Sharing the Gospel Through Character
Character is a second prerequisite for spiritual influence. Every human being is created in God’s image, and instinctively respects the character traits of the God who designed us—true even for those who do not know God. Humankind universally values the Fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). In Jesus’ day, many people repulsed by the religious leaders were attracted to Jesus because he embodied these characteristics. Today, Christ-like character still engages attention and invites respect.
Non-Christians take note of our joy when we work, our peace in the midst of disappointment, and our graciousness and humility toward people who try our patience. Unfortunately, these are too often in short supply for those of us charged with showing Jesus’ character to the world. In 2013, the Barna Group studied hypocrisy among Christians. Among those who self-identified themselves as Christians, research based on a list of self-selected attitudes and actions found that 51 percent described themselves more like Pharisees (hypocritical, self-righteous, judgmental) as opposed to only 14 percent that modeled the actions and attitudes of Jesus (selfless, empathy, love). C.S. Lewis described the problem,
When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world. … Our careless lives set the outer world talking; and we give them grounds for talking in a way that throws doubt on the truth of Christianity.
If our words are to mean anything to others, they should flow out of a life of integrity, otherwise our deeds paint our words the color of a lie. Integrity can be especially challenging at work. The pressure to abandon biblical values and follow a different rule of life on Monday can overwhelm thin commitments made in church on Sunday. Christ calls us to live out our Christian values at work as fully as everywhere else, even when we must disadvantage ourselves. When people see that we are not just striking a pose, but humbly seeking to live a life of integrity, they take notice.
People also take notice, not so much when we fail—which we will—but when we fail to admit that we don’t have it all together. Perhaps more important than getting things right is admitting that we often get things wrong, seeking forgiveness, and making amends to those we injure. One of the most attractive elements of character is the humility to accept that we’re not perfect. Jerram Barrs reminds us of the impact humility can have on others,
So often as Christians we behave as if we have everything to give to the non-Christian and nothing to receive. We imagine that it would be demeaning for us to acknowledge any weakness or need. Christians are supposed to “have it all together,” and we fear that letting unbelievers see that we don’t, might bring discredit on us and on the gospel. This is folly, for the truth is that we are always weak and needy and the gospel is not served by pretending otherwise. To acknowledge, as Jesus does, our need of the kindness, gifts, wisdom, or advice an unbeliever can give us is encouraging and ennobling to those who might have been led to expect only scorn or condescension from us.
Here’s the bottom line. It’s not enough to do good work, there has to be something attractive about our character. And especially, the ability to admit our failures and brokenness stands out in stark relief to the culture around us. People need to smell the sweet aroma of Jesus’ presence in our character, which comes most strongly through the humble character he creates in us.
“Christians: More Like Jesus or Pharisees?” The Barna Group, April 30, 2013, https://www.barna.org/barna-update/faith-spirituality/611-christians-more-like-jesus-or-pharisees
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book IV, Ch 10.
Jerram Barrs, The Heart of the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2001), p.199.