There is a story of a shepherd named Gyges who found a magic gold ring which had the power to turn him invisible. He discovered its power quite by accident when he was sitting with some fellow shepherds and twisted the ring so that its bezel was to the inside of his hand. Twisting it back again, he re-appeared. Then human nature took over. Gyges realized that with this power he could go anywhere and do anything, and so he moved into the royal court, seduced the queen, attacked and murdered the king, and took over the throne.
When Plato the Greek philosopher wrote of this fable in The Republic he was making a simple point: we would quickly discover the true character of a person if that person had the power to turn invisible. We find out what kind of people we are, in other words, by noticing how we behave when no one else can see us.
The word “character” goes back to the word for a stamp which leaves an imprint, like the dies used to make coins. Your character is the very shape of your inner life (your thoughts, motives, values, impulses, responses), which is revealed in the shape of your outer life (your actions, behaviors, speech, relationships). And then this sobering thought: the shape of your character may be stamped on someone else’s character, for good or for ill. Is character an issue for public leaders, or athletic heroes or parents? How can it not be?
Your character is never defined by one or two significant righteous deeds or one or two failings. It is the pattern of your life that is the shape or the imprint of your life.
It is ironic, isn’t it, that at someone’s funeral (when he or she really is invisible!), his or her character is often revealed. Now I’ve officiated at enough funerals to know that people tend to polish the halo of the deceased, and perhaps that’s a natural way of giving someone else the benefit of the doubt (especially when his or her last chance is up). But in and through all the conversations, in the eulogies and the sympathy cards, there is an unveiling of character. The form, the shape, of a life is revealed.
What does “good character” look like? Here is a fine list of character qualities for any person living anywhere in the world at any time: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control. These are what the Bible calls “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23), and they describe a Christ-like life.
I remember a moment years ago in my office when a troubled husband and wife poured out the frustrations and bitterness in their marriage. They couldn’t say what they were hoping for marriage to be, but it certainly wasn’t this! So I asked them: “How would you feel differently about your marriage today if you could use these kinds of words to describe it: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control?” They seemed almost stunned, and in a hushed voice, the wife said: “If we had those things, there’s nothing else we would ask for.” I told them that these were the qualities the Bible calls “the fruit of the Spirit,” (I had an inkling that these were brand new spiritual ideas to them), and that “fruit” meant the final result, the spectacular gift, which comes from the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives.
There are many ways of describing Christ-likeness. (A superb description comes from the Gospel of John which says Jesus was full of grace and truth.) But I wonder, if any of us had spent a month with Jesus, or a week, or even a day, might we not say that we witnessed in his character love, joy, peace, patience, kindness…?