This is part of a series based largely on 'Virtue Reborn' by Tom Wright.
At 1526 on January 15, 2009, US Airways flight 1549 took off from La Guardia airport in New York bound for North Carolina. All was normal until, 2 minutes after takeoff, the aircraft ran into a flock of Canada Geese. Geese don’t do much for Jet engines and in this case both engines were disabled. The plane was at that moment heading over the Bronx, one of the most heavily populated areas of New York. It looked like a disaster in the making. The nearest airstrip was too far away and probably too short for a loaded passenger jet and the freeway just below was crowded with cars. That left just one option: land in the Hudson River. Now that’s a lot easier said than done, especially with no power from the engines. One small mistake and the plane would most likely flip over, break up and quickly sink, with huge loss of life in the freezing water. The captain, Chesley Sullenberger and his co-pilot had just 2 or 3 minutes to do everything necessary to get the plane down safely – cut off the engines, turn off the autopilot and the flight management systems, get the speed right, adjust the flaps to enable them to glide in, keep the nose at just the right angle, activate the “ditch” system to seal off the vents so it wouldn’t sink once they’d landed, etc., all while they manoeuvred the plane into the direction the river was flowing. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. But they did it all. The plane landed safely and all the passengers got off.
So how did they manage it? They didn’t have time to think through an escape strategy. No time to look up the emergency procedures. No, all they could do was rely on what many years of practise and experience had taught them to do, almost without thinking.
This is what we mean when we talk about character. It’s that pattern of thought and behaviour that runs all the way through a person so that what they should do, they do almost without thinking about it, in every circumstance. It’s a bit like this Tenby Rock I picked up on my holiday– one of those candies where the name is embedded in the middle, so it runs all the way through, so no matter where you break it the name is there.
It’s the opposite of those people who are superficially “nice” but dig beneath the surface and you find something different. You see it if they ever strike trouble. Then their real nature comes out: in spite, or cruel words, or foul language.
I’m sure you realise that this sort of thing doesn’t come naturally. As George said last week, what comes naturally is often the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Just think about what your natural inclinations are when someone rubs you up the wrong way. Are you naturally inclined to be nice to them, or do you feel like saying something nasty? What we’re talking about has to be developed by long practise, by a series of choices and decisions that train our minds so those things become second nature, so we do them “automatically”.
Let me suggest that this sort of training in good character involves three things:
1. Having the right goal.
2. Working out the right steps to get there
3. Making those steps habitual, a matter of second nature.
That sounds simple doesn’t it? But of course it’s a lot easier said than done.
Think about the first point. What is it that we’re aiming for? Is it like the rich young ruler we heard about last week? Are we simply aiming to keep the rules 100%? Well that’s not going to work is it? Or is it like the postmodern existentialist who simply wants to live authentically in the moment, to do what feels good?
What’s our ultimate goal as Christians?
The rich young ruler knew it deep down. Our ultimate goal is heaven. Our goal is to live forever in God's new world, with new bodies, enjoying him and giving him praise.
But here’s the amazing thing: it isn’t just pie in the sky when you die. When Jesus began his ministry he called people to join him by announcing that the Kingdom of Heaven was here. He called out a group of men and women who’d form this new kingdom; to show to the world what happens when you live under God’s rule. When he left he sent his Spirit to fill them so that they became truly the people of God. That means we're already partaking of that new kingdom, albeit in a restricted form. In 2 Cor 3:18 Paul says we’re “being transformed into [Christ’s] image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
So if our goal is to live in God’s new world, with new bodies, enjoying God and giving him praise, what are the steps we need to take to be ready for it?
No doubt someone will say we don’t need to take any steps, because Jesus has done everything necessary for us to be saved. Quite true, at one level; but not true at another. We’ll look at Rom 6 in a moment but let me first suggest that our task right now is to begin to take steps that lead to us being the sorts of people who’ll fit naturally into God's kingdom; steps that’ll help us develop Christian virtue.
Aristotle was the first to come up with this idea of virtue. His aim was to develop a rounded human being; someone who’d be considered to be flourishing.
To be that he suggested you needed 4 principle virtues: courage, justice, prudence and temperance. He called them the cardinal virtues. Cardinal comes from the Latin for hinge, so these were the ones around which the human character turns.
But as I’ve said these characteristics don’t come naturally, they have to be practised so they become automatic.
When I was at school our basketball team included a player who was good enough to get into the local A grade team and later into the Olympic squad. He was tall and had natural talent, but when he joined that team the first thing they had him do was to spend hours on the court practising his shooting – from all parts of the court. The aim was to get him to the point that when the ball came to him he’d simply know where the ring was and put the ball through it.
One of the things that medical science has shown is that the brain isn't a fixed and neutral mechanism - it's actually plastic and can be changed by repetition so that oft-repeated actions become instinctive.
But it’s important that we practise the right sorts of behaviour. When we were overseas this year I hired a car on a number of occasions and each time I got into the car I had to remind myself to stay on the right hand side of the road. I did find myself on one occasion turning left out of a petrol station and blithely driving down the left hand side straight towards the oncoming traffic. Why? Because my brain has been conditioned to automatically stay on that side of the road – which is very helpful in Australia but not so good in America!
So we need to remember that the training we give our bodies and minds has to be the right sort, the helpful sort.
So if we want to prepare ourselves for living with God in heaven we need to start practising the sort of behaviour, the sort of language, the sort of thinking that fits with being in God’s presence.
