In his latest book titled After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, the great N.T. Wright says that what the disciples discovered in Jesus was “a way of being human which nobody had ever imagined before. This was a way of generosity and forgiveness, a way of self-emptying and a determination to put everyone else’s needs first. . . .” It was the way of “humility, charity, patience, and chastity,” something unthinkable as virtues to the ancient Greeks.
“A way of being human which nobody had ever imagined before” — that’s what got my attention. What was this way, this radically new way? Wright outlines some of its content here, and as we read this list of virtues, we realize it is still beyond what our world can imagine. But think about it. It was “a way of being human” that exploded on the scene and literally changed the world. It challenged all notions of the way toward human flourishing, and it still sits radically as a challenge to our notions of what it means to live our lives or ways that we might build our communities.
“Christian virtue,” Wright goes on to say, “isn’t about you — your happiness, your fulfillment, your self-realization.” Somehow we’ve got this one turned around. So much of what we read and hear in Christian teaching, and of course preeminently in the teaching of the culture, is that it is precisely about my happiness and my fulfillment. In our highly individualized culture, what else could it possibly be about?
No, says Wright, Christian character formation is “about God and God’s kingdom, and your discovery of genuine human existence by the paradoxical route — the route God himself took in Jesus Christ! — of giving yourself away, of generous love which constantly refuses to take center stage.”
“Generosity, forgiveness, humility, charity, patience — I can’t be that!” That’s our first response, isn’t it? It certainly is mine. I find myself thinking how often I fall short of these ways of living day in and day out. I get wrapped up in the old patterns of guilt and worry about not measuring up to the way I ought to be living out my life.
But what I love about Wright’s amazing book is that he does not let us off the hook so easily.
It takes work, but it is doable. It takes discipline, but surely anything worthwhile takes discipline. Rest assured, says Wright, that “it’s no good hoping that because you’ve been converted, because you attend church, because you say your prayers, because you have Christian friends, you are going to discover that the qualities of kindness, gentleness, humility, and the rest just happen, without any effort on your part.”
As Wright opens up Paul’s teaching on character formation, we see that we can actually “put on” Christian character. We actually “put off” behavior that is contrary and destructive. It “is a matter of consciously deciding, again and again, to do certain things in certain ways, to create patterns of memory and imagination deep within the psyche and, as we saw from contemporary neuroscience, deep within the actual physical structure of our mysterious brain.”
We’ve got to develop these habits of the heart. We’ve got to engage in the “renewing of our minds,” as Paul says in Romans. Once we believe, we’ve got to think about these things and practice them.
This is very cool, isn’t it? This is the stuff that can change our lives into a “a way of being human which nobody had ever imagined before.” This is what the disciples found in Jesus: a “discovery of genuine human existence” that changed the world.
In the end that discovery leads us to go about “doing things which bring God’s wisdom and glory to birth in the world.” Very cool, to be sure.