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A Life of Character
J. R. Miller 1902
"A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold." Proverbs 22:1
We ought to seek to gather in this world—treasure that we can carry with us through death's gates, and into the eternal world. We should strive to build into our lives—qualities that shall endure. Men slave and work to get a little money, or to obtain honor, or power, or to win an earthly crown—but when they pass into the great vast forever, they take nothing of all this with them!
A great conqueror who had won empires and hoards of spoil, requested that he be buried with his hands uncovered, that everyone might see that his hands were empty, that he carried away with him nothing of all his vast conquests.
Yet there are things—virtues, fruits of character, graces, victories of moral conquests, which men do carry with them out of this world. Someone says: "The only thing that walks back from the tomb with the mourners and refuses to be buried—is character." This is true. What a man IS, survives him. It never can be buried. It stays about his home when his footsteps are no longer heard there. It lives in the community where he was known. And that same thing—what a man IS—he carries with him into the eternal world. Money and rank and pleasures and earthly gains—he leaves behind him; but his character, he takes with him into eternity.
This suggests at once, the importance of character and character-building. A man may not be as good as his reputation. A good reputation may hide an evil heart and life. Character is not what a man professes to be—but what he really is as God sees him. Definition is important. Reputation is not character. Reputation is what a man's neighbors and friends think of him; character is what the man is.
The history of the word 'character' is interesting. Anciently, character was the stamp or make by which a brick-maker, an engraver, or other worker marked the thing he made. Applied to life, character is that which one's experiences impress or print on his soul. A baby has no character. Its life is but a piece of white paper on which something is to be written, some song or story, perhaps a tragedy of sorrow. Character grows as the baby passes into manhood. Every day something is written here, some mark made. The mother writes something; the teacher writes something; every day's experiences write some words; every touch or influence of other lives—leaves some mark; temptation and struggle do their part in filling the page; books, education, sorrow, joy, companions, friends—all of life touches and paints some line of beauty—or scratches some mark of damage. Final character is the result of all these influences that work and interact upon the life. Character is the page fully written, the picture finished.
Christ's character is the model, the ideal, for every Christian life. In the end, we are to be altogether like Him; therefore all life's aiming and striving should be towards Christ's blessed beauty. His image we find in the Gospels. We can look at it every day. We can study it in its details, as we follow our Lord in His life among men, in all the variations of experience through which He passed.
A little Christian girl was asked the question, "What is it for you to be a Christian?" She answered, "It is to do as Jesus would do, and behave as He would behave—if He were a little girl and lived at our house." No better answer could have been given. And there is scarcely any experience of life—for which we cannot find something in Christ's life to instruct us.
We can see how Jesus did behave as a child in the home, as a man amid human needs and duties, as a friend with faulty and imperfect friends, as a comforter among sorrow-stricken ones, as a helper of others in their ills and infirmities. We can find the traits and qualities of His life—as they shine out in His contact with temptation, with enmity, with wrong, with pain, with sorrow.
The study of the story of Christ's life, is not like the study of a picture or marble statue; we see Christ in all human relations, and can learn just how He acted, how He bore Himself.
A child asked the mother, "Is Jesus like anybody I know?" It is possible to find dim reflections of Christ's beauty in His true followers; yet we don't need to turn to human lives, even the most perfect, to learn what Jesus was like, for we can see him in the Gospel story for ourselves. We have no excuse for not knowing what the ideal is, for a true human life.
The next thing, when we have the vision of Christ before us, is to get it implanted into our own life. Someone says, "God never yet permitted us to envision theory too beautiful for His power to make practical." This is true, and yet never without toil and struggle can we make an honorable character for ourselves. We cannot merely dream ourselves into worthy manhood or womanhood, we must forge for ourselves, with sweat and anguish, the nobleness that shall shine before God and man.
In the presence of a great painting, a young artist said to Mr. Ruskin, "Ah! if I could put such a dream on canvas." "Dream on canvas!" growled Ruskin. "It will take ten thousand touches of the brush on the canvas—to make your dream come true!"
It is easier to put on canvas the artist's dreams—than to put upon our human lives the beautiful visions of Christlikeness which we find on the Gospel pages. Yet that is the real problem of Christian living. And though hard, it is not impossible. If we but struggled and tried and worked, in our efforts to get our visions of character translated into reality, as artists do to paint their visions on canvas, or carve them in stone—we would all be very noble. Never yet has an ideal been too high to be realized at last, through the help of Christ. The heavenly visions God gives us—are prophecies of what we may become, what we are born to become.
Yet the cost is always high to carve the beauty God shows us—as an ideal for our lives. It costs self-discipline, oftentimes anguish, as we must deny ourselves, and cut off the things we love. SELF must be crucified if the noble manhood in us is ever to be set free to shine in its beauty—if the angel within the marble block is to be unimprisoned. Michelangelo used to say, as the chips fell thick and fast from the piece of marble in his studio, "While the marble wastes—the image grows." There must be a wasting of self, a chipping away continually of the things that are dear to our sinful human nature, if the things that are true and pure and just and lovely are to be allowed to come out in us. The marble must waste—while the image grows! It is not easy to become a godly man, a Christlike man. Yet we must never forget that it is possible. God never yet put into a soul a dream of noble character, which He is not able and ready to help make real.
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