Is character what we are when we’re alone?
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV)
I have heard it said - more than once - that character is what you are when you’re alone. Is that actually right?
I think what’s meant is that when we are alone and can do nothing for show, our true character is revealed. And there is much that is true here. The Lord Jesus warns us “Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.” (Matthew 6:1). He goes on to illustrate: almsgiving, prayer and fasting can all be done for show. But instead, what God is concerned about is our real intentions, which can only be seen when He alone is looking. So we should give, pray or fast privately, so that we aren’t play-acting (which is what hypocrisy means).
Likewise, we should cherish no secret sins. It would be lovely to think that all private aspects of our lives could be opened up to public display with no shame and as a great example.
And yet there is much more to Christian character than what we’re like by ourselves. If the statement we are considering was taken as an absolute truth, we might be in danger of cherishing an ideal of holiness which was entirely a set of private actions, suitable for a cave in the desert.
The truth is that in the Bible, godliness is primarily relational. Character must be genuine (and pass the test of being consistent with how we are when nobody sees ) but is mainly what you are when you are with others.
Consider the Ten Commandments. The first four are about our relationship to God, but the remaining six (parents, murder, adultery, theft, false witness and coveting) are all about our relationships with others.
Or look at the passage at the head of this post, in which Paul tells the Christians in Galatia what character the Holy Spirit is working in us to produce. They are almost all - if not all - about our relationships with others. In their context in the letter, they are set in contrast to a list of behaviours which nearly all hurt other people in one way or another, including sexual immorality, hatred, discord, jealousy and fits of rage. (Galatians 5:19-21) The same is true in all the ethical passages in Paul’s letters. Godly living is greatly to do with how we treat those around us.
Even where Jesus talks about avoiding hypocrisy by giving and praying in secret, He has already talked about hatred, adultery, divorce, broken promises, revenge and the need to love our enemies (Matthew 5). All relational! Character is not only what we are on our own, but what we are when with others.
The lock-down will mean some of us are getting more practice than we like at getting on with others we’re stuck at home with! For others, it’s a time of painful isolation, and we should be doing all we can as a church family to be looking out for each other. That is true godliness.