“Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Romans 5:1-5
My friend John Morris, owner of the Book Cottage recently introduced me to the novels of Arthur Joyce Cary. Described by some as one of the finest English novelists of the twentieth century, Cary was a genius at developing characters, as he does in Except the Lord (1953) which John gave me to read. This got me thinking about what it takes to write a good novel. Obviously the plot has to be a good, but equally so the characters have to come alive and become plausible as the story develops. Think of any great novelist such Charles Dickens or Chinua Achebe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Elliot or Marilynne Robinson, and you immediately think about the characters they create in telling their stories. Great novelists create great characters whether we love or hate them, seek to emulate them as heroes, or despise them as villains.
The God of the Bible is a great novelist for the Bible is packed full of stories about memorable characters, as is the teaching of Jesus: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, David and Goliath, Elijah and the prophets of Baal, Daniel and Noah, Peter, Thomas, Judas, Paul and Timothy, Mary Magdalene, Martha, the Samaritan woman, the Prodigal Son, and, the favourite of many, Zacchaeus the tax collector who climbs a tree to see Jesus (Luke 19:1-10). Of course, not every Bible character responds positively to God’s character building, some rebel, preferring to make their own way, just as not all characters in a novel are equally attractive or not at all. Though it is also true that often characters change character as God gets to work and turns prodigal sons into grateful and renewed sons. In fact, the good news stories in the Bible are all about the way in which God like a potter working clay on the wheel recreates characters who have failed and decides to start again. We identify can identify with biblical characters because they are so much like us, for we too are all characters in the story God is writing. Have you ever considered that ? You are a character in a divine novel being written even as I speak, a character being constructed in the image of the author.
Of course, the word “character” has different meanings. We use it to refer to a person’s handwriting, or to someone we call a character because he or she is a little odd, perhaps a clown or a crank. There are, in fact, characters of all kinds, all sorts and conditions of humanity which we read about in novels, watch on TV, or encounter on the street. But character also has another meaning. When we refer to a person of character we think of someone who is known for moral courage, honesty and integrity, a person of good reputation, someone for whom we might vouch in writing a testimonial, a model for our children and grandchildren. This is what character formation is about in the gospel story, and why St. Paul says that “if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) He or she has become a renewed character. For when God recreates our characters, as he did for Zacchaeus, he sets us on a new path of becoming more truly human in the image of Christ, the true human, the icon of the characters God is seeking to write into his story. And as in the Bible or a novel, every character is different, so God graciously develops our character in terms of who we are and the contribution we make in the story as a whole.
Yet while God creates each character lovingly and graciously, our character formation takes place only as we follow Christ in discipleship. Character formation does not come about without our co-operation nor does it come easily; it is the outcome of costly grace which hones and shapes us, often through suffering and struggle. As Paul puts it: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character.” The great novelists know this. Adversity creates character.
Normally we think of bad characters as the products of poverty-stricken slums, the breeding ground gangsters. And yet how many people have learnt to rise above their circumstances and make a real success of life in response to adversity. How many successful Olympic Games medallists have overcame hardship to achieve their goals? By contrast privilege, wealth and luxury often produce people who lack moral fibre, selfish people who make no real contribution to the common good and too often succumb to corruption. Poverty, bad schooling, poor social conditions might produce criminals, but often against the odds or because of them, they produce people of great character. People who are also humble enough to acknowledge that their success is not only due to their own skill, but to the help of many others and the grace of God. When St. Paul says that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, ” he is right on the money.
For St. Paul suffering and endurance not only produces character, character also produces hope. The hope which enables us to live and work expectantly, not giving up when the odds are against us but enduring until we have crossed the finishing line. Paul adds a further comment which takes this process of character formation to a new level. This hope that emerges from suffering and empowers endurance, “does not disappoint us.” Yes, a great deal does disappoint us. Sometimes our heroes in novels or on the sports field, and even our friends, let us down. But the hope that develops out of struggle for what is right and good, or out of suffering and pain, does not disappoint because in the process, “God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” In other words we discover that the whole process of character formation is activated, guided and empowered by God’s love at work through the Spirit! So as we think about our own stories in God’s novel, the character we are and the character we are becoming, let us give thanks that God is at work through his Spirit seeking to recreate us in his own image to make us truly who we are meant to be before the story ends.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 25 August 2016