A dignity too great for words

Last summer a friend invited me to golf with him on one of the nicest courses around. He was hoping to introduce a friend of his, who was in our area to lead a weekend seminar at a large church in Indiana.

I was happy to meet his friend and learn about his work, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to put my demonstrable lack of skills on display before a couple of real golfers. Yet there I was on the first hole, teeing off with a three-wood (since my driver is hazardous to my golf game).

Wonder of wonders, the shot went long and kept rising, just like the ones the pros hit on TV. It had this nice little draw, too, and landed right in the middle of the fairway. What’s more, that kept happening, hole after hole. And every time I hit that three-wood, I thought: “Yep. That’s the kind of golfer I am: the kind who hits them long and straight.”

Sadly for me, I had to take other clubs out of my bag. Yet for some reason, when I finished four-putting the first green – and the second and the fifth – I did not think: “Yep. That’s the kind of golfer I am.” Instead I thought, “Why is this happening? I’m better than that!”

Of course I’m not better than that. I’m the kind of golfer who hits a good shot followed by two bad ones. Alright, four bad ones. I’d like to think that I am the kind of golfer I am when I’m at my best, but I’m really the kind of golfer I am when I’m at my average.

What is true on the golf course is true in life. We’d like to think we’re the kind of person we are when we’re at our best: when we give to charity, act courageously, forgive those who’ve injured us, and feel warmth and affection for those around us.

But the truth is, we are the kind of people we are when we’re at our average: sometimes we grasp instead of give; we are fearful, not courageous; we hold grudges and despise the people around us. We are not our best moments. We are not our aspirations. We are our character.

Character is the overall makeup of the self, which is revealed in our patterns of behavior over time. Just as you can’t know what kind of golfer I am from one or two shots, or even from one or two rounds, you can’t tell what kind of person I am from one or two actions. That’s why Jesus said, “By their fruit your will recognize them.”

There is, as Dallas Willard has written: “a rigorous consistency in the human self and its actions … Actions are not impositions on who we are, but are expressions of who we are.” This is, as Willard notes, “one of the things we are most inclined to deceive ourselves about.” We want to believe that we are only our best intentions and most altruistic actions.

Character forms itself around (an often unrecognized) commitment, as we repeatedly make choices to support that commitment. This lies at the very center of who we are and it is upon this commitment that we stake our wellbeing. It may be a commitment to safety, to freedom, or to youthfulness. It may be a commitment to power or prestige or to always being right. It may be – and is, for many people – a commitment to a divine being.

Our character is shaped around that commitment by the choices we make – millions and millions of them. Each and every choice is another stroke of the tool that shapes us. As such, we are artists in residence, working with and under our artistic director to create …. ourselves. This is a remarkable privilege, a dignity too great for words. It is also a solemn responsibility, for we alone are responsible for the living art that we produce.

But what if we come to the realization that the person we are fashioning is flawed and blemished – that he or she is not the person we really want to be? Is it too late to start over?

No, character can be reformed. But to do so requires that inner commitment – at the heart of who we are – to be changed. This is nothing less than a conversion experience. We cannot do it by ourselves. It requires outside assistance – what the Bible refers to as “the grace of God.”

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, March 15, 2014

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