The following quotes (in paragraphs 2, 4, and 7-9) are from N.T. Wright’s book entitled: After You Believe (Why Christian Character Matters). The words in brackets in the following (paragraph 2) are my addition.
To begin with, you have to grasp the fact that Christian virtue isn’t about you – your happiness, your fulfillment, your self-realization. It’s about God and God’s kingdom, and your discovery of a genuine human existence by the paradoxical route – the route God himself took in Jesus Christ! – [In the sense of God having been at work in Christ] – of giving yourself away, of generous love which constantly refuses to take center stage. Aristotle’s vision of the virtuous person always tended to be that of the “hero,” the moral giant striding through the world doing great deeds and gaining applause. The Christian vision of the virtuous person characteristically highlights someone whose loving, generous character wouldn’t normally draw attention to itself. The glory of virtue, in the Christian sense, is that the self is not in the center of that picture. God and God’s kingdom are in the center. As Jesus himself said, we are to seek first God’s kingdom and his justice…, and then everything else will fall into place. (p. 70)
Thus, according to truly developed Christian character, there is never any egotistical position to lord it over others from the heights of a “moral high-ground.” Though this presumptuous posturing might display itself in the secular agenda of “self-made” folks or in the realms of religious hypocrisy, there is nothing Christian about condescending, “holier than thou,” counterfeit virtue!
Once we are clear about our own role, as bit-part players in God’s great drama, we are free, in a way that we might not have been if we were still struggling to think of ourselves as moral heroes in the making, to see just what an astonishing vocation we actually have, and hence to reflect on how this works out in the present time. In half a dozen remarkable New Testament passages, we are informed that our future role in God’s new creation will be to share in God’s wise rule over his world, particularly in making the judgments that will put everything to rights; and to share in creation’s praise of its generous creator, particularly in bringing that grateful praise into conscious and articulate speech. (p. 71)
Wright’s assessments and observations in After You Believe explore more comparative aspects of Aristotle’s ideas regarding maximum human flourishing (centered in pride) and Jesus’ vision (rooted in humility). This book also analyzes how nebulous, false hopes or coercive, misguided goals muddle Christian efforts and defeat true, godly building of character. Scriptural connections from Genesis to Revelation regarding “virtue” in light of God’s purposes make this a worthwhile read in seeing how ethics and morality fit God’s overall Kingdom agenda.
An early illustration in Wright’s study is a brief analysis of the causes of the worldwide economic meltdown of 2008; catastrophe ensued when unethical fudging was combined for years with sloppy policies as fueled by massive greed. The author discussed the dilemma with a friend. They discussed how easily folks could be clever enough to check all the appropriate boxes and document themselves as looking totally above board.
“So what’s the answer?” I asked.
“Character,” he replied. “Keeping rules is all right as far as it goes, but the real problem in the last generation is that we’ve lost the sense that character matters; that integrity matters. The system is only really healthy when the people who are running it are people you can trust to do the right thing, not because there are rules but because that’s the sort of people they are.”
This accords with the pragmatic perspective of J.K. Galbraith, who wrote in the early 1950s about the financial crash of the late 1920s. The best way to keep the financial world on an even keel, he suggested, is to listen to the people who were around when the previous crash occurred. In fact, he suggested that financial crashes happen precisely because the people who remember the last one have either died or retired and thus are no longer around, with memories and character formed by the previous experience, to warn people not to be irresponsible. (p. 10)
In this context of character building, one might be reminded of a famous quote by Winston Churchill: “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This aphorism is really an adaptation of a previous statement by George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I’m sure many of us can think of how this idea could apply to many biblical records, one’s own experiences and struggles, modern political wrangling, the history of religious movements, and other aspects of life and culture in a fallen, mixed-up world.
The point of good “history lessons,” even extremely scathing portrayals of stubbornness, such as Stephen’s rhetoric in Acts, chapter 7, is not to be negative for the sake of being negative or to promote bitter-edged sensationalism with undue critical, unforgiving tones. Despite there being records of diplomatic dialogues in Scriptures like Acts, chapter 15, it is obvious that Stephen’s speech constitutes an uncompromising rebuke. Remember, though, that after delivering his message, Stephen prayed for the forgiveness of his murderous “enemies.”
God-directed “history lessons” like Stephen’s presentation always have a view toward helping with repentance, true change from the heart, whether in a context of initial conversion or in later, meaningful efforts to get back on track. Honest history could alert folks to stop being in denial or to stop sweeping past failures quickly under the carpet. Even though these people in Acts 7 had a chance to really listen to a perspective that should have been obvious from O. T. Scriptures, Stephen’s audience “covered their ears” while rushing to stone him, and Saul of Tarsus fully approved of the murder, while becoming even more zealous to persecute Christians! Nevertheless, Stephen’s audaciously stated wake-up call, as clearly God-endorsed (according to the vision in Acts 7:55, 56) was not in vain.
