In life, we all face questions that get at the heart of existence. I ran across one the other day: Where do the characters go when I use my backspace or delete them on my PC? It turns out characters go to different places, depending on whom you ask:
- A Buddhist might say: If a character has lived rightly, and its karma is good, then after it has been deleted it will be reincarnated as a different, higher character. Those funny characters above the numbers on your keyboard will become numbers, numbers will become letters, and lower-case letters will become upper-case.
- A 20th-century, bitter, cynical, nihilist might say: Who cares? It doesn't really matter if they're on the page, deleted, undeleted, underlined, etc. It's all the same.
- Stephen King might say: Every time you hit the (Del) key you unleash a tiny monster inside the cursor, who tears the poor, unsuspecting characters to shreds, and eats them, bones and all. Hah, hah, hah!
- Some Christians might say: The nice characters go to Heaven, where they are bathed in the light of happiness. The naughty characters are punished for their sins. Naughty characters are those involved in the creation of naughty words…
- Dave Barry's explanation: The deleted characters are shipped to Battle Creek, Michigan, where they're made into Pop-Tart filling; this explains why Pop-Tarts are so flammable, while cheap imitations are not flammable.
- IBM's explanation: The characters are not real. They exist only on the screen when they are needed, as concepts, so to delete them is merely to de-conceptualize them. Get a life.
- An animal rights activist might say: You've been DELETING characters??? Can't you hear them SCREAMING??? Why don't you go CLUB some BABY SEALS while wearing a MINK coat, you pig!!!!
Of course, I’m not sure Jesus would have much to say about deleting characters on a screen, but I think Jesus has a lot to teach us about character. In fact, I think perhaps the greatest question of our time is not what happens to the characters we delete, but how do we build character that is good news? Paul it turns out has been tip-toeing his way towards talking about character, and in our passage he uses the metaphor of fruit to get to the core of the mystery of building character!
But what is character? Character is who we really are when there’s no one else around, but it is sometimes most visible when we are with others. Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Reputation is the shadow. Character is the tree.” So the way people know our character is by what we do, define one decision at a time, every day, all our lives. Ralph Waldo Emerson even said, “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” Following Emerson’s logic, we might think controlling our thoughts is the key to building character. Paul thinks it’s like growing fruit.
Because what we really long for are the fruits of the Spirit. Timothy Keller points out four things about how the Spirit works that are like fruit.
First, fruit is gradual. Like apples on a tree, zucchini on the vine, or raspberries on the bush, it happens day by day, moment by moment, the individual changes so small they are almost imperceptible. Children are like that too. We look at a child and it seems like we only look away for a moment, and they have grown!
Second, fruit is inevitable. When we are trying to follow Christ, trying to know Christ better, trying to make more of ourselves available to Christ, we don’t have to stress about whether we will have fruit. We don’t have to worry. Like pears on a tree, beans on the stalk and blueberries on the bush, the fruit will come.
Third, fruit comes in bunches. Have you noticed that with fruit, you usually don’t get one apple, one zucchini, one raspberry at a time? It seems to come in multiples. So it is with the fruit of the Spirit. A loving person has joy and peace, shows patience and kindness and becomes a person of integrity and trustworthiness, marked by gentleness and self-discipline. Some of these we may be better at than others because of our temperament, but those who sincerely follow Christ will find Christ’s character growing and fruiting in them.
Fourth, fruit comes from roots. Without good roots, the fruit will not grow and fill out, having the sweetness it’s meant to have. So it is for us who are seeking Jesus. If we are only living on our strength, our wisdom, our resources, then Christ will never come to full fruit in us. Jesus even said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If someone remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit.”
How do we build character? When I was a kid, my parents would ask me to weed the garden in the hot sun, and I didn’t really want to do it. They said, “It builds character.” When I attended basketball camp and had to play basketball 12 hours a day, my leaders said to me, “It builds character.” When I had a really mean boss, but I really needed the job, someone said to me, “It builds character.” When I spent four and half years dating Cynthia, but most of it away from each other, we used to sigh and say, “It builds character.” When a grandma called me to come be with her granddaughter after her baby died, and I had a recital to go to and a sermon to write, I said to myself, “It builds character.” We build character as we face ourselves, as more than one good meets another and we must choose. . In verse 5:16 and 17, Paul talks about the two competing parts of us who have chosen to follow Jesus. The self-seeking, self-focused, selfish part of ourselves he calls the “sinful nature” that reflects our brokenness and fearfulness. The Spirit is that part of who we are that is all for Jesus, completely redeemed for God, all-in for our Lord. Who am I going to follow in this moment? We have a chance to get ahead at work, or meet our child after school. We have a chance to get some email done, or go for a walk with our spouse. These are not easy choices—getting ahead at work can mean a better life for our family, but time with our families builds relationships. Or maybe someone verbally attacks us and we have the chance to attack back or find a different path. The sinful nature is us at our smallest, meanest, and most self-indulgent. Paul’s first list of the sinful nature are selfish, self-indulgent, and fearful responses to life. They are all things we do, or attitudes we have and they are all about immediate gratification. When we live by the Spirit, we break free from our limitations, and can choose the path of love and grace.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is the first to phrase this thought this way. It’s an ancient thought. For an interesting exploration of the history of it, see https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/01/10/watch-your-thoughts/.