Principles that Build Character
Sabbath School: Saturday 14 June 2003
Yesterday I was watching one of my small sons build a garage out of toilet roll tubes, bottle corks, and greeting cards. He sat there absorbed for nearly two hours trying out all the different combinations until he found what was to him the 'perfect garage', and finally drove in his model police car. He made the best possible use of what was at hand.
We all of us have such creative instincts and talents. What interested me about this exercise was that he wasn't conscious of himself at all: all his attention was on simply 'creating'. And there is a lesson for us there: as human beings we are never more content than when we are actually in the act of 'creating' ... of building something.
One of the greatest callings and joys of a mother is to shape the character of her children. Her calling from Yahweh is to create the right environment by controlling what a child is exposed to. This means sifting through things and activities and selecting the right tools. This will include the choice of music she allows them to listen to, the books she allows them to read, the TV programs she allows them to see, the friends she allows them to interact with, and so on. These days, though, in our liberal and permissive era where, it is claimed, anything goes and we should allow our children to choose whatever they want, there is little such control. Children are more or less allowed to do whatever they want so long as they don't interfere in what parents want to do.
A few days ago I was in town and observed a mother with a teenage daughter of about 15, I would say. They were both smoking away and were comfortable with each other. The daughter had obviously either learned to imitate, or was getting moral support from, her mother's smoking habit. That girl's character was undoubtedly shaped by what she had watched her mother do. And for that the mother bears a heavy responsibility.
By the time we are teenagers our basic characters are already largely shaped. If the shaping has been wrong, the struggles involved in getting loose from bad character traits can be hard because by the time you're about 15 or 16 you are starting to declare independence from your parents and are starting to make your own decisions about the way you want to live your life.
The other day we were watching a documentary about the construction of the world's largest bridge between Denmark and Sweden. It was a bridge that took many years to make and was an engineering wonder. However, it did claim the lives of a number of the workers and was opposed vigorously by young environmentalists who believed the construction was bad for nature. The documentary followed both the life of the workers and the bridge construction itself alongside these environmentalists many of whom ended up in court for illegally breaking into and occupying some of the construction facilities. It was interesting to follow the passion of their convictions in what they were doing and to see the ultimate futility and folly in investing so much energy, time, money, hope and spirit into what was a dead-end. They achieved nothing and went away disillusioned.
It would have been interesting to have traced back the development of those young people, full of idealism and hope as they were. I have met many such people in my life and indeed rubbed shoulders with them as a student myself. The vast majority of them abandoned their idealism as they grew up as reality dismantled their naïvity. Life was not as they supposed it was. And ironically many of them ended up in the kind of lifestyles they do passionately fought against as youths. One former communist friend of mine is today a successful banker!
Character-development is one of the major priorities of Bible teaching. It recognises that we are born into the world with all kinds of giftedness from the Creator and that with the free agency and willpower likewise inherited, we can make of ourselves almost what we want. Most young people set off with high ambition and the majority find all kinds of obstacles strewn in their path which forces them to change direction. Those of us who are old or in middle age are able to look back to the time when we dreamed as youths and see how very different things turned out from the way we imagined. You can ask all kinds of people from all periods of time and they will tell you much the same thing.
For every human being there are potentially an infinite number of directions our lives can move in. With all the skills and interests we have we are still unable to realise every one of them. These two facts are very important for every one of you to realise, though - no, they are critical - critical for your happiness and self-fulfilment. And these are the facts:
(1) We were created by Yahweh-God, our Father in Heaven, to live one life in one way with one goal and one outcome;
(2) We are influenced and tempted by Satan, the Adversary, in numerous different ways through numerous different people, to move off that one way, and he really doesn't care which path you go on so long as you are off the path which Yahweh has ordained for you.
But how - you might ask - can we possibly know how to be on the right path and to stay on it for the rest of our lives? Sometimes the choices are bewildering, and sometimes sin is so carefully wrapped to make it delicious that it is almost impossible to tell the fake apart from the real thing.
The simple answer to these often heart-rending questions is this: the confusion and perplexity diminishes in proportion to your obedience to the commandments. When you obey the commandments your character is formed in such a way that the vast majority of these 'alternative paths' are simply no choice at all - they can be seen for what they really are: deep pits that lead to imprisonment and enslavement.
In our Bible study this week we looked at three important areas of character development: (1) Sexual morality, (2) Treating our physical bodies as the Temple of Yahweh, and (3) General Morality and Interpersonal Relationships. We looked in some depth at the scriptures that cover these three main themes.
