The Rounded Christian
What is a rounded Christian character? Immediately there comes to mind a plump cheerful gentleman who is for ever busy doing helpful things - he's certainly a Christian, his appearance is gently rounded, and as a person he is unique - quite a character! But this is not what we are thinking of. Each one of us lives in a characteristically Christian way, we are distinct people who can be recognised because we are what we are, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, we have developed in different ways, we have a character. One person may be immensely loving and horribly bossy: another, utterly loyal but coldly unemotional. Ideally, we should grow out of our weaknesses and extend our strengths, until our character is not one sided but rounded.
Like an apple, for example. The apple grower aims for perfect fruit. A full, even shape, without kinks or blemishes, where diseases or pests have not prevented the growth inherent in the tree's nature. Fruit moreover not starved of sunlight or rubbed by its neighbours, but coming to a ripeness and fullness and flavour which is the grower's objective - and the natural consequence of a tree being a tree.
Scripture has much to say about the fullness of Christian character, which in this article we can only sample. There is a Greek word, teleios, which is translated perfect or mature. It is related to telos, which means a goal or a limit or a conclusion or a termination or a result or a purpose - in short, an end. You can't get beyond the end. Thinking in terms of development, you can imagine the end that God has in view. So teleios means complete - a finished piece of work, a completed process of growth, a developed understanding and moral character, a person of full age, perfect, who has reached the state that God intends for us all. Admittedly, like a growing apple we may have picked up a few outer blemishes and scratches through life's experience. Inwardly we have become ripe, mature.
Within the Christian community we are at different stages of growth. The newborn infant, nurtured in prayer, lovable, perfectly formed, has not yet grown very far in terms of Christian character. The teenager, however correctly brought up, may thresh about in our world of opening opportunities with a temper fuelled by the situations he does not understand ‑ he has not got there yet. Young men, studies completed, venture out into the adult world, and begin to feel mature. Among the old ladies, one of them is restricted by actual physical tiredness, another peers through the mists of dementia, while a third is crying out in a hospital ward as she dies in fearful pain. These have passed beyond maturity and into decline. None of us fit the stereotype of achieving an effortless perfection; and at the last even the ripest apple will fall from the tree in autumn gales. But however various and perplexing life's experiences, we have to understand that as Christian human beings we are in God's care. "Be patient with me ‑ God hasn't finished with me yet!" And God's purpose for us looks beyond what we experience now to serving Him in a different life and a future age.
As we progress toward having a rounded Christian character in the here and now, there is a process in which we cooperate. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5.12-24 has a list of instructions. It is not about how to be perfect but how to respond to situations in which we find ourselves. People are afraid? - encourage them. People not doing their bit? - warn them. Live at peace with each other. Respect the leaders of your fellowship. Someone wrongs you? - don't pay back with a wrong, but always try to do what is good for each other. Be joyful - always! Pray - continually! Give thanks - whatever happens! Don't pour cold water when someone is inspired by God, yet keep your wits about you, test everything. Keep what is good. Stay away from what is evil.
It is in these reactions to circumstances that character is formed. In our obedience to Him, God works. "Now may God himself, the God of peace, make you pure, belonging only to him. May your whole self - spirit, soul and body - be kept safe and without fault when our Lord Jesus Christ comes. You can trust the One who calls you to do that for you" (1 Thessalonians 5.23-4 NCV).
The apostle Peter pictures us not as simply reacting, but as consciously building on to what God has done for us (2 Peter 1.3-8). The basis for us is provided ‑ power, because we know Jesus in His glory and goodness ‑ promises, to clutch hold of and so become like God! On this basis, it is our job to build, do our best, apply all diligence, do our true best. We already have faith. So add to it goodness ‑ knowledge ‑ self control ‑ patience ‑ service and worship ‑ kindness to our brothers and sisters. Add love. "If all these things are in you and are growing they will help you to be useful and productive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." All this conscious effort means being aware: aware when we `blow our top', aware of when our goodness is tarnished, aware of when our worship is defective. Aware most of all of what is meant by love. And the end of the process is a great welcome into our Lord's kingdom (v.11).
The process may seem a struggle at times. We need to be aware of the help available. All Christian leaders and workers are God's gift, to help us grow into maturity. The carers and teachers, the evangelists and the apostles, are all there to assist the miscellaneous but holy people of God. "This work must continue until we are all joined together in the same faith and in the same knowledge of the Son of God. We must become like a mature person, growing until we become like Christ and have his perfection" (Ephesians 4.13,14). This implies accepting one another, listening to one another - speaking the truth with love. It is growing together into Christ, who Himself is the head of the Christian body in all its parts. The whole Christian community needs to grow and be strong with love. Within a mature community, we are helped to become mature individuals.
The process is not just one of us talking and listening as Christian people. Over and above this, we find that God is working. When there is joy, peace and patience, it is His Spirit at work. Where there is kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control... love... it is not just us working to be better, it is God using our obedience and producing more obedience as we become mature. The Spirit gives us power to be strong inwardly. As we learn about Jesus and appreciate Him, Christ takes up residence in our lives. As we understand God's universal unimaginable love, we are filled with an empowering fulness, with consequences far greater than we could expect. To experience God's love makes our character to be full, rounded and fully ripe.
Being `teleios' has various practical consequences mentioned in the New Testament. If I am 'teleios' I go beyond the facts of Christian doctrine and get a feel for God's Spirit in my mind and heart (1 Corinthians 2). I can rise above controversies or unwise Christian behaviour and appreciate what God is saying (1 Corinthians 14). I can tell the difference between good and evil (Hebrews 5.14). Problems will bring me patience (James 1.4). I shall control my tongue (James 3.2). I shall prove by experience what it is like to obey God's will, which itself is 'teleios' (Romans 12.2). I shall put everything else to one side as I follow Christ, as the rich young ruler was sadly not prepared to do (Matthew 19.21). In having no limits to the love I give to others, I shall be like my perfect Father (Matthew 5.48)....
Mulling all this over, we may be tempted to ask "Is this me? Am I getting anywhere near this state of maturity?" Perhaps we are not getting there, not yet. Perhaps not fully, as we begin to wish we were more completely mature. Perhaps we shall never get to be pleased with ourselves because of our rounded Christian character? Be it so. We must just rely, not on ourselves, but on our Lord, whom we love, and trust, and sincerely aim to obey.