In conversation the other night a good friend told me that his son and his son’s girlfriend are considering getting an apartment. Both are active in their church and both profess Jesus as Savior and Lord. My friend has spoken with both of them and urged them to live out the faith they profess and not do something that, like it or not, will both give Christianity a bad name among unbelievers and encourage others, both inside and outside the church, to emulate them.
How we as Christians make decisions is the issue here. If we have truly decided that the Christian gospel is true, that fact needs to guide every other decision we make. There are several reasons we don’t bring Jesus into our decision-making. The first is that far too many of us are Christians because of what we can get out of being Christians. We have had God’s supposed desire to give us all kinds of blessings preached at us so much that we forget that Christianity is, in Max Lucado’s title phrase, “Not about us.” It is about worshiping and honoring the God who both made us and who, at great cost to Himself, forgave us and brought us into His redeemed family. We are, as Paul says, “Not [our] own, [we] were bought at a price,” (I Corinthians 6:19, 20—bought by the One who came, “to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
The second is that we have not been taught even to think, let alone think like Christians. I have previously written here about the “feeling” nature of our culture as well as the failure of our schools to teach us to think. The church has too often mirrored that “feeling” culture, stressing, in the unfortunate words of a Matthew West song, letting our “heart defeat [our] mind[s].” The words imply that it is our love for God in our hearts that overcomes the sin in our minds. The biblical view is different: it is the heart that is “deceitful and dreadfully wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), and the mind that helps us overcome evil—“Don’t conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).Jesus Himself stressed our need both to know and follow the truth (John 8:31; 14:6), and the word truth suggests something grasped by the mind.
The third reason is that we have not grasped the purpose of the Christian life. N. T. Wright, in his book After You Believe, sets forth most systematically what he teaches in some of his other books as well. He says that most on the religious left think that the goal of the Christian life is to bring in the kingdom of God. It is up to us to make the kingdom effective on earth. Meanwhile many on the conservative, fundamentalist or evangelical side of the church think the goal of the Christian life is to prepare for Heaven, to get ourselves ready for the time when the Kingdom of God really does come so we can truly enjoy all its eternal blessings.
But Wright suggests a third goal for the Christian life, and I think it’s the right one. Wright would have us understand that we live at the point where the kingdom of God intersects with and overlaps into the kingdoms of this world. The kingdom of God is neither so distant from this world that the two never touch, as the Deists believe, nor is it so omnipresent that everything in this world is virtually already God, as the pantheists believe. Rather, the kingdom of God touches this world everywhere there is a Christian believer We are citizens of the kingdom of God (Philippians 3:20), and so we represent that kingdom in this world. That is why Paul calls us, “Ambassadors for Christ” (II Corinthians 5:20), and why Jesus told His disciples, “The Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:24).
So, Wright says, since we represent the kingdom of God in this world, since we stand at the point where the kingdoms of God and of the world intersect, the true goal of the Christian life is the development of character. The idea of character development isn’t exactly in fashion in the world these days and the church has largely neglected it as well. Yet it is clear from such scriptures as Romans 5:4, that character is important. It is as we develop Christian character, as we identify and work to overcome our character flaws, that we achieve the goal of the Christian life or, put another way, show why God has left us here in the first place.
Let’s be sure we understand what character development is not. It is not legalism. No amount of good character will get us into Heaven if we don’t believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Second, teaching character development is not a denial of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:21-24. We are not saying we should not lay up treasures for ourselves in Heaven. We are saying that the way we do that is through developing a character that represents the values, ethics and morals of the kingdom of God, and God has made it clear in Scripture exactly what those values, ethics and morals are.
How is character attained? How is the goal reached? By making the right decisions whenever those decisions present themselves. Wright speaks of the pilot who landed his passenger jet in the Hudson, saving the lives of everyone on board and possibly more on the ground. He describes how that pilot practiced the right steps in their exact sequence over and over again and so, when presented with a real emergency, did just the right things in just the right way. Character is developed when we make the right decision a thousand times, so we we don’t have to think when the thousand-and-first situation presents itself. We have developed character when doing the right thing is second nature, not the result of a process of decision-making.
We are intersects. The kingdom of God meets the kingdom of his world in and through us. So fight your character flaws. Make godly decisions. And please pray for my friend’s son and girlfriend, and everyone else like them, to make the right decision, that they too may build godly character.