Let's take an example. When a person follows Yahweh's sexual code of behaviour, at once thousands of doors that lead to alternative lifestyles and all the vices associated with them are closed. I chose to make this the first area of study simply because Satan has always attacked this the most ferociously and used deviation from pure sex to get people into all kinds of problems. Sexual sin is one of the hardest to break out of because it results in so many demonic problems. Impure sex leads to adultery, fornication, incurable disease like AIDS, broken hearts, bondage to homosexuality and lesbianism, and murder of the unborn, to name but a few. To get your act in order by saving sex for Christian marriage is one of the greatest services you can do to yourself and your children.
Make no mistake about it, impure sex destroys your personality and is an open door to demonic infestation. Listen to what Michael Swift, contemporary homosexual activist, wrote in the Gay Community News:
"All churches who oppose us will be closed. Our only gods are handsome young men. We adhere to a cult of beauty, moral and esthetic. All that is ugly and vulgar and banal will be annihilated ...
"We shall be victorious because we are fuelled with the ferocious bitterness of the oppressed who have been forced to play seemingly bit parts in your dumb heterosexual shows throughout the ages. We too are capable of firing guns" (Traditional Values Report, Vol.10, No.2, Nov/Dec. 1991, p.6).
It should be obvious to any Christian who knows his Bible what forces are leading this man.
Raising your children to be chaste before marriage and to be committed for life in a loving relationship in Christian marriage will give them balance, peace of mind, and happiness from Yahweh. Getting your sexual values right will save you and your children so much suffering in a world that has become a sexual cesspit.
Our physical body is the way we manifest the desires of our minds and hearts in our physical environment. The Bible describes it as a "temple".
Now a temple is not a place where you can do anything. As we read the Old Testament we learn that a temple is where God means man on earth. In the Old Covenant the construction of a special building of stone was commanded where He could manifest Himself to His people, Israel. It was also given to prepare us for the time when our very own physical bodies would become temples. We no longer have to go to a stone temple to meet Yahweh. We can meet Him here and now in our own bodies.
Yahweh did not, however, always live in His temple in Jerusalem. There were certain conditions that had to be met by the priesthood and the people. Certain laws had to be obeyed and certain things had to be done. When His conditions were fulfilled, great and wondrous things happened there. Yahweh's presence filled the building when Solomon dedicated it. Yahweh's prophets had special encounters with Him there. Prophetesses like Anna first saw the living Christ there. Moses communed face to face with Yahweh in the tabernacle.
In order to know how to face the many choices that life presents to us, and knowing that Satan and his demons are there all the time trying to mislead you into a life of sin and destruction, it becomes all the more important to be able to talk with Yahweh and hear Him. He is our security. He knows the perplexities we face and He knows the answers.
The Bible answers a good number of questions about life for us but there are certain questions that it cannot answer like: who do I marry? what career do I follow? where do I live? how can I help this person? I can I know what sort of life to life so that I am safe? Many personal questions can only be answered by going directly to the Source, Yahweh Himself. And there is no way you are going to be able to do that unless your temple - your physical body - is pure, because that is where the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) lives.
Far too many Christians naïvely think that all they have to do is believe in Christ and their responsibility is over. Faith in Christ is the beginning and the enabling. Building our characters - or in most instances, rebuilding or characters - requires effort, knowledge, and planning. It begins by first of all discovering what Yahweh's demands for holiness are by prayerfully studying the Bible, continued by implementing the divine program. And to oppose this there is a carnal nature which is tugging us in another direction, often aided and abetted by dark spirits.
A good character is one of the most desirable things that there is. A person with a good character will attract other people with similar characters. Like attracts like. And yet you meet people all the time who are not interested in making the investment to change into the moral being that Yahweh would have us be. Why is that? It is strange when you hear people say: "Oh, if only I was like him!" We are attracted by the goodness in others and yet few wish to expend the effort to make that change within themselves. For whether you like it or not, goodness is not something automatically acquired: a moral character has to be cultivated. It requires persistent and constant effort, a determination to walk in the commandments of Yahweh, a willingness to have pride affronted and uprooted, and a desire to inherit that place of glory that Yahweh wills for us.
Acquiring a good character will, of course, mean losing friends of mean character who do not want to follow your lead. I have lost many friends in my life because I would not leave the Way. Some of them have been men and women of great genius, of prominent position in the world, of great wealth and influence: but I chose the narrow way because I realised early on that happiness is not to be found in the trinity of the flesh - power and control over others, wealth, and fleshy pleasures like lawless sex, alcohol, bad music, and drugs.
The parting of the ways with close friends can be very painful and the temptation to remain with them "for friendship's sake" very strong. It is bad enough when members of your family veer off down another path and it is a hundred times worse if your spouse abandons marriage and family to do the same. Hence the importance of choosing the right acquaintances and friends, and even more of choosing the right husband or wife. And yet all our very best efforts cannot guarantee that we will escape the heartache that results when loved ones choose to reject the Messiah (Christ) and leave their character development to chance.
