“Sports doesn’t build character. It reveals it.” That quotation is from a man who understood quite a bit about sports—John Wooden, who coached the UCLA basketball team to ten NCAA titles in twelve seasons from 1964 to 1975. But what does that have to do with anything even remotely related to the theme of these notes? Just this: Tests, challenges, or difficulties of any description do not change our character. In fact, no external circumstance ever changes character: character is something forged from within. Certainly, God uses external circumstances to get our attention, to chasten us, to show us what we really are, but they do not and cannot of themselves change us.
Have you ever said, “My wife made me so mad this morning that I yelled at her and stormed out of the house”? Or, “I lose patience with demanding customers”? Or, “My children are so exasperating that I want to scream”? Or, “The situation in this country is so outrageous that I can hardly stand it”? Or, “The level of hostility and violence I see everywhere has scared me”?
No, our wives did not make us mad; our customers did not make us impatient; the violence did not cause us to be frightened. What they did was reveal that we are angry, impatient, and fearful by nature, that our flesh still rears its ugly head from time to time, perhaps frequently, and that we have yet to fully “lay hold of that for which” we were “laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (see Phil. 3:12). When we attribute our sin to some external source or cause, we are excusing ourselves and, at the same time, laying the groundwork for further carnal behavior. The Lord explained this right out of the gate, so to speak. Addressing the first human being to be born, Cain, God said, “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it" (Gen. 4:7). How often do circumstances reveal that we lack the character of Christ? And when that is so, do we excuse ourselves as did Eve: “The serpent deceived me” (Gen. 3:13b)? Or as Adam: “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12b). Of course, the fault lay with them, not with their circumstances. And if circumstances shaped character, they would not have fallen because up until sin was found in them they had lived in a perfect environment.
No, circumstances don’t build character, nor do they destroy it. They simply reveal what is truly within us in order that we might “master it.” To that end, the Word of God provides many instructions. Perhaps the overarching directive is that we “walk by the Spirit,” the result of which, according to Paul, will be that we “will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). He then lists some of the “deeds of the flesh” that include “jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes . . . envying,” etc. (Gal. 5:19-21).
Walking by the Spirit never involves some undefined mystical experience including dark rooms, vapors, and feelings. To walk by the Spirit entails simple obedience to the revealed will of God, in other words, doing what the Bible instructs us to do: allow the Word of God to fill our hearts and minds, flee youthful lusts, resist the devil, pray without ceasing, cast our cares on the Lord, prefer others above ourselves—but you get the picture. These are instructions with handles on them; we can grab them and use them to get the job done that we’ve been called to do—in the energy of God’s indwelling Spirit.
The next time your wife “makes you angry,” remember, “No, I became angry because that sin resides in my heart.” Then “put on love” and “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col. 3:14b, 15a). The next time you become anxious or fearful, remember, “No, I am nervous and worried because I am not resting in the Lord.” Then remember: “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You” (Psa. 56:3). Finally, regarding circumstances, remember this: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (I Cor. 10:13).
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