I was talking to a group of pastors about the role of character in the Christian’s life when one of them, looking slightly bemused, questioned, “Don’t you think that the word character is a bit old fashioned?”
His comment took me aback slightly. I had never thought about character being old fashioned. But during the past few decades, a clear understanding of character seems to have drifted from our consciousness, and its meaning continues to become more confused.
what is character?
D. L. Moody famously stated that “character is what you are in the dark.” He was echoing the historical view that character is not personality or reputation but concerns the deeper issues of who and what we are within.
Character is described as “moral excellence and firmness.” This definition gets rather personal. It means that I can’t consider my “great accomplishments” for God or my “hard work” for the church as safe places for my ego to rest. It’s what I am inside that really matters. It is “the thoughts and feelings combined [that] make up the moral character.”1
An emphasis on our inner lives is not just a trendy idea. Rather, it seeks to address the original problem of sin in human beings. Humans were not created sinful. In the Creation story in the Bible book of Genesis, the Creator God joyfully announced, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). But as the narrative in Genesis continues, those first created people, Adam and Eve, lost that image—the glory of God. As with God Himself, the glory of their appearance was merely an outward, visible sign of their inner perfection. As the people chose to disobey God, the glory around them vanished, and they found themselves with nothing to wear. But this wasn’t merely a wardrobe malfunction. Sin had defaced the character of God deep within.
Thus began humanity’s desperate quest for salvation. But salvation is about much more than being saved to live in a better place. Human beings also need to have restored what they have lost—the character of their God within. But where can they find such a character?
searching for character
As an illustration of how God restores His character in us, consider what a group of children learned when Irish missionary Amy Carmichael took them to see a traditional goldsmith at work. In the middle of a charcoal fire rested a curved roof tile. On the tile was a mixture of salt, tamarind fruit, and brick dust, and embedded in the mixture was the gold. As the fire devoured the mixture, the gold became purer. Then the goldsmith took the gold out with tongs and, if it was not pure enough, placed it back in the fire with more of the mixture. But each time he did so, he made the heat hotter than before. The children asked him, “How do you know when the gold is pure?”
“When I can see my face in it,” he replied.2
This illustration presents an image of vivid contrasts: The purest gold is stunningly beautiful, expensive, and desired by people everywhere. But the process of getting such gold is harsh and dangerous. Indeed, the purer the gold desired, the hotter the flames must be. Could it be that in our fanatically independent condition, in which we continuously run away from our Father’s ways, intense heat and pressure may be the only things that will remove what is so deeply ingrained in the inner recesses of our beings? I think so! He says “I will refine them like silver and test them like gold” (Zechariah 13:9).
The Bible tells us, “The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the LORD tests the heart” (Proverbs 17:3). So if there is one place that a godly character often seems to mature, it is within the fires of God’s crucibles.
character by an easier route?
But isn’t there a less painful way to develop character?
Helen Keller certainly didn’t think so. She was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. At 19 months old, she developed a severe fever that left her deaf and blind and, therefore, mute. When Helen was seven, Anne Sullivan arrived to be her tutor. What could Miss Sullivan do for someone who was deaf, blind, and mute? Amazingly, with the help of her gifted teacher, Helen learned to communicate and lead an almost normal life. She could have easily become bitter about her condition, but Helen knew that life consisted of more than simply living as comfortably as possible.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet,” she later concluded. “Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”3
Astonishingly, the Bible describes even Jesus as maturing in the crucible. “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). It appears that suffering is linked inextricably to spiritual growth.
God is looking for people with character but not of just any sort. He seeks people who desire to be “transformed into his image” (2 Corinthians 3:18). And if we long to reveal such purity of character, it may just be that we have to go through the fire. Then, if we are to hang on when the temperatures rise, we must know why God longs to refine our character.
why reflecting the character of Jesus really matters
Reflecting the character of Jesus is important because it is the focus of God’s eternal plan for us. The plan of salvation is not a scheme that focuses merely on how to get out of our wretched situation and into a happier place. From the very beginning, God’s intention was to restore His character in us. The Bible says, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29).
As a servant of God, the apostle Paul shared the Lord’s burning desire to see the divine image restored in those he served. As he rather colorfully told the Galatians: “My dear children, . . . I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).
This process of being changed to reflect God’s glory is both important and continuous. “We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Reflecting the character of Jesus is important for another reason. Imagine this scene: It is the time just before Jesus returns to Earth. All heaven has assembled at the command of the Father, and the whole universe watches. Jesus stands next to the Father, surrounded by a multitude of angels. Way off in the distance, Satan is about to hear the words he has feared most. The Father turns to the Son and points to this small globe, to the people He has been refining in the fires of affliction.
“Look,” He says, as everyone around Him listens intently, “there is a community of people who reflect My character. Now is the time to bring them home.”
In my mind, I picture God sitting on the edge of His indescribable throne. He can’t wait to share the news. In response to the Father’s words, all heaven becomes a beehive of activity. The fulfillment of the salvation plan is literally minutes away.
From the beginning, Satan has claimed that the way God behaves is unfair and unjust. Ever since Satan and his angels rebelled against God and had to be expelled from heaven, the Lord has allowed plenty of time and opportunity for the devil to reveal his own character. In the beginning, it was not clear to many in the universe what Satan was really like. But his character slowly began to show through his actions and through the people who followed him. Likewise, those who chose God began to demonstrate His character.
The Bible describes how, under pressure, faithful people will one day make a convincing argument that God is worth following. In describing the reasons for the trials that have come upon the Lord’s people, the Bible says, “These [all kinds of trials] have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7).
When Jesus stands fully revealed, who is it that will praise, glorify, and honor Him? Is it not the universe that has followed this great struggle from the beginning? For they have been watching people remain faithful under pressure—people who have now become the most convincing evidence that God is good, fair, and righteous.
Let’s continue to imagine the scene: Jesus leaves heaven and comes to receive His faithful ones. Across the face of the earth, waves of people begin to rise into the air. They have experienced terrible situations but have not given up. Against the darkness of our world, the universe has seen the bright pinpoints of faith gently glowing—and it is all because of what Jesus has done. The universe cannot contain itself. It will praise the Savior. Jesus has saved His people, but most important, He has rescued the universe from a future return to the battle over sin.
an almost-empty suitcase
The Bible emphasizes the urgent need for purity of character in those living at the end. A supernatural being told the prophet Daniel, “Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked” (Daniel 12:10).
And where do God’s end-time people get this purity? Jesus gives us the answer Himself: “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire” (Revelation 3:18). At the end of time, He will purify His people through the crucible. The purity of God’s people is the purity of Jesus.
As we look forward to Jesus’ second coming, I believe the quest for character is both critical and urgent, for it is by our character that we are recognized as God’s children. Reflecting the character of Jesus is too important to be sidelined because “a character formed according to the divine likeness is the only treasure that we can take from this world to the next.”4
The priority of obtaining a refined character is clear. When we head for our eternal home, it will be the only thing in our cosmic suitcase. Therefore, we must keep “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He has promised to “keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8).
Gavin Anthony writes from Iceland, where he serves as a pastor and church leader.
If you enjoyed this excerpt from his book The Refiner's Fire, it may be purchased at ABCASAP.com.
1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press®, 1948), 5:310.
2. Amy Carmichael, Learning of God (London: SPCK, 1983), 50.
3. Helen Keller’s Journal, 1936–1937 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1938), 60.
4. Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald®, 1941), 332.