People generally don’t like being called “Dummies.” And yet how can we explain the overwhelming success of a series of books aimed at dummies? Beginning with the November 1991 publication of DOS for Dummies, the series now has more than 100 million books in print, dealing with everything from exercise and nutrition to managing finances to planning a European vacation.
From the very beginning, the concept was simple but powerful: Relate to the anxiety and frustration that people feel about technology by making fun of it through books that are educational and humorous – books that make difficult material interesting and easy. Throw in a dash of personality and some entertaining cartoons and – presto – you have a …For Dummies book!
The Old Testament book of Proverbs does much the same thing (minus the cartoons). It takes the timeless wisdom of God and makes it easy to understand for regular people with no theological training. You could call the book of Proverbs Wisdom for Dummies.
The Old Testament proverbs were collected and written down to help us make one of the most vital and basic choices in life – the choice between wisdom and folly, walking with God or walking on our own. In the book of Proverbs both wisdom and folly are described as people who walk through the streets of the city and call out to us, hawking their wares and beckoning us to taste a sample (Proverbs 1).
Solomon, who is credited with authoring the book of Proverbs, provides us with an excellent jumping off point for developing the character qualities essential to good leadership:
My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. He holds victory in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.
Then you will understand what is right and just and fair – every good path. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul. Discretion will protect you, and understanding will guard you.
Leaders cultivate character by acquiring wisdom and understanding. Of course, those possessions don’t come without a price. They require the kind of dedicated and patient labor exercised in mining for gold and silver. Leaders must diligently “search” for the wisdom that is buried within God’s Word like treasure covered by layers of earth and rock. That means using the right tools and exercising patience and diligence as we spend time immersed within this life-changing book. As Marjorie Thompson writes, “It would be nice if we could simply ‘practice the presence of God’ in all of life, without expending energy on particular exercises. But the capacity to remember and abide in God’s presence comes only through steady training.”1 You cannot pay someone else to develop your character strength any more than you can pay them to develop muscles for you. If you want to grow stronger, you will have to push the weight yourself.
Neither can you expect to have a muscular character overnight. It requires effort and time. Douglas J. Rumford says, “Character is like physical exercise or any form of learning; you cannot ‘cram,’ hoping to do in a day or week what can only be accomplished by months and years of consistent practice.”2 This is why the writer of Proverbs uses words that call his readers to energetic and passionate action.
As we dig, we must ask God to provide us with insight and understanding. Ultimately, only God can open our eyes to see spiritual truth and then enable us to apply that truth to our lives (Ephesians 1:18). As God fills our minds with wisdom, our character will develop so that we’ll possess the ability to consistently make right choices – choices that are just, fair and moral. As Henry Blackaby and Claude King note in their book Experiencing God:
Once you come to believe God, you demonstrate your faith by what you do. Some action is required…. You cannot continue life as usual or stay where you are, and go with God at the same time…. To go from your ways, thoughts, and purposes to God’s will always requires a major adjustment. God may require adjustments in your circumstances, relationships, thinking, commitments, actions, and beliefs. Once you have made the necessary adjustments you can follow God in obedience. Keep in mind – the God who calls you is also the One who will enable you to do His will.3
As we seek to possess God’s wisdom, we’ll be able to move beyond simply expressing the vision and values of a leader. We’ll possess the kind of character from which lofty visions and values flow, the kind of character that isn’t swayed by public opinion or fear but pursues true greatness and knows Who the real audience is. Our character will be truly godly, so that others will delight in following us.
Think about the people you know and admire. Do you know any wise parents, mothers and fathers who demonstrate sound judgment in how they conduct their lives and raise their children? Do you know any grandparents who know when to cheer and when to rebuke, when to be tender and when to use force? Have you ever had a teacher who knew when to give advice and when to just listen, when to instruct and when to let life’s consequences be the teacher? Now try to put a value on those wise insights. How much are they worth?
We all esteem people who possess wisdom in their inward character. If we admire these quality people, how much more should we value the perfection of the living God from whom all wisdom, patience and discernment is derived?
When Moses asked God to reveal his glory to him, the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence” (Exodus 33:18-19). God had to shield Moses from the fullness of his glory by covering him in the cleft of a rock, and as he passed in front of Moses, God accompanied this awesome display by proclaiming the perfection of his own character:
And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
When God revealed himself as the compassionate and gracious God who is slow to anger, who abounds in love and faithfulness, who maintains love to thousands and who forgives wickedness, rebellion and sin, he made it clear this his personal character is the absolute standard by which all of these qualities are defined. God is accountable to no one, and there is no higher standard to which he must conform. As the great thinker Anselm said in the 11th century: “God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”
Anselm originally made this statement in an attempt to prove God’s existence. But as Michael Witmer points out,
The real legacy of Anselm’s argument is not its attempt to prove God’s existence but rather how it teaches us to speak about God. If God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived,” then we know there are certain things we must say about him. For starters, we must use only our best words to describe him. God must be righteous, powerful, loving, and kind – all the things that it is better to be than not to be. We may disagree about what items should go in the list…but we all agree that the list must include all the great-making properties we can imagine….
