Where does character come from?
I’ve been asking myself that question as I examine my own life and the life of Abraham, both of which are full of resistance.
I’d like to think character comes from experiencing a long string of successes and goals met—at least that would be convenient and exciting. I’d like to think the soil in which men become great is composed of three parts ridiculous gifting, four half-measures of constant achievement, and one cup overflowing with widespread recognition and acclaim.
People who are not prepared to do do unpopular things and to defy clamor are not fit to be Ministers in times of stress. — Winston Churchill
But history, and my own experience, reveals a different pattern altogether.
Paul said that Abraham, the great man of faith, had a hope for a son. Decades passed and all Abraham saw was his aged wife and his own failing body, both pressing 100 years old. Every day he woke up with the same hope, and every day he didn’t see it come to pass. He kept sowing his seed, and for 70 plus years he saw no fruit.
That’s a staggering sucker punch to the gut, if you ask me. Decade after decade you work at something, hope for something, labor toward something, and you never have a single thing to show for it. I wonder how many of us would just give up somewhere in the third decade of disappointment, or perhaps well before it. Judging by the average tenure of employees, churchmen, or anything involving commitment, I’d say there are more emotionally fragile quitters in our midst than we’d like to admit.
But what comes next is staggering. Paul said all this happened to Abraham, and instead of giving up, he grew stronger. Day after disappointing day, Abraham got better. Not more discouraged, more defeated and depleted, but more powerful, more resolute. His faith deepened, his maturity took root like a giant oak, and he was, like Pistol Pete with a basketball, a virtuoso of the faith.
“No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:20-21).
Your training day
Like a boxer’s gym, the daily, constant, long-term disappointment was an opportunity for Abraham to work on his faith. To keep looking to God and his character when the situation screamed for self-pity, discouragement, and hopelessness.
Instead of a speed bag and a jump rope, he was given a broken-beyond-repair situation in the form of his wife’s barren womb, the promises of God, and the opportunity to daily exercise his faith in those promises. And like Rocky Balboa climbing mountains and staring down a steroid-infused Russian, the daily fire was fueled by more challenges, more obstacles, until it burned unquenchable.
As it turned out, every disappointing day was a #TrainingDay for Abraham. God was like Mick, pushing Abraham harder and farther each day. It wasn’t punishment. It was preparation. Abe was God’s prize fighter, finally in premiere shape at the ripe old age of 100. All those hours in the gym of disappointment, setback, and failure had finally paid off.
It changes everything when we start to see that setbacks, disappointments, and failures of our life as opportunities for us to practice our faith, to grow stronger, more mentally tough. God is teaching us to defeat emotional limp-wristedness, the great plague of our generation, and to be the kind of people who stay, endure, and burn hotter with joy.
We learn, somewhere along the way, that the only person who can defeat you emotionally and mentally is you. The critics can attack, the character assassins can lob their best canon balls of nastiness, but only you can choose to give in.
When I show up to church to lead in worship and there are eight people in the pews, I say a silent prayer to God, “Challenge accepted. Preach your heart out, regardless of the size of the crowd. That’s today’s workout.”
It’s in moments like those that God refines our desire — instead of being fueled by the energy of the crowd, which can be heinously misleading, there can only be the pure desire of doing what you’re called and love to do. Like the street-corner kid dribbling away in the dark with no one watching, simply for love of the game. Those are character moments.
You might say the same prayer when, on day 342 of faithfully enduring and serving your boss, he still treats you with disrespect. Or when your spouse still hasn’t changed, despite your prayers, sticktuitiveness, and quiet spirit. Challenge accepted; today is #TrainingDay. I will not allow this to break me, but to make me.
Or when you sit at a water hole for eight hours in the 90-degree heat, never see an animal, and close the day with a grueling hike up a steep slope back to the truck. You can go down the road of self pity, or you can view the apparent failure as part of your #TrainingDay. I got in better shape, I had time to think, read, pray, and, most importantly, I now have the opportunity to kick emotional fragility in the groin.
Maybe it’s how you handle the grumbling and obnoxious behavior of your kids on the first day back to school. You can either let the constant whining and complaining and belly aching send you over the edge, or you can see it as your #TrainingDay. This is the rope you’ll jump today, the pint-sized sparring partners God has given you for sharpening the left hook of your faith today.
You’re becoming more resilient, logging miles on the road course of not giving up in doing good, staying faithful, and one day experiencing the joy of fully grown, God-fearing children who can read, spell their own name and love Jesus.
Gerald Swindle, two-time Angler of the Year and professional bass fisherman, said he’s often asked what separates the top 15 fishermen from the bottom 15. They all have top-of-the-line gear, luxuriously spendy bass boats and the same plastic baits, spinners and jigs. So what separates the best from the rest?
“It’s all about what’s going on between your ears,” Swindle says. “It’s how you respond emotionally when the man in the front of the boat keeps landing 10-pounders and you ain’t caught nothin’. Or when you lose two big fish in a row. You’re either gonna stay positive, control your emotional response, or slam a fishing pole as you speed your way back to the truck, then drive home and slam a 40 in a fit of rage.”
The most important 6 inches on the battlefield is between your ears. — Gen. James Mattis
Today’s setbacks are the God-given opportunities we get to practice character. You can choose to view every disappointment as a cause for despair, or as your Trainer’s regimen, specifically designed for you, today.
Today is #TrainingDay.