Character Formation Takes a Long, Long, Long, Long, Long, Long, (really long), Time
Character is formed over a lifetime. We notice changes not from week to week, nor from month to month, but only as we look back at how we’ve progressed throughout the years. It’s like trying to measure the growth of a tree in the yard. We’re probably not going to notice its growth throughout one summer. But one day we’ll happen to look at the tree and think to ourselves, “I remember when it used to be the same height as the garage. Look at it now!” Character formation is the same way. One day someone will say something nasty to you and you will hold your tongue. You’ll stop and reflect, “If someone would’ve said that to me five years ago, I would’ve snapped right back at them!” Praise God for the slow, sanctifying work of character formation.
Character formation is for the long haul. Repentance is the daily fuel. Repentance is every day, many times a day. We sin, we repent, we receive forgiveness. Character formation isn’t quite like that. But it certainly can’t happen without that.
Sometimes we mix up repentance and character formation. When I sin, I regret what I did, thought, or said. I want to do better. I pray, “God, please change me. Help me turn away from this sin!” And then I expect my character to be changed on the spot by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, this is unrealistic. Upon repentance, forgiveness is instantly received, sin is washed away, and the conscience is put at peace. Yet the flesh remains. Its desires are against the desires of the Spirit. The battle continues and often we lose the precious ground that we had so recently gained. How frustrating!
Paul has a similar frustration and we can learn from his example. In Romans 7:24-25, he cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” First Paul confesses his sin and laments his wretched condition. But then he rejoices in the deliverance God gives through Jesus Christ. Even though we may have lost another battle, Christ has won the war. In the midst of our battle with sin we should rejoice in Christ’s victory. On the Last Day he will share the spoils of victory with us believers, who, by sheer grace, have been placed on the winning side of this cosmic war.
Until then, we fight. We progress. We regress. In many cases, the video evidence will not be in our favor. We sin, we repent, we receive forgiveness. Over the long haul, over a lifetime of struggling against sin, we really are conformed more and more to the image of God.
The Spirit helps us form good habits, like daily prayer and Bible reading. He helps us get rid of bad habits, like consuming immoral entertainment. By the Spirit, we can stop indulging to the excess in food, drink, sleep, or addictive and time-wasting activities. It really is possible, by the Spirit, to supplement our faith with virtue, godliness, and self-control (2 Peter 1:5-6). Like muscles, these qualities will strengthen the more we use them or atrophy by sinful neglect.
God also gives us responsibilities, or vocations, to love and care for others. This forces us to be selfless whether we feel like it or not. Further, God will allow us to suffer many trials in this life. His desire is for suffering to refine us and to make us more dependent on Him than before.
At times God will make us reap what we sow for our sins in this life. You may get caught looking at porn and you’ll finally feel the shame you should’ve felt all along. It might happen that your unloving words or actions will damage your relationship with a close friend. Through the pain it causes others, God will show you how destructive your sin can be (though you still won’t know the half of it). The devil tempts you to sin in order to destroy you. But God, in His grace, will use that same instance of sin to discipline you. He does this for all His beloved children. Afterward, you’ll walk more closely with your Father than before, grateful for his lavish grace in Christ.
We sin, we repent, we receive forgiveness. We want to do better, but so often we fail. This is the Christian life. Stay with it, which is to say, stay with Christ. Never stop clinging to his blood. Make constant use of the Word and, as often as you can, the Lord’s Supper. Pray continually. Confess the passions of your flesh and turn away from them. Pray for God, by His Spirit, to help you live according to His holy will. Form good habits and get rid of bad ones (seriously!). Do not despise the discipline of the Lord when it comes your way and receive correction with humility.
Chances are you won’t see change in your character for a long time. But God can see what you can’t. Perhaps others can see it too. He is transforming you into His image, from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor.3:18). He will bring this work to completion at the Day of Jesus Christ (Phil.1:6). Before that Day it will progress slowly. At times it may look like you’re moving backwards. You probably are! Whatever the case, progress or regress, repent and believe the Gospel. That is the beginning, middle, and end of the matter. Character formation will follow, almost invisibly, upon this daily pattern.
And if that’s how character formation works for you and me, why would it be any different for our neighbors? Shouldn’t we view them with the same grace and patience with which we would want them to view us? Therefore let’s put the most charitable construction on all that our neighbor says and does. We may just have caught him on a day that he’s moving backwards!