The classical story is the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is particularly painful for parents when their children cast reason and truth aside and plunge into a life of riotous living as the prodigal son did. They are willing to exchange security and reason for a mad - and yes, demonic - impulse. We can imagine what the prodigal son was before he left home with his share of his father's wealth. Doubtless he was dutiful and respectful and sought to be true to Yahweh and His Torah. But something was nagging him under his skin. Some little resentment festered and suddenly blew up, propelling him into a life that at first seemed to meet his expectations but which after a short while cast him into the very pit of despair.
I can imagine what got him going on that path, as I am sure you can. Perhaps he came across people who seemed to be blessed with wealth and leisure enough that made work seem unattractive. "Well, if they can have a good time without responsibility and hard labour, why shouldn't I?" may well have been what he thought. And no doubt He forgot that Yahweh is kind and merciful to the wicked and the righteous alike, causing the sun to shine upon both.
We can guess from what he did when he left home what it was that got under his skin. We're told that he went partying. And partying here in Sweden is without a doubt the thing to do. It's what your modern hedonist lives for. All the gossip magazines ever seem to report is the latest party and what the partygoers got up to. Yes, it's the old trap of "eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die" - a life of irresponsibility, of letting your hair down, of doing whatever the flesh desires, and your character be damned. And these people are pretty characterless. There is nothing in them that men and women of God would wish to imitate. And yet the herd - the crowd of the unredeemed - pursue this lifestyle without giving the slightest thought of what it is doing to him. Everyone else is doing it, they reason, so it can't be wrong.
To build character means resisting the crowd. To build character means to stick out but not in the ways of the flesh. It means to be frowned upon and possibly even openly ridiculed. We presume the prodigal son did not want that - we presume that he was mocked by characterless acquaintances and friends and he simply caved in to social pressure and joined the herd. He then discovered the power of wealth. When you have money, the ungodly flock around you like flies, and flatter you to spiritual death. But what they want is not you but your money.
So the prodigal son acquired a large circle of friends who were more than willing to party with him at his expense. Their friendship was, however, only as lasting as his bank account. When the money ran out, they deserted him. Their friendship was but wind.
It may not be money that creates the clique. It may be a shared interest in sin. Demons bind us together just as the Spirit of Christ does. Abandon the sin and your 'friends' will likely abandon you too, or at least weaken the bonds of friendship. Many good friends of mine are now only acquaintances. But that is the price you must pay for character development. The reward - as if I need to tell you what that is - is peace with Yahweh, security in the next life, and friends in this life who really matter - who are willing to lay down their lives for you. Your circle of friends may not be so wide in the Gospel but they will be more abiding.
I want to end today by giving you a stark character contrast - of two men who were taken to the very bottom, who lost everything but for different reasons. The one was the Prodigal Son who, for all his carnal folly, ended up eating pig food. The other was Job whom Yahweh permitted Satan to test, a righteous man. Job came through his sufferings with his character greatly strengthened and his faith in Yahweh deepened beyond measure. He became a better man and his suffering was consecrated to his gain. He remained true to what he was - Yahweh's servant.
The Prodigal also discovered who he was - an idiot. He squandered not only his own life but his father's hard-earned wealth. Father and son both suffered. But though he was an idiot he did at least finally admit that he was one, and as evidence of his repentance wished only to be his father's hired hand. He had discovered, the hard way, the emptiness and characterlessness of the lifestyle of worldly men. The story ends well for him as well, in spite of his having wasted years of his life. He is forgiven. His father welcomes him back home so that he can start again and learn the importance of staying on the narrow Way.
We despair sometimes when we watch friends and loved ones go the Way of the Prodigal. You see, there's a risk - not every Prodigal comes home. Many are destroyed by their folly because in their pride they will not admit they were fools. The Prodigal Son threw away all but one thing - final reason. Sadly, there are many proud people who seem only to learn the truth the hard way. It may be stubbornness, pride, or any number of vices which keep them imprisoned to a diet of pig food until their stomachs can no longer bear it. And finally their weary souls cry out: "Enough! I want to go home."
Your character is indeed something precious - more precious than wealth, power or a life of self-indulgence. Your character marks you down as to whom you belong to, who you are, and where you are going in the next world. Satan will try to discourage you by chiding you and saying "you'll never be good enough" or "you'll never be like Jim". But you must remember that all goodness comes from God anyway, it's not something we own or have earned. If we are good it is only because we chose to led Christ into our hearts and change us supernaturally. And as to whom you should be like, we are told to be like only one person: Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ). And the only way we can be like Him is by exactly the same route - by letting Him into our hearts and responding freely to His invitation to follow Him in the way we live Amen.
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