So are we talking about rules? Do we follow the rules in order to be good enough for the kingdom? Some people suggest that Jesus came to show us the ultimate example of how to live in God's kingdom? All we have to do is follow his example. But is that true? Is that why he came? Well no, because it wouldn't actually have helped us. When I watched my friend playing basketball it didn’t help me. As much as I might practise my shooting the reality was that I was 6 inches shorter than he was so I was never going to be more than a supporting player. So too, we can try to imitate Christ by obeying all the rules but it won’t change the fact that we’re all fallen human beings who can't do it.
The problem with rules is that they're generally restrictive. Even a positive rule like ‘be generous’ loses its power because it takes away the nature of what it's commanding. And rules always provide us with loopholes. Do you remember the way
Jesus criticised the Pharisees over their rules for tithing and the way they’d managed to avoid it in places?
No, Jesus came to set us free, to bring forgiveness of sins, not to simply show us how to live according to the rules.
But having said that we need to add that Jesus didn’t just come, as some people want you to believe, to help us get in touch with ourselves; to free us up to do whatever feels right at the time. A classic example of this is the advice in Hamlet by Polonius to his son Laertes as he’s leaving for Paris. Among other lines is the advice “To thine own self be true.” It’s been taken up by our modern world as sage advice, but in fact Shakespeare portrays Polonius as a fool: all air and no substance. And of course it doesn’t take much thought, if we’re honest with ourselves, to know that what feels right is often wrong.
What’s more, we can’t just say Jesus will forgive us if we get it wrong, so don’t worry, just do it. Nor can we say “God’s standards are so high we’ll never achieve them so let’s give up the struggle and just rely on God’s grace.”
In fact that’s the suggestion that our Bible reading today addresses. “1What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” Is that a fair conclusion to draw from Paul’s explanation of the gospel? If we’re justified by faith what does it matter if we sin? Jesus death is sufficient for a lifetime of sin. But Paul’s response is very clear: “2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Rom 6:1-2). Conversion has brought a change in our status that must affect our lifestyle. He goes on: “4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Walking in newness of life means living the way Jesus does, in righteousness and truth. So there is a sense in which we follow Jesus’ example, not to earn our salvation, but to live out the reality that we’re now living in him; living a life that fits with our future life in heaven.
This is where Christian character comes in: character that shapes our behaviour so we automatically obey the rules, not for the sake of the rules but because that’s who we are.
And so we come back to the question of how to transform our character. How do we mould our fallen nature to be more like Christ’s risen nature?
Again from Hamlet, but this time with good advice: Hamlet knows that his mother and her lover, Hamlet’s uncle, have killed his father so they could continue a love affair. He wants to persuade his mother to give up this adulterous relationship but she says if she stops the affair and pretends to be faithful to her late husband it’d just be hypocritical. She’d just be “putting it on”. She’d prefer to be true to herself.
But Hamlet suggests that if she puts on the right behaviour and does it repetitively it will become the natural thing to do:
He says: “Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either master the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.”
Here’s the secret to transforming our character. The more we make the right choices, the right decisions, the easier it is. The more we resist temptation the easier it is to resist next time. It’s interesting that Paul in Ephesians 4 instructs his readers “22…to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:22-24)
“Putting it on” isn’t a sign of hypocrisy if we’re putting it on with the intention of forming a changed character. It’s only a problem if the putting on is for show rather than from a real desire for change. And remember we’re not on our own when we do this. God’s Holy Spirit has been given to us to allow us to change. In last week’s passage the disciples were a bit perplexed at what Jesus said. They asked if a rich man, [who clearly is blessed by God, they’re thinking] can’t be saved, who can? Jesus answers with mortals this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. If you try to change your character by yourself you’ll probably fail, simply because you’re a fallen human being like everyone else. But if you have God’s Holy Spirit working with you all things are possible. Paul’s description of Christians, repeated over and over in Ephesians, is “In Christ”. Our present existence is one of being in Christ, not just identified with him, but in reality present within him and him present within us. That totally changes the dynamics of our life in this world, giving us a new perspective on how we can be changed to be like him.
So let’s go back to where we started. What can we do to transform our character to be like Christ? Here are our three steps:
1. Our goal is the new heavens and new earth with human beings raised to be rulers and priests in God's kingdom
2. This goal is established by Jesus in his death and resurrection and worked out by the power of the Holy Spirit in the believer, which we grasp by faith, participate in by baptism and live out in love.
3. Christian living in the present consists of anticipating this ultimate reality through the Spirit-led, habit-forming, truly human practice of faith, hope and love sustaining Christians in their calling to worship God and reflect his glory into the world.
I think this will help us in the following three areas:
First it gives us a framework that connects what we do now with what we’ll be in the future.
Second it encourages us to keep going, not to give up when we find godly living difficult. We’re learning a new “language of behaviour” – a language of heaven, so we shouldn’t expect to get there overnight. No-one expects that a few lessons in a foreign language will allow them to speak fluently straight off, so why should we expect to find changing our character easy? But we know that with God’s help it is possible.
Finally, this approach will help us with the ethical and moral questions that we’re faced with in our increasingly secular world. How we live isn’t just a question of what will help us get to heaven. If that were the only question we could ignore the ethical questions that arise. But if the question is “how does my behaviour reflect life in the new heavens & earth?” then a whole new vista of possibilities opens up, both personal and corporate.
Let’s pray that God would help us to grow closer to him in the way we think and act and speak.