What is the real measure of a human being? If you take the time to look closely you will notice that a human life is defined by a multitude of qualities, relationships, circumstances and possessions. When you examine a person more closely you discover the extent of their education, their experience in life, their career achievement, their success in raising a family. It is easy to see how people are dressed, how they use language and how they appear to others. We tend to evaluate people in terms of all of these factors. But what can these things really tell us? Certainly we can learn some things by this kind of examination. These are external things and externals say something about us but they do not say everything about us. Indeed, externals cannot reveal what really is most important about us.
The problem with assessing people based on outward appearance is that appearances can often be deceiving. With a little thought a person can appear to be something they are not. We must look deeper. The old proverb which says ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ is never more true than today. In the age of multicoloured and graphically designed book covers, we never really know whether what appears on the outside is really present on the inside. As always, we must judge a book by its content, not by its appearance. We should also judge our own life in the same manner.
Martin Luther King, Jr. touched on this key issue during his famous speech at the Civil Rights march in Washington in August, 1963. He said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The issue is not about external appearance but internal character. We are who we are on the inside. Your character is who you are when no one is looking. You can take the pig out of the mud hole and clean him up really well – but you can’t take the mud hole out of the pig. As soon as he finds another mud hole, he will flop dead-centre in the middle of it. It’s just his nature.
The Bible says a lot about Christian character. There we find that each of us is called to exhibit the character of Christ and we see many examples of this Christlike character. Today we will be examining some of the components of the Apostle Paul’s character. Hopefully we will see some things which we ourselves possess and maybe other things which we should desire in our own character.
This issue of Christian character should be really important because your character determines your attitude and your attitude is contagious. So let me ask you today, is your character and attitude worth catching? The answer is critical. You see, our character will determine our influence. I have had many teachers. Some have taught me more than others but the ones who have taught me the most have been those who may not have had the most information to impart, but who showed me by their lives how to live. This should be the goal of every Christian. Let’s look at the Apostle Paul.
Romans 1:8-11 “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you. I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong.”
We can learn a lot about Paul from these few verses in Romans and today I want to share five marks of Christian maturity we can distil from this short passage as we examine Paul’s character.
(1) A Thankful Attitude
The first thing we discover in Paul’s character is thankfulness. Paul maintained a thankful attitude. His first personal words to these Christians in Rome were, “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you.” Paul had good reason to be thankful. Their faith was being reported all over the world. This should be true for all Christians. Still some would say that this was only polite conversation. I do not believe that. This truly reflected Paul’s character. He had learned to be thankful. In fact, this is rather remarkable. When you look at Paul’s life you see that he had no easy time. Indeed, because of his commitment to Christ, he had suffered a great deal of persecution. He could have developed a bitter and resentful attitude as he was being persecuted from city to city, beaten, stoned, imprisoned. But his attitude was that of thankfulness. That’s why we see Paul and Silas, locked up in the deepest dungeon of the jail in Philippi, singing at midnight! Only two kinds of people would do such a thing – fools or genuinely thankful people – and Paul was certainly no fool. He had experienced the transforming power of thanksgiving in his own life. He knew that thanksgiving was an essential element in everything he did. Listen to what he says about the key to effective prayer:
Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
All prayer should be offered with thanksgiving. The great Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte always began his prayers with an expression of gratitude. One cold, windy, wet, miserable Sunday his people wondered what he would pray. He prayed the following: “We thank Thee, O Lord, that it’s not always like this.” Whyte knew that there was always something for which to be thankful, even on a cold, wet, dreary day. We should learn the same lesson. How do you rate in this category? Do you have an attitude of gratitude? Have the tough times in life made you bitter or better? Thanksgiving can make all the difference. It is a true characteristic of someone who is truly growing in Christ. It is a true reflection of the nature of Christ. Thankfulness is one of the most obvious marks of Christian maturity.
(2) A Servant Heart
The next characteristic we notice is that Paul possessed a servant heart. He indicates that his ministry of preaching the Gospel was one in which he was committed to serve God with his whole heart. It is easy to miss this. This is not just religious talk. In fact, we find no such religious talk in Paul at all.
Notice the focus of his service – it is to God. Even though the preaching of the Gospel was directed at the people, Paul saw that his devotion was to God first. Paul’s ministry was never man-centred; it was always God-centred. Our service should never be for people alone. It must always be for God and one of the ways we serve God is to serve His people. In fact it is because we first serve God that we can serve others. Notice also the depth of Paul’s service. It was with his whole heart. His was not half-hearted service. It was whole-hearted service. This is the only kind of service God desires.
There’s an interesting passage in 1 Kings 11. It is the story of Solomon, reportedly the wisest man in the world. Unfortunately this story is not about his wisdom. God had told Solomon not to take foreign women as wives. Solomon however, chose to disobey God and he married many foreign wives. Solomon did not just have one foreign wife, he had hundreds! The result was that Solomon allowed his heart to be turned away from God.
1 Kings 11:4 “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other Gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.”
