Written by Tim Littleford

 

“Why does nothing seem to work?” I somewhat legitimately asked my wife one night. Knowing she probably did not have an answer.

I had been pastoring a local church for a couple of years and I had begun to feel totally despondent that all the ‘brilliant’ ideas I had thrown at it had led to minimal success. Despite all my good ideas, few people had given their lives to Jesus for the first time and the church was barely growing. I struggled to see evidence that our people were knowing and following Jesus in richer and deeper ways.

I longed for success, I longed for revival, I longed for our church to reach our growing community. For the power of God to be tangibly at work in our services and in the lives of our people. For us to be able to meet the real and present needs of the community.

I longed for all the right things, but if I am honest, it was for the wrong reasons.

The late philosopher Dallas Willard reflected,

One of the most shocking statements Jesus ever made… was that ‘those who rely on me shall do the works I do, and even greater ones’ (John 14:12). Perhaps we feel baffled and incompetent before this statement. But let us keep in mind that the world we live in desperately needs such works to be done. They would not be just for show or to impress ourselves or others. But, frankly, even a moderate-size ‘work’ is more than most people’s life could sustain. One good public answer to our prayer might be enough to lock some of us into weeks of spiritual superiority. Great power requires great character if it is to be a blessing and not a curse, and that character is something we only grow towards.”[1]

I wanted success for what success would give me – influence, acceptance, confidence, feeling important, being perceived as impressive, in the know, or at the very least, competent.

So I smashed myself on leadership and pastoral competency. I read and read, podcasted and podcasted, asked and asked, scouring the world and people for the ministry resource that would make me competent – because if I was competent – wouldn’t I be successful?

I see now that my character – my life – could not sustain more than marginal success in ministry. The power of Jesus at work through me would probably still lock me into spiritual superiority or even worse; self-reliance. My character could not hold the greater works of Jesus without falling into disrepair. It would buckle under the weight of responsibility, the need for the next great work, my inward tendency to try to brute-force things, my sin, my lack of discipline.

I offer this honestly, as an invitation to consider your own character.

What do we mean by character? Willard defines character as “How you run without thinking… Character is what you do without having to think about it.”[2]

It’s the autopilot of the inner life.

Your character is on display when you snap at someone for messing up. It’s observed in how you react to being asked for money on the street. It’s exposed in your instinctive reaction when you are forced to act without time to think or plan about the best way forward.

It’s what I think Jesus meant when he told us “…When you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”[3] Let the Spirit help you become the kind of person who’s inner life is so full of love and kindness that you give to someone in need without even thinking about it.

I don’t have to think about shooting a basketball from my right hand, I’ve trained those muscles to know what to do. If I want to shoot with my left it takes an awful amount of concentration and effort to make my other hand do what it hasn’t been trained to do – and the result is a pathetic attempt at a jumpshot. Character is our inner muscle memory.

It can be seductive for us in ministry to focus our time and effort on competency. We can tell ourselves ‘if only I could run a better program’, ‘preach a better sermon’, ‘be better at sitting with those that are suffering’, ‘be better at connecting with those in the community’, ‘be better at praying’, ‘be better at loving’ then I’ll have success.

What if instead of focusing on growing our competency, we allowed the Spirit to grow our character?

What if instead of trying to work out how to love that particularly difficult person in our lives, we allowed the Spirit to help us to become the kind of person who instinctively loves our enemies and prays for those that do wrong by us?

How do we do this? How do we grow the kind of character that can sustain success and make it a blessing and not a curse.

 

5 Thoughts on How to Grow our Character

Abide

Read John 15, then take a machete to your calendar and carve out time to sit with Jesus – better yet, teach yourself to stay connected with Jesus through every hour and every situation

Read The Practice of the Presence by Brother Lawrence for more.

 

Experiment with the Spiritual Disciplines

Try your hand at a weekly fast, or a fixed hour of prayer, or the Prayer of Examen, or construct an amazing Sabbath for yourself and your family. Train yourself for godliness,[4] push yourself outside your comfort zone, help yourself see what you rely on and trust more than Jesus. Then do something about it.

Read: The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster for the practical concepts, and The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard for why Spiritual Disciplines are important and not legalistic if you do them in the right spirit.

 

Memorise Romans 5:3-5

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,  and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[5]

We need to get it into our brains that, contrary to popular opinion, suffering isn’t completely useless to us. Even though the circumstances of our lives, things that are done to us, to those we love, and by the people we love, and by us, can be horrific and entirely not acceptable to Jesus, God can use it. And he does. He uses those things to produce endurance, which produces character, which produces hope in us. Challenges are opportunities to grow.

 

Make peace with being forgotten

Put to death any desire for success within you that’s about your legacy and your influence and your name and fame. Don’t desire a plaque in your honour or that will be your reward. Desire only to hear, “well done.”

 

Learn to say “Soli Deo Gloria”

The composer Johann Sebastian Bach used to write the initials “S. D. G.” at the bottom of most of his compositions. It stood for “Soli Deo Gloria” which is latin for “Glory to God alone.” When we do have success, when the power of God is at work in our ministry may we mutter under our breath “Soli Deo Gloria.”

 

Remember how I longed for God to be at work? He was. He is. It just didn’t occur to me then, that the work he was doing was in me.

Great power [and great success] requires great character if it is to be a blessing and not a curse, and that character is something we only grow towards.”[6]

May we all grow toward the Character of Jesus, who’s character could – and can – sustain all glory and honour and power, and was – and is – a blessing to the whole world.

 

 

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy. Pg 403

[2] Dallas Willard – What is Character? Dallas Willard Ministries, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNfUIz5qC0U

[3] Matthew 6:3 NLT

[4] 1 Timothy 4:7-8

[5] Romans 5:3-5 ESV

[6]  Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy. Pg 403. Bold my inclusion.