Character Development vs. Sin Management

Character Development vs. Sin Management

Last night was my weekly Bible Study.  Our focus was chapters 46 and 47 of Genesis, and specifically on Joseph.  Joseph is often considered an example of great character and integrity, standing strong in the face of betrayal, temptation, false accusation, and hopeless circumstances.  And, yet, by chapter 47, Joseph seems to have lost a bit of that strength of character, possibly corrupted by the immense political power he held.

As we were wrapping up the class, a young attendee asked a particularly astute question; “When God raises someone to a position of importance, why doesn’t God also give them the character they will need for that position?”  What an excellent question!

We can all think of individuals who have risen to place of stature – athletes, politicians, celebrities, pastors, etc –  who lacked the character needed, and ultimately “fell from grace.”  It is tragic to watch, and often results in widespread collateral damage.

My response to the question was, “I think that character is our responsibility.  God has given us free will, and the ability to make good choices.”  Then I got on my soap box, saying something like, “This is a major failing of the Church.  We have focused entirely too much on sin management, and far too little on character development.  The Bible calls and instructs us to help people become people of character.”

Clearly the Bible addresses the problem of sin.  Undeniably, sin separates us from God. Clearly sin matters.  But, is that all there is?  Is being a disciple of Jesus just about being saved from sin and striving to avoid it (and possibly taking some kind of sick joy in spotting, judging and condemning the sins of others)?

I believe that the primary role of the Church is helping people grow to full stature in Christ, which is primarily about developing a godly and Christ-like character.  The Bible clearly talks about growing to maturity in Christ, and all that entails.  We wouldn’t have nearly so much sin to manage – in my opinion – if we spent more time developing godly characters.

As I ate my sandwich today, three high school seniors were sitting at the table next to mine – two young men and one pretty young woman.  I was not intentionally eaves-dropping.  Honestly, I was minding my own business.  But, the young woman was speaking loud enough for anyone and everyone to hear – whether they wanted to or not.

Her first comment was about abortion, saying she would get one if she had to, and that she’s already had one “twelve day scare.”  She then announced that she needed to go for a drug test today, because she is still on probation after being arrested six months ago.  I didn’t hear her say what she was arrested for.  She then mentioned the number of classes she has skipped this year, and that her best friend is a “stoner.”  All of this was shared in less than 15 minutes.

Honestly, I really wasn’t eaves-dropping!

What shocked me was how casually she made her comments, and how little her friends reacted.

I recognize that I am an old man, a pastor, and that I live in a church bubble.  And, please believe me when I say that my intention was not, is not, to judge her.  I’m not saying she is a “bad person.”  But, she did seem to lack any sort of moral compass, or any clarity about right and wrong.

I just left my lunch feeling really sad for her.  I certainly said and did a lot of dumb things in my younger years (and a few more recently!).  But, I sincerely believe that I have always known right from wrong.  I don’t think this young lady knows the difference.  And, I’m sad for her.  I’m not judging her.  I’m sad for her.  My point is not to call attention to her sins, but to wonder about her lack of moral development.

Who failed her?  Her parents and extended family?  Her teachers?  Her peers?  Society?

Or, the Church?  Isn’t that our job?

Maybe she’s never been to church.  Maybe she was just trying to impress her male friends with her stories.  Maybe she comes from a bad home or a troubled past.  Maybe she will grow up – I hope so.

The point of all of this rambling is simply to say that character matters.  Integrity matters.  And, I don’t think we – society, families, the Church – are doing such a hot job at developing people of virtue and character.

I can’t help but wonder if much of the world’s current woes and crises point back to a failure of character development.

We – the Church – have much work to do.



Pre-Easter Pondering

Pre-Easter Pondering

I know it’s not Easter yet.  Easter is still a few days away.  Before Easter, we still have Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  We can’t just skip to Easter, bypassing all that led to Easter.

But, Easter is on my mind – probably because it’s the biggest day of the Christian year and I have a sermon to prepare.

Here’s what I’m pondering…

I don’t have any problem believing in Jesus’ resurrection.  As unexpected as it was, and as impossible as it may seem, I do actually believe that Jesus died a human death, that his corpse lay in a tomb from Friday evening through early Sunday morning, and then his dead body came back to life – resurrected life!

Undeniably, that is a pretty remarkable thing to believe.  But, I do.  With all of my heart, I do.

I also don’t have a problem believing that because Jesus was resurrected, that he has made that possible for me.  I mean, because Jesus died and came back to life – in a new, resurrected way – I will be raised after I die, too.  I believe that.  When I die – whenever that may be – and breathe my last breath, I believe I that I will awake to a new, resurrected life on the other side of death.

Undeniably, that, too, is a pretty remarkable thing to believe.  But, I do.  With all of my heart, I do.

