Character and the Cross
Character, whether good or bad, is revealed through one’s values. Values govern motives, and motives lead to action. Together, values, motives, and actions determine one’s character. In Philippians 2, the Apostle Paul directs us to follow Christ as our ultimate example in the formation of godly character.
Certainly good actions can accompany bad character. We are all too familiar with this hypocritical scenario. False or selfish motives can sour the sweetness of any good deed. But exemplary character has an underlying characteristic—selflessness—choosing to do “good” for the benefit of others without needing recognition. Paul challenges us to “look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (Philippians 2:4).
Though we strive to mold our outward behavior (actions), only God can change our hearts (motives). During my years as a Christian school administrator, I focused on the development of strong character. Our students were exemplary in obeying an outward code of conduct. But just as Jesus warned the Jews, oftentimes they were honoring God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him. If I could do it again, I would change our emphasis from external performance (actions) to developing godly values and motives, which must include cooperation with God.
In Philippians 2:6, Paul illustrates how inner character is formed by using Jesus as our example: “He made himself of no reputation.” Jesus did not rob God, His Father, of proper recognition. Jesus emptied Himself of all His rights as God, demonstrating true humility and servanthood before selfish mankind.
It is fine to be recognized for our accomplishments, but it is not fine to elevate ourselves and our accomplishments apart from acknowledging God’s enabling. For our very breath is a gift—an extension of His goodness and grace (Acts 17:25, Lamentations 3:22, Daniel 5:23). Recognizing God’s work of grace and enabling in our lives is foundational to building strong character.
Paul then states that Jesus “took upon Himself the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). When we recognize that our talents and abilities are gifts from God, we will want to share these gifts with others. Jesus said, “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8) It is good to use our talents for the benefit of others, as long as we are careful not to parade our talents in order to feed our pride. True character is rooted in the humble recognition that it is only through the grace of God that I am who I am, and do what I do.
Next, “He humbled Himself.” We need no other example—here we have the God of the universe humbling Himself to become flesh for us! What humility! What grace! It has been said that grace and humility are twin sisters. We obtain grace by humbling ourselves, for “God resists the proud, but He gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). Godly character cannot be formed apart from grace, and grace cannot be received apart from humility. For His grace is sufficient for us, and His strength is made perfect (complete) in our weakness.
Endurance, Character, Hope
The strength of our character is determined by the recognition of our weaknesses. “His strength is made perfect (complete) in our weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). And for those who do not recognize their weaknesses, God will bring many opportunities for discovery. In Romans 5 the Apostle Paul teaches us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope makes us not ashamed.” Often, we cover our shame through an appearance of confidence. In the end, however, we all come face-to-face with our weaknesses. But for those who endure suffering with a hope firmly established in the sovereignty of God, Christlike character develops. Endurance, with a view of God’s redemptive hope, is the essence of character development. But in order to endure, there must be a reason and a reward. Let’s first look at the reason:
Obedience, the next step in the formation of godly character, is seen as Paul continues with the example of Christ “…and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8). Obedience involves the ultimate sacrifice—the epitome of selflessness. The highest level of character development is selflessness, because “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) This degree of character is made manifest through unconditional love.
The rewards of building character cannot be overlooked. They are rich and exciting. Paul gives us a glimpse of these rewards as he continues his theme on inner character, acknowledging Christ as our ultimate example: “Wherefore God hath highly exalted Him and given Him a name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:9) This should bolster our motivation and reinforce our conviction that character development is worth the sacrifice.
In our quest to build strong character, may we follow Christ’s example so that godly values and motives will dictate our actions, and may we wholeheartedly proclaim with Paul, “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God.”