After Saul’s (or Paul’s) miraculous experience leading to a genuine change of heart, his memory of his past condition was still connected to the occurrence concerning Stephen’s stoning and other similar events. Paul did not minimize his past sins by saying or thinking, “It was a long time ago, and it wasn’t that bad. My heart was in the right place even though certain zealous details merely needed tweaking.” No, that was not Paul’s attitude at all after initially repenting, and after years of steadily building virtuous character traits. He did not make excuses for his previous behavior as a misguided, murderous Pharisee. He did not sweep it under the carpet. He used his insidious past in speaking to God (Acts 22:19) and in proclaiming truth to fellow humans (Acts 26:9-11 and several other passages). He spoke frankly and honestly in order to glorify the God who had delivered him!
By the way, in emphasizing all this absence of Paul being “in denial” about the past, the stark, decisive personal change did not mean that Paul was unthankful for having learned good things previously (like the O.T. Scriptures). While boldly refuting the dangerous errors of his former reality, he acted in love toward those who continued in the paradigms of his previous mindset. He was wisely masterful for many years in being “all things to all people,” even among those from his own background who were indignant with his conversion and his detailed insights on Torah changes and the inclusion of Gentiles.
In light of such clear integrity, it is not surprising that Paul’s writings, built on Jesus’ Kingdom of God gospel, provide such solid instruction in honest character building. Paul was truly free to live as identified – not primarily with himself (since he was “crucified with Christ” – Gal. 2: 20) – but identified with the risen Messiah and the new life in him. This identity theme of living in “newness” is developed in several parts of Romans and in other letters, including this passage:
So what should we say then? Should we persist in habitual sin so that divine favor may increase? Certainly not! Since we’ve died to sin, how can we still live in its grip?
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized with respect to Messiah Jesus were baptized as united with him in his death? Through this baptism, uniting us with him in death, we were buried with him, so that just as Messiah was raised from among the dead through the glorious power of the Father, we also should live in newness of perfect life. Certainly, if we have become united with him in dying a death like his, we will also certainly experience a resurrection like his. Romans 6:1-5 KGV
In a beautiful summary of character-building truths in 2nd Peter, one can see that happy-go-lucky spontaneity is not the picture of a spiritual walk, since proactive, earnest, tough efforts are continually essential. Also, although Christians are not to frivolously disregard obedience to certain new covenant “rules” at all, the mindset of jumping through hoops for the sake of jumping through performance hoops, as if to earn a certain status, is never the focus of Christian obedience and growth. However, as is obvious in this following section of Scripture, pervasive grace and mercy can never be equated with passively doing nothing! Importantly, sort of a double blindness is strongly associated with fruitlessness as rooted in forgetfulness regarding the meaning of being cleansed of former sins. [The use of bold print in the following passage is mine.]
God has bestowed upon us, through his divine power, everything that we need for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue. The result is that he has given us, through these things, his precious and wonderful promises; and the purpose of all this is so that you may run away from the corruption of lust that is in the world, and may become partakers of the divine nature. So, because of this, you should strain every nerve to supplement your faith with virtue, and your virtue with knowledge, and your knowledge with self-control, and your self-control with patience, and your patience with piety, and your piety with family affection, and your family affection with love. If you have these things in plentiful supply, you see, you will not be wasting your time, or failing to bear fruit, in relation to your knowledge of our Lord Jesus the Messiah. Someone who doesn’t have these things, in fact, is so shortsighted as to be actually blind, and has forgotten what it means to be cleansed from earlier sins. So, my dear family, you must make the effort all the more to confirm that God has called you and chosen you. If you do this, you will never trip up. That is how you will have, richly laid out before you, an entrance into the kingdom of God’s coming age, the kingdom of our Lord and savior Jesus the Messiah.
So I intend to go on and on reminding you about all this – even though you know it, and have been firmly established in the truth that has come to you. 2nd Peter 1:3-12 – KNT
As in the days of first-century Christians, while living in an age under the deceptive sway of the evil one, continual reminders not to be forgetful about certain basic realities cannot be exaggerated! These include not forgetting our personal deliverance from deep, confusing darkness and the cleansing of our former sins. Such deliberate memory is essential for godly development of genuinely virtuous qualities. The growth of fruitfulness in the present, as we make faithful, active, arduous efforts, is what will prepare us to be useful in the Kingdom of the age to come when we will be: (1) ministering God’s wise, loving order (as kings) and (2) reflecting joyous praises (as priests) toward God on behalf of a creation being renovated perfectly!