But, here’s what’s on my mind this Holy Week about the Resurrection.  The Bible doesn’t only say that Jesus rose from the dead (past tense), or that we will be resurrected after we die (future tense).  The Bible says that we ARE resurrected (present tense).  Now.  Today.

“Therefore, if anyone IS in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new IS here!”  (2 Corinthians 2:17)

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but CHRIST LIVES IN ME. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  (Galatians 2:20)

“Since, then, YOU HAVE BEEN RAISED with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life IS NOW hidden with Christ in God.”  (Colossians 3:1-3)

I HAVE been raised with Christ.  I AM a new creation.  My life IS NOW hidden Christ.  CHRIST LIVES IN ME!

Present tense.  Not just past tense.  Not just future tense.  Present tense.  Resurrection is a present reality.  I AM resurrected!

Is that really true (I know that it is)?  I don’t always feel resurrected.  I don’t look resurrected.  The Lord knows, and everyone I know will confirm, I certainly don’t act resurrected.  What does it mean for Vance Clifton Rains to be a resurrected human being, alive in Christ, today, in Coral Springs, Florida, at work, in my house, etc., etc.?

I certainly couldn’t ask such a question without Christ’s resurrection.  And, this life is short, so my future resurrection from the dead is pretty exciting.  But, increasingly, it seems to me that my current state of resurrection may be what’s most important.

If my future resurrection means that, on the other side of death, I will be completely free from this life of sin and selfishness, and that I will have perfect communion with God and God’s family, and that I will be a perfectly whole and unique reflection of God’s image in me, does my current state of resurrected-ness mean that I am to be those things now…

  • free from sin and selfishness?
  • in perfect communion with God and God’s family?
  • a perfectly whole and unique reflection of God’s image in me?

Today?  Is that what being resurrected, in the present tense, means?  If not, what else?

This week, as I ponder Easter, I just keep coming back to wondering if we are missing the point.  We (Church-going Christians) do our programs and rituals.  We read our Bibles.  We believe what we we’ve been taught to believe.  We have our stances regarding what is right or wrong.

But, are we resurrected people?  Do we worship as resurrected people?  Do we serve as resurrected people?  Do we work as resurrected people?  Do give as resurrected people?  Do we love as resurrected people?

If I AM resurrected, why am I still so enamored with this world?  If I AM resurrected, why isn’t my life, my attitude, my worship, my heart a better reflection of the world and the life to come?  If I AM resurrected, why aren’t I more like Jesus?  Now?  Today?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not questioning the present reality of my resurrection.  I AM raised with Christ!  I know that it is Truth.

I’m wondering what it would look like for me, for you, for the Church, for the Body of Christ to look a bit more resurrected – TODAY.  And, every other day, until Christ comes again.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

Happy Pre-Easter.  Now, go be resurrected.

Muscle Memory

Muscle Memory

I used to be very involved in Martial Arts – Kenpo Karate, Modern Arnis, and Kickboxing.  I spent hours upon hours at the dojo, eventually earning my black belt, and even helping with the classes.  I loved it, and grieved when I had to give it up (my body just couldn’t take it anymore).

I still think about the forms and techniques.  I still think about how I would handle different situations, if I had to.  I still miss it terribly.

I still remember my first class, wearing my white uniform (gi) and white belt.  I didn’t have a clue.  But, I was eager to learn.  During that first class I was taught about 5 or 6 things – a few kicks, punches, and blocks.  Slowly, as I demonstrated proficiency, I was taught more.  As I learned and improved, I was given opportunities to test for the next higher belt.

But, on my very last class, though I was competent in dozens and dozens of strikes, kicks, blocks, etc.; though I had been tested 11 times; though I was instructing others; I was still required to accurately perform the basic techniques I was taught at very my first class.  The same had been true at every class – hundreds of classes – between my first and my last, and countless private practice sessions.

My instructor (sensei) used to talk about developing muscle memory through repetition.  He wanted us to be able to react correctly in a dangerous situation, without needing to think about what the right strike or block needed to be.  In fact, he was a stickler for accuracy, saying, “Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Perfect practice makes perfect.”  If I was doing something wrong – even small things – repeating the error only reinforced the error.  So, he was quick to correct.  And, I was corrected often.  And, I repeated the technique again – accurately.  And, once I did it correctly, I repeated it some more.

I’ve been told that there really isn’t such a thing as muscle memory.  Muscles don’t remember – the mind remembers.  The mind, however, has an amazing capacity to absorb and retain what we do routinely.  Eventually, repeated actions become second-nature.