What does this say to us today? The answer is simple. It says that 95% devotion is 5% short. God desires that we, like Paul, serve Him with our whole heart. How do you rate on this mark of maturity? Do you have a servant heart? Are you following God because of what you can get out of it? Or would you characterize your life as one that seeks to serve, first and foremost?
(3) A Prayerful Concern
Another characteristic of Paul’s inner character expresses itself in a prayerful concern. He called God to be his witness of how constantly he remembered his brothers and sisters in prayer at all times. In other words, Paul was concerned about these Christians in Rome whom he had never met. That concern moved Paul to pray. This was not unusual for Paul. Prayer had become more than something he did on certain occasions. Prayer had become a way of life for Paul. Over and over in his letters, Paul emphasizes the importance of prayer. For example:
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Ephesians 6:18 “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”
Again, prayer is a characteristic of the nature of Christ. In the Gospels, we see that Christ would often sneak away and find a solitary place to pray. Sometimes He spent whole nights in prayer. Prayer was as natural to our Lord as breathing is to us. Prayer should be natural for the Christian, although it could be described as supernaturally-natural.
How are you doing in this area? Is your life characterised by prayer? Do you pray with concern and out of an attitude of thanksgiving for your brothers and sisters in Christ? Do you pray on all occasions?
(4) A Submissive Will
Another mark of maturity that we see in Paul is that he had developed a submissive will. Notice what he says in the last part of verse 10: “and I pray now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.”Again no religious talk here. When Paul spoke of God’s will he was not only indicating that he was concerned about knowing God’s will but he was also indicating that he was willing to submit to God’s will in his own life.
Paul recognised something that all Christians should recognise. He recognised that Christ was Lord of his life. He understood that God had a plan for everything and knew everything that was going to happen and therefore the only way to be truly effective in life and ministry was if he submitted to the will of God, even if he didn’t always understand it. Paul had developed a submissive will. He decided that he would render his will captive to Christ.
This is what it means when we talk about surrender. To surrender to Jesus Christ means that we willingly submit ourselves to Him. Submission begins in the heart. Submission is never imposed from without. True submission is a decision on the part of the one who submits. Otherwise it is not really submission.
The story is told of a little boy in a highchair. One day his mother found him standing up in the highchair and told him to sit down. He replied that he would not! She told him again. In defiance again, he said no. After several repeated attempts to get him to sit down, she was at the end of her rope. She told him that if he did not sit down in that highchair at once there would be no ice cream for dessert. He could tell she was serious now so he sat down. After a very long pause, the little boy frowned at his mother and said, “I’m sitting down on the outside … but I’m standing up on the inside!” He complied with his mother’s request, but there was no submission. True submission comes from inside. Paul had a submissive will. Where are you on the submission scale? Are you giving lip service to God but really your ‘standing up’ on the inside? Have you truly surrendered your whole life to Jesus Christ or are you only allowing Him to have some parts of your life?
(5) A Gracious Spirit
Another mark of Christian maturity is a gracious spirit. Paul demonstrates his true character when he says, “I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong.” He not only wanted to come to them, he wanted to give to them. He wanted to see them, not so that he might be the beneficiary of their goodness, but so he could bless them and impart to them some spiritual gift. He has a gracious spirit. So many people today are wrapped up in what they can get out of life. The popular mindset thrust upon us every night on television tells us that we only go around once and so we must grab all the stuff we can get. We’ve become a society of consumers rather than those who give first and foremost, with not thought of what might come in return. The word ‘grace’ literally means ‘gift’ and a gracious spirit is a giving spirit.
Too often today we hear preached the ‘new’ gospel of meeting people’s felt needs. Even churches are chosen like this today. People look to see what kind of youth program, or children’s program, or singles program, or music program or other program is available. Implied is the question: “What can you do for me?” Seldom is the question asked: “What can I do for the Church?” Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, issued the powerful challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It would be just as relevant to challenge Christians in the same way. “Ask not what your church can do for you; ask what you can do for your church.”
These five attitudes of heart should be present in Christians who are truly growing in Christ. Where Christianity is genuine, Christians desire to serve. Of course this also reflects the character of Christ. Jesus is the ultimate example of what it means to lay one’s life down for another. And He told us that we should do as He did.
Where are you in this regard? Have you come to the place where you agree with Jesus that it is truly better to give than to receive? Do you desire to impart a blessing to others every day or do you expect others to bless you first? A vital part of growing in Christ is being transformed from the inside out. Developing a thankful attitude, a servant heart, a prayerful concern, a submissive will and a gracious spirit is part of the process of becoming more like Christ. It is part of the process of being conformed to the image of God’s Son. It is called maturity.
If you have been challenged by these characteristics and desire to see them grow in your life, you must understand that they come from a living relationship with Jesus. They come from a surrender of your life to Him and from a surrender of your whole heart. As you live from that point of surrender and allow God to make sense out of all that you have experienced in life, you will find His character growing more and more inside of you. That’s when you will know without doubt that you are truly growing in Christ.