If you wanted a neat summary of these two chapters it would probably be: character. We might call it godliness, or setting an example, or virtue. Both of these chapters are concerned with the development of character.
First, in the life of Timothy himself because the character of the leader is critical to the character of the organization. How does he develop character?
- Having a good conscience – not an overactive conscience that results in losing all the joy in life by eliminating as much as possible that might lead to sin. That is why we have the picture – although often false – in our minds of the old Puritans who were intent on eliminating all the pleasures in life that might somehow lead to sin. The holy life was one of elimination and not enjoyment. It was not a life of gratitude as much as one of being careful not to fall into sin by breaking one of the rules – spoken or unspoken. It was a life of strict boundaries and “the narrow way” but the narrow way led to finer and finer distinctions of who is in and who is out and, ultimately, demonizing those who were guilty of enjoying freedom from the endless rules. That is why Paul reverses our natural bent toward legalism and tells us that everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. That is not the kind of ultimate certainty of holiness that will please an unpleasant God some people desire but it is wonderful freedom. “Can I be thankful for this good thing that God created?” That is the first mark of character – being able to accept the responsibility of freedom.
- Having the confidence and wisdom to know when to command, when to correct, when to teach. Many of us overreact when we run into people whose beliefs are different from ours. We become defensive, demonize those who hold them, and make no attempt to have any kind of helpful conversation about our differences. What does Paul say to Timothy? He does not tell him to change his beliefs but he does not tell him to blast those who hold other beliefs. Very few people are won over by anger and contempt as we talked about before. Timothy is to “point these things out” in a way that is helpful and full of confidence in what he believes. An article I read this morning described how ineffective forced cult de-programming has been and how the real change happens when members gradually come to their own conclusions about their false beliefs and are not coerced or criticized. It reminds me of how Jesus treated the disheartened disciples walking to Emmaus after the crucifixion. He did not berate or criticize them but simply walked with them in the wrong direction until he was revealed to them. They returned to Jerusalem on their own accord.
- Character is a process and not a gift. It is something we train to do and not a natural talent we are given at birth. In fact, if anything, human nature is opposed to character. It is a choice we make over and over again until it becomes a habit. We practice character in the same way a piano student practices scales. Character accumulates over time and is not suddenly available in an emergency. Jesus said whoever is faithful in little things will be made responsible for larger things. Einstein said, “Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters” Both are true.
- Character is a better teacher than instruction. The old saw is right that our children learn more from watching us than listening to us. Albert Schweitzer said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” Even though many ministers and other leaders feel like they live in a fishbowl with everyone watching their every move, it is the example that people follow. That is why exhibiting character from the top is so important. It sets the tone for the whole organization or nation. People take their lead from their leaders and leaders without character are far more dangerous to a nation than any outside enemy. The true enemy of the people is a leader without character. I have read Psalm 12 many times but it is worth repeating. “The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men.” Even when they tell the truth or speak their mind it is only a small truth in the context of an even larger lie. In MacBeth, Banquo says,
“But ’tis strange:
And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray us
In deepest consequence.
The example of character – good or ill – is more important and defining than any speech, policy or program. We do not only choose our leaders. We choose the examples we desire to follow.
- Paul commands Timothy to devote himself to just a few things. He wants him to become competent in a few things rather than spreading himself around. He can have multiple interests but his major interests should be those things that build up the church – public reading of Scripture, preaching and teaching. That is why some churches reserve all the other duties and responsibilities to elders and deacons. They want the pastor to focus on a few things that are most important for the life of the church. They do not want the CEO model.
Paul instructs Timothy to be focused on a few things and then to be diligent and give himself wholly to them. They are not to be hobbies or pastimes but to be the touchstones of his work in this life. Nothing should get in the way of those few things. In fact, people should, over time, be able to see you get better and better at them. They should be able to witness your progress and the growth of your character and skills. Paul does not want Timothy talking about his “faith” as if he were a politician running for office and hoping to attract gullible voters. Rather, he wants people to see that character is real in his life – and is growing.
Watch your life. Pay attention to it. Persevere in these few things because other things will come into your life to distract you. You may get bored with them. You may have offers to do other things but once you have signed your name you have made a serious commitment to God, yourself and others.
In the front of my Bible I have pasted this note: “He who has learned in order to teach others, while his own soul loathes instruction and wisdom, will find his lessons will be but mists of empty wind, and showers of dust and earth upon the ground.”
How many times have I read from Eugene Peterson’s book, “Working The Angles”? “There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world, and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing – God, kingdom, gospel – we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.”
From the very beginning of Timothy’s ministry Paul has encouraged him to build character, wisdom, and discernment. From the start, he wanted Timothy to be absolutely certain about his dedication not only to faith and belief but to a congregation.