Similarly, when I first started riding a motorcycle, I had to concentrate on every detail of what I was doing.  The right hand can brake or throttle, and presses down to steer right.  The right thumb pushes the right turn signal.  The left hand works the clutch, and presses down to steer left.  The left thumb presses the left turn signal, and the horn.  The right foot brakes.  The left foot shifts between the gears.  You shift your body weight to steer.  You watch everywhere. You listen.   And, you do it all simultaneously.  The details really matter when you’re riding a motorcycle!  It’s life or death!

But, I noticed on Monday, as I was riding, even while still being very attentive to my driving, how little I have to think about the details.  They’ve become automatic.

We call repeated actions or behaviors, that become automatic, habits.  Obviously, there are good habits or bad habits.   I have more than a few bad habits.  And, just as bad habits are hard to break, good habits can be hard to form.  Developing good habits is like learning karate or riding a motorcycle – doing the right thing over and over and over, until it becomes second nature.

Honestly, bad habits, formed unintentionally, come a lot easier to me than forming good habits. In fact, for years I resisted living my life habitually.  It seemed boring and uninteresting.  I acted on my impulses.  when my impulses were good, that was good.  When my impulses were bad, that could be a problem.

But, as I’ve “matured,” I’m increasingly realizing the value of habit and routine.  I still fight them, sometimes.  But, increasingly I’m forming “muscle memory” – particularly in my spiritual life.

I need time with God, every day, and the morning tends to be my best time.  I need weekly Sabbath.  I need annual retreat – usually to a monastery for a week of silence.  I have a rhythm for my sermon prep.  I have a basic rhythm for how I structure my week.  I increasingly value the cyclical nature of the liturgical seasons – like annually using Lent to reevaluate my habits, and work on new ones.  The Church calls these spiritual disciplines.

There are some habits that I still need to break and some I need to develop.  I still haven’t managed to develop good habits around eating and exercising.  I also need to develop some better mental habits, to reign in the negative thoughts and responses that come way too easily.  I’m discovering that even some basic character attributes can only form through practice.

So, while my martial arts days are unfortunately in my past, I’m still working on developing healthy and holy habits, that will, hopefully, also lead to proficiency and “muscle memory.”

What habits are you working on?


Embracing the Grey

Embracing the Grey

I had a very random conversation with a complete stranger, yesterday. He said that the hot issue many counselors/therapists/psychotherapists are dealing with, lately, is how to help their clients deal with friends and family, with whom they have differing political views.  His point was that, in our current political climate, friends and family are being ripped apart by opposing loyalties and ideologies.  People are increasingly afraid to open their mouth, and state their opinions, for fear of other’s reactions and potentially being ostracized.

Differences of opinions – even within families – is nothing new.  But, tearing families and friends apart?

What’s wrong with us?

I listened to a speaker last night, who said many wise things, and much that I agreed with.  But, there were HUGE holes in his arguments.  And, he unfairly villainized his opposition.  As much as I liked and agreed with the speaker, the voice in my head kept screaming, “YEAH!  BUT…  WHAT ABOUT…..?”

Even my denomination is currently polarized around the issue of homosexuality; opposing sides condemning the other.  Many are fighting and praying to find a middle-way.  And, many fear that no middle-way will be found, and that we, like so many friends and families, will also be ripped apart.

It is just so easy to paint everyone with the absurdly broad brushes of black or white, right or wrong, saint or sinner, good or bad.  And, it is so inaccurate and so unfair.  Why must my opposition be evil, ignorant, and immoral?  Is it possible that both could be partially right, and partially wrong?  Is it possible that neither could be right?  Is it possible that both could be right, depending on your perspective and agenda?

Can’t we see that the truth – the TRUTH – is often somewhere in the middle?

As I watched the endless political debates of 2016, both Republican and Democrat, I constantly thought “There’s got to be more to the story.  The other side can’t be THAT wrong; THAT evil; THAT short-sided.  The solutions can’t be THAT obvious.”  Are either the Democrats or the Republicans right about everything?  Of course not.  Neither party can even find agreement even within their own ranks.  But, neither are 100% wrong, either!

Why must we villainize each other?  Don’t people matter more than points of view?  Can’t we disagree, and still find ways to respect one another, and even work together for solutions that just might be wiser and richer from considering broader points of view?

Grey is not a watered down version of black, nor is it a dirtier version of white.  Grey is a legitimate color.  In fact, it comes in many shades.

I’m embracing the grey.

Waiting for Signs of Growth

Waiting for Signs of Growth

I grow bonsai trees.

In South Florida, some kinds of trees grow year round.  Some never lose their leaves or foliage.  But, some, need an annual period of dormancy – typically, the winter (though, we don’t get much of a winter in South Florida!).

During the holidays, I visited a bonsai store in Orlando, where I have purchased a number of trees.  This time, there was a gorgeous, mature, specimen Bald Cypress bonsai.  It was already dormant, but had a beautiful, well defined shape.  I loved it.  I knew I couldn’t afford it, but I had to ask anyway.  I think the price was about $1000, which was about 4 times more than what I had guessed, and at least $950 more than I could afford.

