eternal security and I’m not suggesting Christians take character issues lightly but what is commonly taught doesn’t encourage follow through. It doesn’t make sense to teach “once-saved-always-saved-no-matter-what” and then suggest that whatever character is lacking will be fully added in the blink of an eye at death. Taken together, these ideas don’t motivate the kind effort required to build character in this life.
It is almost as if we are working against the very thing we want to do.
And we need character, both now and later. Every sensible person wants character, but the only ones who develop it are those who make a deliberate effort.
That’s why Rob’s ideas deserve a hearing. Post-death theologies are rather thin on character-reward issues. Ideas are generalized in the extreme and we are encouraged to have a “hold out and wait for it” mentality.
By the way, a great book on this topic is The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. Stephen makes the argument that good habits produce good character. He’s not alone. He defers to many others who said the same thing many times before in many different ways.
So this post is focused on character. Not the character that is shaped in the next life but the character we mold now. And, no, I don’t believe character shaping saves you in the eternal sense of the word but it may save you from a lot of heart ache now and, if Rob is right, in the next life also.
There are three questions to consider:
- What do we mean by “character” or which qualities should we focus on developing?
- What influences the shaping of character?
- How is character shaped?
What Do We Mean By Character
So, “What DO we mean by character?” We often refer to people as having character but that is really true for everyone. No person is characterless. Ted Bundy had character, it just wasn’t very good.
When we say a person has character what we really mean is they have “good” character rather than bad.
So, another way to pose our question is “What qualities of character should we develop?” And the Bible helps us with the answer.
This graphic lists nine qualities of character that every person should aim for. They are God-like qualities and everyone, including the Godless, recognizes them as desirable.
The list isn’t exhaustive but it is representative of a full range of qualities each person should have.
An important observation:
Each good quality on the left is the answer to a less than desirable human response or condition on the right. The bad qualities aren’t antonyms of the good. They are common responses to difficult circumstances. They reflect unhealthy motives, insecurities, immaturity and social trends.
The first item, love, is a good example. “Hate” is the antonym of “love” but while most will avoid being obviously hateful they will readily do “selfish” things, which is a mild, more acceptable version of hate and selfish motives are easily hidden.
Following is a brief explanation for each one:
- Love is the answer to selfishness.
“Love” is others centered and looks for ways to give. A loving response has no selfish intent. John 3:16 illustrates the point.
- Joy is the answer to aimlessness.
Jesus endured the pain of the cross for the joy that was before Him (Hebrews 12:2). His aim (focus) was on the other side of the cross so His joy couldn’t be diminished by the pain.
That means one’s joy is not effected by circumstance if the focus is right. During painful moments joy continues to quietly fill the soul of even a grieving person as long as their focus has the right perspective.
Some people are, by nature, very focused but are often aimed in the wrong direction. They are driven not joyful. In those situations, God may use painful circumstances to correct their course which in turn produces the joy.
Being focused and being focused in the right direction are separate but important issues.
- Peace is the answer to inconvenience.
The desire for control, which is impossible to achieve, means any unexpected circumstantial twist – inconvenience – has the potential to produce anxiety, the opposite of peace. The Bible’s answer to this dilemma is to maintain a spirit of gratitude and vent your frustrations through prayer, submitting the outcome – not your actions – to God (Phil. 4:6-7).
- Kindness is the answer to judgment.
“Kindness” doesn’t replace judgment but it does moderate the intensity of it. Instead of being blinded by rage, “kindness” blinds judgment with objectivity, which circumvents a rash response.
Jesus said “Judge not that you be not judged, for with what judgment you judge you shall be judged” (Matt. 7:1-2). Logically the primary point there is to infuse judgment with caution not eliminate it.
The manner in which you act toward others in judgment, will be received in kind.
- Goodness is the answer to indifference.
The opposite of “Goodness” – “badness” – is not the issue. When a situation requires us to do good, doing nothing – indifference, is just as wrong as being bad.
- Faith is the answer to confusion.
Some people are very confident and because of that, are thought of as full of faith. But that kind of thinking associates “faith” with temperament. “Faith” is not an aspect of personality. It is a spiritual quality and should characterize every person.
Learning to clarify your thinking is a function of faith.
- Gentleness is the answer to presumption.
When you don’t make presumptions about people you tend to be more cautious in your responses – gentle. Gentleness is a by-product of sensitivity – the more we investigate how others feel and exactly what they think, the less presumptuous we are in our expectations. The more gentle we are in our responses.
- Self Control is the answer to inexperience.
Again, this quality is not personality based. Some people are by nature excessively disciplined but that isn’t the point. Everyone can develop self control and one way it develops is through experience.
Cycling is a good example. When I first started riding with cleats I fell several times. Once I gained more experience, I become more confident in releasing my cleats and didn’t panic every time I stopped or slowed down. Experience produces self control. Anyone can develop that.
The next two questions “What influences the shaping of character” and “How is character shaped?” are answered in the next post.
Check out what Rob Bell believes here.
See a review of Love Wins, chapter 1, here.
See a discussion on the “Age of Accountability” here.
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