God is qualitatively superior to anything in his creation. There is nothing that compares with the greatest possible being. He is in a class by himself – literally.4
God’s own eternal and uncompromising character is the unchanging standard that gives ultimate meaning to love, graciousness, faithfulness and forbearance. And yet the incredible call of the gospel is that fallen creatures such as we are can now begin to reflect our Father’s character in our own lives. The One who is goodness in his essence, the One who defines virtue by his very being, promises to empower those who will trust him enough to live according to his will.
People are not impressed by façades or manipulation, but by authenticity and by those who are genuinely other-centered. Character is not a matter of outward technique but of inner reality. God is concerned with what you are really like when no one else is looking. Douglas Rumford, in discussing the sad situation of a Christian leader who lost his ministry due to sexual misconduct, explains that this kind of thing is bound to happen when we allow a “character gap” to develop in our lives. He writes,
The character gap is a weakness that will one day become apparent, when the circumstances or stresses of life converge and reach a breaking point. We may be able to coast for a while, and we may feel quite secure. But raw talent, personality, and fortunate circumstances cannot substitute for the forging of inner holiness, resilience, and the convictions that comprise integrity of character.5
Second Peter 1:5-8 lists the qualities of life and godliness that God wants for each of his children:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The character qualities listed in these verses are admirable, but they are also overwhelming. We may aspire to these characteristics, but is it really possible for us to attain them? The answer, both from Scripture and from sheer human experience, is a resounding, “No!” In our own strength, this kind of character is not merely difficult to attain; it is impossible to attain.
If it were simply a matter of fitful human effort, the attempt would be futile. So what are we to do? Shall we simply throw up our hands and walk away from the text, claiming that it makes impossible requests? That would be foolish. What we should do is pay attention to the context into which Peter wrote those words.
The sentences just prior (2 Peter 1:3-4) provide the necessary key: In Christ we have been permitted to access God’s divine power and have been granted the incomprehensible privilege of participating “in the divine nature.” There is only one person who is able to live the Christlike life: Jesus Christ himself. You cannot live the life he calls you to without him (John 15:5). Only as you maintain your connection to him can he live this life through you. As Martin Luther said, “It is not imitation which brings about our sonship of God, but our sonship which makes possible imitation.”6 We have not only received a new nature in Christ (Romans 6:6-13), but we are also indwelled by the Holy Spirit, whose power within us makes it possible for us to manifest these qualities of Christlike character.
True spiritual and character transformation takes place from the inside out, not from the outside in. The attributes of faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness and love flow from the life of Christ that has been implanted within us.
It’s easy to read Peter’s inspirational words and wonder, “Who writes this stuff? Where do people with such ideals and insights come from?” Well, the man who wrote those inspiring words, the man who exhorted us on to such strength of character, didn’t always live up to those same ideals.
The man who called himself “a witness of Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 5:1) was not there when Jesus was hanging on the cross; he was hiding in fear. The man who calls us to be “eager to serve” (1 Peter 5:2) remained seated while Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. The man who tells us that we should “be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray” (1 Peter 4:7) fell asleep while Jesus was sweating blood. The man who so boldly tells us to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men” (1 Peter 2:13) lopped Malchus’ ear off in the Garden (John 18:10-11).
None of this is meant to demean Peter. The point here is to give us hope. This man Peter, who was so impulsive and immature, grew into a great leader of the church. The Peter we read about in the four Gospels became the Peter we read about in the book of Acts and the Peter who wrote two epistles. It took time and effort, but God transformed him. And the same Holy Spirit who worked this transformation in Peter’s life is actively at work transforming those of us who have placed our faith in Christ.
The Gospels leave the reader with two impressions of Peter. The first is that he was at times a comically impulsive character. Twice he jumped out of perfectly seaworthy boats, fully clothed. He challenged Jesus; he spoke out of turn; at times, he seemed to demonstrate more energy and creativity than was appropriate for the moment. But it is that very energy and creativity that underlie the second impression of Peter.
Peter was the disciples’ unofficial leader. He often served as their spokesperson. He was one of the three disciples in Jesus’ “inner circle.” Certainly after Jesus’ departure, the disciples looked to Peter to give them direction. Luke’s record of the church’s early years (the book of Acts) leaves no doubt about Peter’s leadership.
This seemingly conflicting combination of qualities exists in many young leaders and may be identified by a term such as “high mental energy.” Peter was always thinking, and he always thought with a view toward action. When he heard “question,” he immediately thought “answer.” When he observed “problem,” he thought “solution.” When he encountered “options,” he thought “decision.” But he also demonstrated the unfortunate side of that same characteristic. When he heard “silence,” he thought “talk.” When he encountered “disagreement,” he thought “challenge.” “Error” (or at least Peter’s perception of error) sparked “correction.” But whatever the situation, at the very least he did think, and his thinking inevitably led to action.
