Christian Character Defined: John Stott
As a study assistant to the Anglican pastor and writer John Stott during my early years as a believer, I witnessed John’s faithfulness in public and private, as a highly visible speaker and as a nearly invisible spiritual shepherd to many. What I saw served to cement my conviction about life abundant as a follower of Jesus. It was on a trip to India and Bangladesh where, in a dark, dilapidated courtyard surrounded by small fire pits, blackened pots and a group of simple homes housing a handful of people, I heard the global Christian leader give one of his most memorable sermons. I saw that the abundant life I hoped for—that he and those to whom he spoke shared—was carried with them on the inside. Inside, they were not bound; they were no longer small.
John had been asked by a friend, a priest serving in Burma, for a tender and intimate favor: John, he said, I am serving so far away from my dying mother in Madras; you might be able to reach her sooner than I can. She is poor, in declining health, and her teeth are falling out one by one. Would you make a pastoral visit to her the next time you are in India? And so we set off, with scant information about location, to find his friend’s elderly mother. After hours of searching, moving self-consciously through streets of shacks and shelters so different than the more established structures we’d left only three hours before, we arrived at the door to this woman’s home. Eventually, she emerged from the shadows, frail but beaming with tearful joy. At her insistence, she knelt at John’s feet and kissed them, and then the two of them spoke through our translator for awhile.
At the end of our visit, she asked John to speak and to give her a blessing. A small piece of carpet was honorifically placed for him in the center of the mud floor, and without anything like the kind of pulpit to which he was often accustomed, John preached on John 3:16. It was John Stott at his fullest. Filled with love for Jesus and for his fellow pastor, John spoke to the mother who had believed, in spite of her poverty, not as a stranger but as God’s own. The mother who provided such a rich inheritance to her son received the blessing of her son’s gratitude as John interceded.
His words were simple and clear. His tone was compassionate and dignified. His intellectual rigor and verbal skill were fully intact. And his assurances were personal and tender. He was fully present to her and to the goodness of God. It was the sermon of his life, and it has shaped my view of following Jesus ever since. That scene was a rich moment of God’s grace. A priest in Burma, a widow in India, a world-renowned British preacher and his young American intern—we were so deeply connected in the family of Christ, by Christ and in Christ that a transcendence beyond all of us and our meager circumstances took place, filling us.
Digging Down Deep
I’m more of an aboveground type of girl, as in, I like the stuff you can see. Flowers, trees, and vegetation symbolize life, growth, and transformation. The problem with focusing on external manifestations, though, is we don’t see what is beneath the topsoil. If a root structure is shallow, nothing will stand. And when the topsoil is stripped dry? There’s very little in the way of tangible life.
To survive and even thrive in the desert, plants must send their roots deep to push into hidden springs to find life-giving water. Humans are no different. In the desert seasons of life, we must root into the goodness of God, into being known and loved by God. We need to be rooted in our identities as the beloved creations of a merciful and divine Creator. We store these truths, allow them to spur growth, to deepen our roots, to bring us to bloom in even the most trying terrain.
The Elderly Contractor
An elderly master carpenter was ready to retire. He told his employer of his plans to leave the house building business and live a more leisurely life with his wife enjoying his extended family.
He would miss the paycheck, but he needed to retire. They could get by. The contractor was sorry to see his good worker go and asked if he could build just one more house as a personal favor. The carpenter said yes, but in time it was easy to see that his heart was not in his work. He resorted to shoddy workmanship and used inferior materials. It was an unfortunate way to end his career.
When the carpenter finished his work and the builder came to inspect the house, the contractor handed the front-door key to the carpenter. “This is your house,” he said, “my gift to you.”
Nelson Mandela and a Presidency of Reconciliation
What does true forgiveness and reconciliation look like? The world was given such an image the day Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President of South Africa. What was so significant was not just that a person of color was becoming the head of a state with years of segregation and mistreatment of its black citizens, but it was also Mandela’s gracious inclusion of his former adversaries that was so inspiring.
When Mandela arrived, he was accompanied by his eldest daughter, as well as the South African security forces. But that was not all. The police and the correctional services (the same people in charge of his 27 years in prison) walked alongside his car, saluted him and escorted him to his inauguration. It was a powerful moment for many reasons, but most of all provided a reminder that just a few years ago, Mandela had been considered by the South African state as a public enemy, a terrorist to be arrested and exiled to a remote prison.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
The actual word in the Greek—charaktér—originally was used in connection with tools designed for engraving. And character is indeed a tool that marks us—that in one sense cuts us, shapes us, and engraves us. We are image-bearers who are intended by God to make him known in a fashion that no one else on the earth can do in the same way.
Pursuing Truth Over Revenge
I would like to share with you a true story that took place during the Revolutionary War. During that time there was a pastor named Peter Miller, and all through his ministry in a small town in Lancaster County, he had a neighbor who took great pleasure in mocking and ridiculing Miller and his followers. And as it happens, during the war, that neighbor fell on hard times and was both accused and convicted of treason. And while of course, he was an unpleasant person, Miller was convinced that he was not in fact, a traitor. And so Peter Miller decided to travel 70 miles on foot to see George Washington, who he believed could commute the sentence, and free him of the charges against him.
When Miller approached the great general, Washington told him he was sorry but there was nothing he could do to save his friend. “My Friend?” Miller gasped, he isn’t my friend! In fact he is the greatest enemy I’ve ever had” Washington needless to say, was surprised:
“What?” cried Washington. “You’ve walked seventy miles to save the life of an enemy? That in my judgment puts the matter in different light. I’ll grant your pardon.”
