Monday, August 20, 2012

Christian Character Development Part 4

Now we reach the last, but not least, of the character traits Peter listed dear friends and readers,

Love.  What differentiates this love from the brotherly love we looked at in the last post on Christian character development?  Is it the fact that one would be willing to die for another?  Hardly, men die for romantic love, ερος, they die for love of family, στοργη, and we’ve already seen they’ll die for love of a best friend, especially in a military context, φιλος.  But will somebody die for a stranger, or even a bitter enemy?  That is what the last character trait, or αγαπη, is all about.

Agape love, which is how that last kind of love is pronounced and known, is best defined as pure and unselfish love.  Every other love we’ve seen has an element of selfishness behind it.  Romantic love has the end of sexual relations as its motivation.  Familial love has an element of possession in it.  And love of a best friend is motivated by a mutual return in loyalty and deed.  But agape love seeks nothing in return.  In the case of such love for God it is motivated by an appreciation for the things we learn about God, his character.  In the case of man the fact that man was created “in the image” of God is enough for us to love those around us and even those who would harm us.

We have two examples from scripture of agape love which stick out beyond all others.  The first is Jesus’ sacrificial death for us.  But while he was on that cross he showed the extent to which he loved even those who drove the nails into his flesh and hung him up naked and bleeding for all to see.  It is recorded for us in Luke 23: 34, where he prayed “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  The second is from the experiences of the early Church where Stephen was put on trial and then stoned.  As he was dying we are told in Acts 7:60 that his last words were a loud prayer to God, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”  That his prayer had a favorable hearing is indicated for us by the selection of one of their number, the man who watched over their cloaks so that they wouldn’t be stolen Saul of Tarsus, to become the Apostle to the Gentiles and the twelfth foundational stone of the Christian church.

Agape love ties everything else together.  That was probably why it came last in Peter’s list.  We know that Peter knew of Paul’s letters to the congregations and probably read them (2 Pet. 3:15, 16).  So he may well have been familiar with Paul’s words in the thirteenth chapter of first Corinthians, where Paul used both the first and last verses of that chapter to show that love ties everything together (1 Cor. 13: 1-3, 13).  In the first verses Paul shows how important agape love is when he informs his readers, and that includes us, that if he did not have that pure and unselfish love all his impressive works would be for naught.

So the question then becomes do we have this kind of love so intensely for others that we would pray for our persecutors even as they pull tight the rope around our necks as they murder us for being followers of Christ?  I guess you probably realize why I can say those who contend that agape love is a cold, unemotional, exercise of the will are wrong.  Still, if we haven’t yet reached that point in our character development we may well want to work on it to the best of our abilities.

So there we have it, eight character traits.  We’re told that if we “diligently” cultivate faith, moral character, knowledge, self-control, endurance, brotherly kindness and love that it will “keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in attaining a full knowledge of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah.” (2 Pet. 4:8).

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Christian Character Development Part 3

So far in our study on Character Development we’ve considered four Character traits the apostle Peter told his fellow Christians to work on in his second letter (1:4-8).  Let us now consider some more.

Endurance is the “quality… of withstanding hardship or stress” (The American Heritage Dictionary).  The Greek word is υπομενω (G5278) which is a strengthened form of μενω (G3306) which means to be placed or rooted; to endure.  Υπομενω, then, means to “endure, bear bravely and calmly” (Thayer’s, pg. 674, meaning 2b.)  The implication in the word is to endure, or bear up, under tribulation.  Tribulation comes in many forms and from many directions.  In the United State of America, where I live it comes primarily through being disowned by family or friends and the consequent killing of one’s reputation.

The world does not like that which is not its own and persecuted our Lord first of all. (John 1:9-11).  As his slaves we are no better than our Master and can expect no better than what he got (Matt. 10:25, 25).  So family may cut us off, as some of mine have, and one can expect to be slandered, often behind their backs by both family and friends.  They may lose jobs, as one Christian fellow I know did when the ministers of his town banded together to get him fired because of his beliefs.

In some lands, though, true Christians are subject to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment and even execution.  They may also be subject to mob attacks and beaten or even killed.  And lest we think we are secure from that kind of persecution here in the Western nations there are historical precedents as recent as the twentieth century for such harsh persecution.

So endurance is an important quality to cultivate right now if we find ourselves in lands where persecution does not extend beyond social disapprobation.  And in lands where it is worse it behooves Christians to cultivate that quality all the faster.  Although no persecution is pleasant, our Lord told us to rejoice over it in his sermon on the mount (Matt. 5:11, 12).  The last verse tells us why “for great is your reward in heaven.”  That is the bottom line for true Christians and keeping our focus on that is what helps us to have the proper attitude in the face of persecution.

Godliness is the next trait.  Godliness is translated from the Greek word ευσεβεια (G2150).  Vine’s says that this word “denotes that piety, which characterized by a Godward attitude, does that which is well-pleasing to Him,” that is, God.  So the true Christian wants to please the Almighty God, Jehovah, and seeks the already covered knowledge of what pleases him, as the person portrayed by the psalmist in the first psalm, and then does his or her best to do it.

The truly godly Christian is not one who does things for show, rather, he or she is motivated from the heart to please the God whose character they have come to appreciate.  Thus they become like a lamp themselves, shinning forth in this world darkened by Satan’s influence.  Although it can be cultivated true Godliness is not a forced trait since it comes from the heart and is motivated by God’s Holy Spirit.

