We all know someone who’s a real character, don’t we? Maybe it’s The man who is always complaining about the strangest, most absurd things or the woman who is so cheap she will use a single tea bag 10 or 12 times before she throws it out. It could be that fellow who always has a terrible joke for you whenever you meet. Maybe it’s that wonderful lady who never has a single unkind word to say about anyone. And for the few I’ve just given you could probably think of a dozen more. People withcharacter are easy to remember. They stand out from the crowd. People who are real characters tend to change the way you look at life.
So have you ever stopped to ask yourself why we refer to these kind of people as having character? The answer may not be what you think. For good or bad, people become characters when they are true to themselves no matter what the circumstances.
No matter how many tea bags she can afford that woman will always reuse each one till there’s not a single ounce of flavour left. No matter how well things are going, that man will always find something that’s wrong. No matter how sad or hurting that fellow is you know he will try to make you feel better with the silliest joke he can think of. And no matter how terrible a person is, no matter what they may have done that lady would never even once think of saying anything even remotely hurtful. That’s real character … sticking to your guns, no matter what the circumstances, no matter what the rest of the world might think. Sadly, that’s why so few people truly have it.
So where does real character, come from? St. Paul describes it in this way: (3-5) “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” Suffering and Endurance? No wonder more people don’t have real character! Who wants to go through all that? Be honest! Who among us, if given the choice, would actually choose suffering and endurance? It might be fun to be a little strange or quirky, a little different from the rest … but only until people begin to make fun of us for it … only until it begins to get in the way of what other people might think of us … only until it makes us stand out so far from the rest that we become a target.
How much time and energy do we spend every single day trying just to fit in? Wearing the right clothes, watching the right shows, hanging out with the right people, having the right opinions. It’s at the heart of so much of our culture. It was once said, “The primary danger of the television screen lies not so much in the behaviour it produces as the behaviour it prevents.” (Christian Medical Society Journal, 1977) Our TV and Internet culture tells us to fit in, make differences into similarities, cover over, hide, or just plain ignore that which isn’t the same. And why? So things will be easier for you and everyone! So you won’t have to suffer for being different, for standing out.
But character isn’t always (or only) about being quirky is it? If anyone can understand being called to be true to yourself and your beliefs even when the world scoffs, it’s Christians. This is the very thing Jesus laid before us, His disciples, in the Gospel for today. (Mk 8:34-37) “And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?”
Deny ourselves, take up crosses, lose our life? Sounds an awful lot like standing out from the crowd and suffering to boot! It may be all well and fine to talk about being Christian where it ultimately doesn’t matter – here in church … but get out there and do the same and you’re just asking for ridicule … or worse. Being Christian is great until it begins to cost us something. Till people make fun, are rude or nasty or till we are unnecessarily judged. On the occasional Sunday morning might be one thing, but what about when being Christian impedes upon our personal time? What about when the cost is missing an evening or two every week, for the sake of the church and its mission? What about having to forgo sleeping late to take in a Bible Study? What about being ready to give witness to your faith, no matter where or when or to whom?
When the price becomes uncomfortable how many Christians do as the world does and pretend to be something they aren’t. But trying to be something we are not won’t keep us from facing troubles. Neither will running away from what we are. As the old saying goes, You can run … but you can’t hide! Trouble and suffering are a part of life. Cross bearing is part and parcel of being a Christian. And not simply as some kind of Divine punishment for sin. Even suffering has a godly goal.
Martin Luther put it this way in His commentary on Romans:
“If God should not test us by tribulation, it would be impossible for any man to be saved. The reason is that our nature has been so deeply curved in upon itself because of the viciousness of original sin that it not only turns the finest gifts of God in upon itself and enjoys them, indeed, it even uses God Himself to achieve these aims, but it also seems to be ignorant of this very fact, that in acting so iniquitously, so perversely, and in such a depraved way, it is even seeking God for its own sake. Thus the prophet Jeremiah says in Jer. 17:9: “The heart is perverse above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” that is, it is so curved in on itself that no man, no matter how holy (if a testing is kept from him) can understand it.”1
To explain it even further he goes on to say:
“Of whatever quality suffering finds characteristics and people to be, such it makes them even more. Thus if a person is carnal, weak, blind, evil, irascible, arrogant, etc., when trial comes, he becomes more carnal, weaker, blinder, more evil, more irascible, more arrogant, etc. And on the other hand, if he is spiritual, brave, wise, good, meek, and humble, he becomes more spiritual, braver, wiser, better, meeker, and humbler … Those people talk nonsense who attribute their bad temper or their impatience to that which causes them offense or suffering. For suffering does not make a person impatient but merely shows that he has been or is still impatient. Thus a person learns only in suffering what kind of man he really is…”2
It is only facing the times where the cost is more than we are comfortable with, it is only in suffering, you see, that we truly begin to see what we are made of. And all too often, what we begin to see is not what we would like to see. All too often we see a lack of real character. Why, consider just this old saying: “You can tell a lot about the character of a person by the way that they treat those who can do nothing for them. What do you see when you measure yourself against that definition? How much of what you do in life is really, truly, done for those who cannot and will not ever return the favour?
But then again, we know as Christians, that it ultimately isn’t about how we measure up. We can’t. We don’t have the character needed. But Jesus does. Consider that definition of character once again but this time for Him. “You can tell a lot about the character of a person by the way that they treat those who can do nothing for them.” I believe that our text has something to say about that: (6-11) “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation.”
Jesus is truly the one with ultimate character. Despite the cost, He remained true to himself and to God’s plan of salvation. Despite the cost He came and died for those who could never do anything for him in return. Indeed, he did it all for us while we were still bound in our sin, while we were enemies of God. Not caring one bit what the world might think of him, He stood apart and became a target for us. He took up His cross … OUR CROSS … and saved us from our own lack of character. IN that cross he continues to give us forgiveness and freedom, and the hope of everlasting life.
And what’s more, He continues to stand by us even when the going gets tough. He stands by us to lend us the character we so sorely lack. He stands by us in the Word and in the sacraments, remaining true to His promises. He will never let us down. He will never let us face trials or suffering alone. In the Water of our Baptism, in the Bread and Wine – His Body and Blood, in His eternal Word he will make us firm in the faith, and strong enough to stand up for him even when the cost is more than we think we can bear. He will use suffering to produce endurance, endurance to produce character, and character to give us hope!
Standing out from the rest is never easy. Being a real character takes perseverance and endurance. But not to worry! God gives us plenty of opportunity for each so that character may be gained, and hope secured. Each new trial we face is an opportunity to be true to our faith and ourselves. Opportunities to stand true in Christ Jesus our Lord. Through the gift of faith we live in grace and grace builds us up in Christ by the very things that would wear down others around us. There’s an old saying: “Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds you down, or polishes you up depends on what you are made of. (James Hewett)
And what are you made of dear friends? Sturdier stuff that anything life in this world can throw at you! Your Character is founded on the reconciliation and peace that only Christ himself can bring. Your hope … heaven itself! (1-2) “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
1 Luther, M. (1999, c1972). Vol. 25: Luther’s works, vol. 25 : Lectures on Romans (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.