In his younger years Peter exercised little constraint, and his answers, solutions, decisions and speech sometimes seemed buffoonish. At times his behavior was perceived as insensitive, unconsidered and immature. But like many great leaders, Peter survived himself. With Jesus’ guidance, Peter’s fertile and active mind matured. Through all of his experiences he developed a more-godly, Christlike character. This maturity led his thinking process into more productive channels. He collected, sorted and connected information. He honed his reasoning skills. Peter became a leader because he was not afraid to make a decision. And his godly character informed the decisions he made.
Anyone serving under a leader who suffers “paralysis by analysis” will appreciate Peter’s quick response time. Anyone working in an organization in which “decision by indecision” is the rule understands why people were drawn to Peter. As we follow Peter’s life through the Gospels and then hear his mature voice resonate throughout his two epistles, we appreciate this optimistic, energetic, highly intelligent man of action and deep character. In fact, the Gospel of Mark, which many believe Peter dictated to Mark, is the Gospel that portrays Jesus as a man of action and urgency. The Greek word translated “immediately” is used 42 times in Mark’s 16 chapters.
When the church was on the move, when both the Roman and Jewish leaders were opposing it, when Christians were being martyred for their faith, someone needed to make quick, Spirit-led decisions. And we can only imagine the kinds of issues that could have splintered this frail organization when the church leaped over its cultural boundaries to include Greek-speaking Jews, then Samaritans, then local Gentiles, then Asians and Greeks and Romans. Because Peter was a leader whose ego could endure the threat of disagreement, challenge or even a bad decision, he was not afraid to act. He was not careless, nor did he deal frivolously with critical matters. His godly character wouldn’t allow that. But he was not afraid to move, and under his leadership the church got things done. Peter was a leader who made decisions that mattered.
It’s amazing what God can do with a person who wants to grow personally and develop character. The great news is that God wants you to grow as much as you can. He redeemed you for that purpose. To discover the lengths to which God will go to forge steel into our character, let’s walk through the smelting furnace along with Peter.
This man had denied Jesus at a critical time; yet later in his life he suffered beatings, imprisonment and eventually death rather than to deny him again. We all know that such character is not developed in a single event. We know that Jesus’ resurrection had a profound influence on Peter’s character transformation. But the manner in which Jesus helped Peter to recover from the worst failure of his life should afford us great encouragement about asking the same Lord Jesus to help us to develop strength of character as well.
Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said.
But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!”
After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.”
Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”
Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
To discover just what this event represented to Peter, perhaps we should go back and read a passage from earlier in the same chapter:
Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me….
Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.
Matthew 26:31a, 33-35
At this earlier point, Peter’s strength of character could hardly be questioned. He said he was willing to die with Jesus if he had to. But the Son of God was right. That same night, Peter denied even knowing Jesus.
Following all of these events, Jesus was crucified and buried. Three days later he was raised from the dead and was seen briefly by Peter and the other disciples (John 20). But the first conversation between Jesus and Peter, recorded in John 21, shows how Jesus dealt with Peter’s failure:
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon, son of John, do you truly love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
Notice Peter’s sound theological affirmation in verse 17: “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Peter was correct. Jesus wasn’t asking Peter the question because he needed to know that answer but because Peter needed to know that answer. Why was it so important for Peter to come to grips with his own answer to that question? It is important for you as well to determine whether your love for Jesus Christ is strong enough to enable you to develop the character qualities his Word encourages and demands. These are the qualities Peter lists in 2 Peter 1:5-8.
In the first 12 chapters of the book of Acts we see Peter as the prominent leader in the fledgling church. His strength of character and conviction are a source of inspiration, challenge and encouragement to many. Our Lord is still seeking men and women who will answer, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you,” and who will then develop the character qualities needed to be a godly leader.
Such character is forged in the small things of life. The big events of life can be viewed as final examinations which reveal the true nature of our inward selves. It is in the seemingly unimportant decisions that our character is strengthened bit by bit. C. S. Lewis used the image of the “central core” within each of us that is formed and molded by our choices:
People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.7
The choices we make today determine our character. And we’ll take our character with us into eternity. Choose wisely!
1Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1995), p. 11.
2Douglas J. Rumford, SoulShaping: Taking Care of Your Spiritual Life (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1996), p. 354.
3Henry T. Blackaby and Claude V. King, Experiencing God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), pp. 147, 151, 153.
4Michael E. Witmer, Heaven Is a Place on Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p. 40.
5Rumford, Soul Shaping, p. 354.
6Quoted in Gordon S. Wakefield, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1983), p. 209.
7C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1943), pp. 86-87.