Brotherly Kindness is the last trait we will consider today.  The Greek word here is φιλαδελφια (G5360).  We know the word from the city name Philadelphia, or the City or Brotherly Love as it is often called.  This word is a combination of two words, one which means brother and the other which is one of the five words in Greek which mean love.  This love was the sort of love one feels for their best friend, or a soldier feels for a fellow soldier.  It is a deep love, one which will move a person to stand and fight beside a bother in arms, and even die for him.  It is also the same love which will move us to stand up for our best friend and help them no matter what the trouble or risk.

So by adding brother to loving as a best friend we get a combination telling us in addition to the traits already discussed to cultivate love for our Christian brethren, such as we would die for them if need be.  This is consistent with a command Jesus gave specifically to his followers to follow after his death.  On the night before his crucifixion Jesus commanded his disciples, not once, but twice for emphasis, that they were to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:31-35; 15:12-17).  Jesus did everything he could for his disciples, spending himself right through to death.  He sacrificed his life for them and us, that we might have life immortal in the heavens should we prove worthy.  Thus he left us the command to love our Christian brethren, even unto death if necessary.

That means we will always want the best for our brethren.  We will watch out for their reputations and not add to any burden they might already have to bear due to the hatred of this world by passing on unkind words.  Should we see them take a misstep, we would want to help them adjust their way in a spirit of mildness (Gal. 6:1).  Should we see them in need we would fill that need, even if it meant materially, pulling money out of our own pockets if God has given us enough surplus we can fill that need (James 2:14-17).  We would give freely and willingly and not seek excuses to justify otherwise, thus be in danger of becoming judges over our own godly brethren (Matt. 7:1-3).  The aim is to be perfect in our love toward all, but especially our Christian brethren as our father in heaven is perfect in his (Matt 5: 48). 

By doing this towards each other we become a true brotherhood, and our strength becomes more than the sum.  That helps us to be Godly and have more endurance.  It is not without reason the Bible often applies military metaphors to the brotherhood of Christians.  We are not alone in our race, never forget that dear reader.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Christian Character Development Part 2

Greetings again my friends and readers:

In the last post we started a series on Christian character development.  We considered two qualities listed in 2 Peter 1:4-8, faith and moral character.  In this post we continue starting with knowledge.

Knowledge is an essential component for our walk in the Christian way.  Without it faith is impossible in the first place since one has to know what one is having faith in.  It is so important that Jesus referred to it in rebuking Satan when he said that one must live “by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:4).  Of course Jesus was referring to the inspired word of God, the source of truth our creator has given us and against which all teaching must be measured (Acts 17:10-11, where we have recorded for us the Bereans checking the Holy Scriptures to confirm Paul’s testimony).

Divinely inspired knowledge isn’t secret.  It is as open to all as the Bible.  It doesn’t require training in some seminary or university to know and understand being simple enough that many throughout the Gospel age have figured it out in its essentials often with little more than the right scraps of God’s word available to them, such as the book of Romans, which is an exposition on basic truth.  There are bible helps today, books and other literature written by mature Christians, but one should always check what is written against the Bible itself to make sure such writings really do teach the truth, just as the Bereans mentioned earlier did.

Correct knowledge of the truth enables us to keep our steps straight and serves as a light to guide us in this darkness (Ps. 119:105).  Without knowledge of what God wants of us we wouldn’t know how to build the kind of character he wants.  And he has not left us without that knowledge as we are considering the list of character traits he wants us to have he left us right now.  Because of its importance it is indeed that Peter included it in his list to the brethren in the first century.  That is why Bible reading goes before Bible study by means of Bible helps.  By reading it daily using a good translation we will have the requisite grounding in the word to recognize what is truth and what is not.  Thus the child of God makes time to daily read the word (Ps. 1).

Self-control is next.  The word Peter used was ἐγκράτεια (G1466), which Thayer’s defines as “self-control (the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, especially his sensual appetites).”  The true Christian doesn’t live primarily to satisfy his or her desires as the world does.  He or she has given up all earthly hopes for a greater gain, to be partakers of the divine nature as Christ is (2 Peter 1:4).  So the ones called out of this world are under trial right now as to their fitness to join their fellows as kings and priests in the coming kingdom of the Christ so they must develop this quality in order to be fit for their role in that kingdom (Rev. 20: 4-6; 1 Cor. 9:24-27).

So self-control is a mark of Christians.  They don’t vent anger, over drink, overeat, watch pornography, or indulge in many other ways those in the world do.  Although they may marry, sexual relations are characterized by love with the Christian not letting selfishness take over and causing harm to his or her partner physically or emotionally as far as possible.  That means they will not insist that their spouse engage in distasteful and dangerous acts many in the world do, nor will they insist on their way when their spouse finds something distasteful or legitimately aren’t up to it.  “Everything goes” just isn’t the way of the Christ dear readers, and it shouldn’t be ours.

To be self-controlled also means the true Christian is honest in their relations with others.  The Christian employer gives his workers an honest living wage and Christian workers give an honest day’s work for their wages, whether their employer is a Christian or not.  True Christians are honest in their business practices, not seeking the advantage over others with sharp or dishonest business practices.  And those with self-control are honest even when it hurts their reputation…or even their pocketbooks.

Self-control includes controlling one’s tongue.  There is so much damage the unguarded tongue can cause.  Gossip destroys reputations and causes resentment, especially when untrue.  Thoughtless words cause anger and resentment as well.  It is not without good reason that James wrote of how such a little “member” of our body can cause such great fires (James 3).

And the preceding paragraphs are by no means exhaustive on the subject of self-control.

We’ve now considered four of the character traits we want to cultivate in order to develop our characters as God wants of us dear readers.  We’ll continue on with the next in the series.

Have a blessed day.