Second, in the lives of people who are in difficult circumstances. This is not just about widows.
Paul does not tell us that a person is free to do whatever they like to make their lives better if their lives are difficult. Everyone has a commitment to building character – even when it is inconvenient or those around us would easily give us a pass for taking short cuts or taking advantage of the system. These verses focus on the issue of widows in the church but they apply to more than that. They tell us that no matter our circumstances we are to see ourselves as obligated to act honorably and with integrity. In fact, it is more true than not that it is how we react to difficult circumstances that determines our character. I think it was Albert Einstein who said, “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” It is true. How we respond to the hard times, the unfair times, the obstacles that are difficult to understand, will speak volumes about our character. Do we excuse our anger and resentment? Do we look for the easy way out? Do we compare our lives to those of others that seem easier or more satisfying?
Helen Keller said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
Even when our circumstances change we are accountable for our character.
Third, there are several instances in Scripture where we are warned about the temptation of favoritism. Here, it is the importance of avoiding a popularity contest in picking church leadership. In other places, it is the admonition not to give in to people who have influence or power. It does not mean to intentionally obstruct them or to stand against them because they have advantages. It does mean that we are not to be afraid of confronting them (pointing out to them and reasoning with them) when we think they are out of line or misusing their power. Sometimes, influential people are not even aware that they have the ability to sway others or that because of their position and power people just naturally find it easier to go along. However, at other times they are well aware of it and expect special treatment or flattery.
The final temptation of favoritism is that found in James. “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes..have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts.?” Our world worships wealthy people but the church should not give wealth any special privileges or attention. Have you noticed there is no Forbes 400 list of people with the most character? I know it is human nature and I know when the time comes to raise money for projects we have special ways of involving wealthy people but it should not be that way. It should not be that way for the church but it is also harmful for the wealthy person long term. It leads them into temptation.
Third, Paul concludes with these wonderful verses about sin and virtue: “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are cannot be hidden.”
- Obvious sins. These are the sins that are not only obvious to others but to ourselves – and that is not always the case with sin. These are the sins that warn us ahead of time about people. We know they lie, cheat, steal, and are greedy almost as if they had name stickers on their lapels. We know what to expect when we meet them or do business with them. We are foolish to expect anything else from them. They are simple because they get our attention. Everyone knows and there are no surprises.
- Sins that trail behind us. Isn’t that an interesting way of putting it? These are the sins that dog us or what some saints have called the besetting sins. No matter how hard we fight them they pop right back up. We never defeat them completely.
Or they are sins that are not obvious to anyone but they leave broken people and relationships in their wake. There is no warning but wherever they go they leave behind the effects of their anger, disloyalty, divisiveness, and dysfunction. They are sins that no one knows about until it is too late. Wherever we go they follow us. Unlike the noisy cans we attach to the bumper of the car carrying the newlyweds, these sins are silent and go off like time bombs.
- Then there are virtues with similar characteristics. There are virtues that are obvious. Not because we flaunt them but because we cannot hide them. In fact, it would be false modesty to hide them. Just as the public display of bad character corrupts a community, the public display of good character and virtue leads to health and strength. Remember that Paul tells Timothy that he is to lead by example and in such a way that people can see his progress. Virtue need not be a secret. In fact, the visibility of people with character is one of our chief ways of combatting the corrosive effects of people with no character.
- Finally, there are virtues that are not obvious but cannot be hidden. This is the virtue that perseveres even when it is invisible. Do you remember the line from “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Atticus Finch? “Real courage is when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.” It does not need recognition to survive. It does not need to win every time to survive. It is the virtue that will outlast all opposition. Scripture, as we have mentioned before, uses the word hupomone for this kind of virtue. It is the virtue that persists or literally “that which remains” when everything else has been eroded away. That is what a batholith is, isn’t it? It is an igneous rock that remains when everything around it has eroded away. These are the often unnoticed, covered up, hidden, and still remaining virtues that are only revealed when everything else has fallen away. These are the virtues that no society can do without over time because they form the very structure that holds up everything else.
Clayton Christensen is a Harvard professor who has written, “Where are the institutions that are going to teach Americans that they, too, need to voluntarily choose to obey the laws. Because if you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.” Education or a better economy will not replace character. Theodore Roosevelt said, “To educate a person in the mind but not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” If you lose the underlying virtues there is nothing left to hold up a society, a church, a family or an individual. People without character and virtue will always need policing. They will require more laws and regulations and the end of it will be tyranny for everyone.
Let me close with this quote from John Wooden. It is a great summary of Paul’s counsel to Timothy and to us as well:
Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
What is the state of your character this morning? I believe I know how it is with your soul but how is your virtue, your character, and your integrity – obvious or hidden – growing as an example to others around you?