Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Character Comes Before Ability in Relationships


(On the west side of Michigan, Lake Michigan shoreline)

My physician possesses high character, and great ability. He has both qualities. But if I was forced to choose between a physician of great character, and one of great ability, I'd lean towards ability. Better is a doctor who knows what he is doing. 

But when it comes to relationships, I think differently. Character is more important than ability, when it comes to relationships. In a friendship, or in a marriage, if I have to choose, I'll take someone with high character and low ability before someone with high ability and low character. The latter person will cheat on you, or betray you, or throw you under the bus.

Through the years abilities decrease, but character can keep increasing. As Paul wrote, Though my abilities are wasting away, my character is being transformed day by day. (2 Cor. 4:16, Piippo translation)

In After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters., N. T. Wright says, "The central thing that is supposed to happen "after you believe" is the transformation of character." This is the Galatians 4:19 thing - that Christ be formed in you. Or, as Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 1:12 - "We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ." 

This formation, the development of Christ-character in you, is your calling. It happens as you indwell Christ.

The goal of our own character formation into Jesus-likeness is love. Love is "the greatest of the" core virtues. We may disagree with others, but we must never cease loving them. Jesus loved those he disagreed with so much that he died for them. We are to even love our enemies, in spite of our opposing views. Anything less than this and you have left Jesus. (This does not, of course, mean that we affirm everything the other believes. To do that is not love, either.)

What will character formation look like? Because it comes from attachment to Christ, it will look like Christ. Christ forms you, meta-morphs you into one who loves and lives as Christ is.

Wright's example is Sully Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who landed a disabled passenger jet in the Hudson River and saved 155 lives. The character of a pilot had been formed in him. He no longer needed to wear a wristband that asked, "What Would a Pilot Do?" (WWPD) Rather, "the skills and ability ran right through him, top to toe." 

Wright says "The key to it all is that the Christian vision of character that has become second nature is precisely all about discovering what it means to be human - human in a way that most of us never imagine."

Regarding Sullenberger, "virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices have become "second nature." Not "first nature," as though they happened naturally. Like an acquired taste, such choices and actions, which started off being practiced with difficulty, ended up being "second nature." (James K. A. Smith and Dallas Willard say the same.)

For Wright, our "first nature" is our subhumanity. The "second nature" Christ wants to form in us is his nature, which is true humanity. God wants to rescue us out of our subhumanity and transform us into true humanity. Some, when they fail, say "I'm only human." They should say, "I'm subhuman." 

Wright's book shows how God metamorphs us from subhumanity into true humanity, how God forms our character into Christlikeness.

What can I do about this? I look at my own self, and focus on my own change. I pray to be transformed into someone who is more like Jesus, and loves their enemies so much they would even die for them. I learn to live an abiding life, which is the place where the character of Jesus flows into me, like a vine resources its branches.

I pray for the character of Christ to be formed in me.