Knowing I wasn’t going to spend $1000, the store owner (who is also a friend), pointed out a smaller Bald Cypress, in a plastic pot, that could be trained to become a bonsai – eventually – for a lot less money.  It, too, was already dormant – basically just a stick in a pot.  But, it had potential – sort of.  And, it was affordable.  And, I’m a compulsive bonsai-ist.  So, I bought it.

I brought it home, put it in a nice bonsai pot, wired the bare branches, and waited, and waited, and waited.  For four months I’ve waited for some sign of growth.  Honestly, I’ve wondered if I’d killed it.

Earlier this week, I saw the first sprouts of new, green growth.  There’s not much to see yet.  But, there’s enough to show me that the tree is alive and well, and that the potential I saw when I bought it might still become reality – eventually.  That potential will take many years, through many seasons of growth and dormancy.  It may never be as impressive as the $1000 tree – I can almost guarantee that.  I may even kill it, as I have too many other trees with “potential.”

But, for now, I see signs of growth.  Growth means life.  New growth means future possibility.

As a Christ-follower, I also believe we are called to continuously grow and develop.  There have been seasons in my life where growth has been obvious.  But, more often than not, I have trouble seeing it.  At least in my own eyes, I’m often like that dormant bonsai tree.

Several years ago, during Lent, I prayed for God to show me the areas of my life that still need growth, and to help me do it.  I felt a very strong impression that God was telling me to trust him with the growth, and that my job was just to stay close to him.  Like Paul said, “Only God makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:7).

Just like that dormant tree, I can’t force the growth.  My job is to water it (the tree – not me), fertilize it, keep it in the sunshine, and be patient.  Growth will come if the tree is properly cared for.  Similarly, my job – spiritually – is to keep pursuing my relationship with Jesus, my knowledge of his Word, and to keep weeding out the stuff that gets in the way.

Nevertheless, I watch and wait for signs of new growth to come in my life – for the potential that is yet to be developed.  I may only be a stick in a plastic pot, now – metaphorically speaking, of course – but someday I could be that $1000 specimen!

Seen any signs of growth in your life lately?



I’ve been reading through the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel recently.  1 Samuel tells the story of the rise and fall of King Saul, and the rise of David to take his place.

By Chapter 24, it was obvious to King Saul that David was a threat to his reign, and he plotted of have David killed.

King Saul heard that David and his supporters were hiding in the desert of En Gedi.  King Saul led an army of thousands to find him and kill him.  By coincidence, Saul happened to enter a cave to “relieve himself,” where David was hiding with his men.  Unaware that he wasn’t alone, David snuck up on King Saul – while he was otherwise occupied – and cut off a corner of his robe, then quietly snuck away, doing King Saul no real harm.

David could have killed King Saul, while we was vulnerable and unaware.  His men thought he should.  It would almost seem that God had delivered King Saul right into David’s hands.

But, David didn’t see it that way.  While King Saul had clearly lost God’s favor, and David was clearly destined to take his place, David would not be the one to harm or kill the King.  In fact, David felt guilty for even cutting King Saul’s robe.  As long as King David held the throne, at least in David’s eyes, King Saul was still God’s anointed.

Chapter 24:8-13 says,

“My lord the king!” When Saul looked behind him, David bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.  He said to Saul, “Why do you listen when men say, ‘David is bent on harming you’?  This day you have seen with your own eyes how the Lord delivered you into my hands in the cave. Some urged me to kill you, but I spared you; I said, ‘I will not lay my hand on my lord, because he is the Lord’s anointed.’  See, my father, look at this piece of your robe in my hand! I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you. See that there is nothing in my hand to indicate that I am guilty of wrongdoing or rebellion. I have not wronged you, but you are hunting me down to take my life.   May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you.   As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds,’ so my hand will not touch you.

To David, harming – or even disrespecting – King Saul would be a violation of his conscience.  We call that character – doing the right thing, all the time, even when there is personal cost or risk.

You don’t have to be a Christ-follower to be a person of character.  There are certainly people of every religion – and none – who have admirable integrity and conduct.  But, to be a Christ follower demands that we strive to have the character of Jesus Christ.  Jesus said, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10).

Isn’t that, at least in part, what Lent is all about?  Is our character consistently a reflection of Jesus Christ?  Or, have we compromised in the small things?

Certainly, killing King Saul would have been a big deal.  But, David regretted even cutting the king’s robe.  In David’s mind and heart, there was no justifying a compromised character, even when others might think him justified in doing something as small as cutting the kings robe, or even as extreme as killing.

Do I care about the small details in my character and conduct?  Do you?