I have lately been struck by how tough life seems to have become for many Christians. We’re in taxing, difficult workplaces. We juggle a hundred responsibilities. We have friends and causes and ministries to support. Our families need our attention, our churches call on us for help, and all while we grapple with the usual slew of sadness, sickness, disappointment, anxiety, rejection and heartache.
I’ve been visiting a few churches lately, of varying hue, and have sensed a dispiriting air. This surprises me, when so many of the people there are conscientious, hard-working and very committed to Christ. I blame no one for this, least of all the church staff. Indeed, they’re feeling it too.
So I wonder if the time has come to praise and honour and uphold one another’s character – consciously, intentionally and weekly (or at least monthly).
That doesn’t always sit well with evangelical Christians. After all, we glory in Christ alone – his redeeming work, his rescue of us, and his majestic divinity. Surely our task in this is to confess our sins, to do the next act of obedience, and never to glorify self (although that last has obviously dropped off our list, in the social media age, but I’ll save that rant for another time). It follows that it seems wrong to celebrate achievement, or anything resembling achievement.
But then, our lives begin to seem like bottomless pits of activity, and black holes of obligation; and our lives together in churches become joyless and morale-sapping. And to me, frankly, that’s nothing at all like what’s seen in the Bible.
Someone asked me lately whether it would be wrong to guard one’s reputation, as if that would be too self-focused. But a moment’s reflection reminded me how positively the Bible regards the way we are known in the world. The NT commends at least 11 “virtue lists”, such as those famous “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5, or such as Jesus’ blesseds-are-those in Matthew 5. The biblical authors hope for us to show settled habits of action and feeling that get summed up as “godliness” and “love”, so that we become people of “good report” in Philippians and “above reproach” in 1 Thessalonians and “blameless” in the Pastorals and subversive of pagan slander in 1 Peter, and “wise” in the Proverbs and beyond. The Bible is loaded with what we mean by “character”.
“Character” always wins out over the long haul, even in the nastiest workplace, the ugliest family, or the most corrupt community. It never feels as if you’re growing it at the time. But every daily struggle to do right, to resist sin, to honour your promises, to resist lashing out, to resolve conflict, to care for those in need, to back those who do good, to think and read and write beyond your own horizon – God gives these moments, the Spirit uses them, and they all add up to someone who most people will love, and who points to Christ. I know people like this, who live full and serving and God-honouring lives, and all the more when I know they don’t always like it yet don’t let that control them.
But why aren’t we pointing this out to each other, each about the other? Some hang-up is at work, I suspect, that we’ll make each other “proud”, or that we’ll be glorifying human achievement and not Christ.
Well, if that’s the way it works, Paul for one has a lot of explaining to do. “We always thank God for all of you … We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess 1:2-3) “Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love.” (1 Thess 3:6) “Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you.” (Rom 16:19) Plenty more where that came from.
We’re definitely meant to be jubilant about the work of God we see in each other’s lives (especially perhaps, nowadays, for “endurance” in the face of hostility: “Greet Apelles, whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test.” (Rom 16:10) Sure, we’re not meant to talk up our own achievements: self-promotion robs us of the opportunity to notice and rejoice in others. But I reckon our lives together would be full of joy, within about six months, if we begin to praise God’s Holy Spirit-given works of character in each other.
Rev Dr Andrew Cameron is the Director of St Mark’s National Theological Centre, Canberra.