And so, the story goes, Miller returned home just as his neighbor was being led to the scaffold. The Neighbor cried out to the crowd… “Old Peter Miller has coming to get his revenge and watch me hang from the scaffold”. Miller said “not at all” and he handed him the paper with his pardon.
Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from Stephen Olford, The Grace of Giving.
Out of the Center
The word eccentric comes from a combination of the Greek terms ex (out of) and kentron (center). When combined, ekkentros means “out of center.” The term gained currency in the late Middle Ages, when astronomers like Copernicus dared to suggest that the earth was not at the center of the solar system. By claiming the earth in fact orbited the sun, Copernicus became the original eccentric. Enter Richard Beck, a professor from Abilene Christian University, who pushes the definition of eccentricity a bit further.
In his book The Slavery of Death, Beck takes its literal meaning (“out of center”) and suggests that an eccentric identity is an identity where the focal point of the self is shifted to God. He says, “The ego, in a kind of Copernican Revolution, is displaced from the center and moved to the periphery. The self is displaced being the ‘center of the universe’ so that it may orbit God.”…
The alternative, Beck says, is what Martin Luther called incurvatus in se, the self “curved inward” upon itself, with the ego at the center of our identity. “Incurvatus in se suggests that human sinfulness is rooted in self-focus, self-absorption, and self-worship.” It’s me at the center. A true conversion to Christ involves displacing me and becoming truly “off center.”
A Vice President’s Undoing by a 3-cent Butter Roll
Dr. Bob Reccord tells the story of a major move that was set to take place inside the halls of a Fortune 500 company. It was unheard of, but the company was ready to promote a 38-year-old from vice president to president. The young man was a very impressive business man who wooed and awed the board of directors. Upon completing the final interview process, the board broke for lunch with plans to offer this man the prestigious position.
The young man went to lunch alone that day, and was unintentionally followed by several of the board members, who happened to stand in line behind him. Naturally, they were watching him closely, filled with pride and excitement about the coming announcement. Just then, everything changed. When the young man came to the bread section, he placed two, 3-cent butter patties on his tray and nonchalantly covered them up with his napkin. When he paid for his meal, he did not reveal the stolen treasures.
An hour later, a room that should have been filled with joy was instead marked by anger. And instead of being promoted to president, the young man with the promising future was fired – all for six cents worth of butter.
Sometimes Integrity Costs Big
I spent a considerable amount of time with a guy I’ll call Martin. As a brand-new follower of Christ, Martin felt guilty for having previously embezzled a lot of money from his employer. After discussing the situation with trusted advisors, Martin decided that the right thing to do was to confess his crime and hope for the best. Unfortunately, the outcome fell closer to the worst. Martin’s company pressed charges.
Even though he admitted to the crime and agreed to repay the money, Martin was sentenced to seven years in prison. Seven years. For confessing and doing what was right. Some people might have gotten mad at God. But Martin told me he’d never been closer to God than when he was in prison. During that time, his spiritual roots grew deep. And his spiritual fruit multiplied. Every time I received a letter from Martin during his prison stay, it was always signed, “His grace is enough, Martin.”
An Unexpected Friendship
Sometimes moments of forgiveness and friendship come from unexpected places. In 2018, the comedian Pete Davidson appeared on the “Weekend Update” segment of Saturday Night Live (SNL). Davidson made a crude joke about a former Navy Seal turned Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw.
Crenshaw had lost an eye in the line of duty, which became the butt of Davidson’s vulgar joke. The combination of mocking a person’s disability (especially a disability that came from serving his country in war) alongside a clear disapproval of Crenshaw’s political beliefs led to a burst of public outrage. While Davidson was making the joke, it became clear many found it in poor taste, and the vitriol aimed at the young comedian would ultimately lead him down a spiral of depression and self-loathing.
Davidson then took his anguish public, posting on the social media platform Instagram:
“I really don’t want to be on this earth anymore. I’m doing my best to stay here for you but I actually don’t know how much longer I can last. All I’ve ever tried to do was help people. Just remember I told you so.”
When Crenshaw heard about Davidson’s condition, he didn’t do what many do when embroiled in a public tiff: tell the offender the public scorn served him right, or make some other cutting comment at Davidson’s expense.
Instead, Crenshaw decided to extend an olive branch, befriending the comedian, and even offering words of life to a person who clearly felt lost amidst being stuck in the cross-hairs of the American public. Davidson recounts that Crenshaw reached out and comforted him: “God put you here for a reason. It’s your job to find that purpose. And you should live that way.”
Humor, it has often been said, is a coping mechanism to deal with the pain that life throws at us. But in the midst of the deep, unsettling pain of being publicly shamed, what Davidson needed was not a good joke, but forgiveness, and perhaps, even a friend who could share the good news of the gospel with him. In some ways it is ironic that a man trained to kill and destroy his enemies could be so moved by compassion that he reached out to someone who publicly mocked him and his deeply held political beliefs. But that is the beauty of the gospel, it enables us to look beyond our own reputation, our own pride, to care for others.
Stuart Strachan Jr. Source Material from Dino-Ray Ramos, “Texas Congressman-Elect Dan Crenshaw Reaches Out to SNL’s Pete Davidson After Troubling Instagram Post,” Deadline, December 18, 2018.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Character. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!