We rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Romans 5:3-4
Jesus said, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Matthew 5:6
In his book You can change Tim Chester tells a powerful story from the 1500s.
A Christian who had been imprisoned for his faith managed to escape. To get away he had to run across a frozen lake, but he was so weak with hunger that it seemed a chasing guard would catch him. But the ice broke under the guard and he fell into the freezing water. What did the prisoner do? He went back to pull him out - and so was re-arrested.
That story could have had a very different ending. I’ve a feeling that in nine cases out of ten (yours? mine?) it would have finished: “The prisoner punched the air with joy and got clean away.” But it didn’t.
That man did a truly Christlike thing. And he suffered for it.
The question arises, Why did he do what he did? Why did he react instinctively to what, after all, seemed a massive stroke of luck, with such a wonderful act of self-denial?
The answer lies in the word character. Because of his loyalty to Jesus over many years, that man had gradually developed good habits, and those good habits had hardened into solid character.
He had no doubt read many times the words of Jesus about loving your enemies and doing good to those who harm you. And he hadn’t only read those words - he had obviously also thought about them, stored them away in his mind and resolved to put them into practice in his own life.
This is pretty much what Paul is talking about in Romans 5. He calls that developing of good habits “perseverance”, by which he means a steady day-by-day exercise of self-discipline in matters large and small.
It’s worth pondering that every time we do a good thing, however small, it makes it easier the next time. And conversely, of course, every time we yield to the temptation to do a bad thing, it makes that yielding easier the next time.
The career criminal who commits crime almost without thinking probably started out with some really petty offence that cost him serious pangs of conscience. And the same goes for all of us, even if we never get into crime.
Dishonesty, immorality, laziness, gluttony, gossip, vengefulness, arrogance ... all these ugly characteristics and many more besides grow little by little over the days and years until they have us in their grip. Jesus, not troubling to multiply words, tells us that “everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). There you have it.
Character is not the same as will-power. All of us can, at least sometimes, screw up our wills in order to resist a particular temptation. And that of course is good.
But what Paul is talking about is something even better, something much deeper: true Christlike character is something that grows organically within us as we allow our minds to be soaked in God’s word and moulded by the Holy Spirit who lives in us. Even that thing I mentioned earlier - self-discipline, self-control - is itself part of the “fruit” or harvest of the Spirit that Paul itemises in Galatians 5:22-23.
Do you find yourself admiring that prisoner in the story? I hope you do. But I wonder if it will make any difference if I tell you how the story ended?... The guard the prisoner rescued wanted him to be freed. But the authorities thought otherwise.
They tortured him and burned him to death. Ah.
The way of Jesus is truly wonderful. But let none of us imagine it is easy. Let’s pray today for all those - the many millions - whose loyalty to Christ involves them in more than just a bit of inconvenience. And let’s be clear too about our own priority: to build, little by little and day by day, true Christlike character.
Lord God, bring me to the place where I value a holy character more than a happy life. Amen.