Summary: In the character chains from Peter and James, we learn how God strengthens our faith with adversity, like weights on our muscles. They challenge us to grow in the pains of trials and struggles of this life.
In my last post, I talked about the first two character chains from Paul’s writings. In this post, I will conclude our study on the character chains from Peter and James.
Did you ever have a moment where you needed encouragement and to be reminded of the big picture of your suffering? That’s what Peter and James bring to the table for us. I call the transformation process of Jesus’s disciples character chains. God is working on our character by taking advantage of adversity in our lives.
In the future of these teachings on discipleship and spiritual formation I will address Christian suffering in its many forms. But for now, I want to focus on the process Jesus takes us through when adversity comes to us. God uses adversity to strengthen us into the people He calls His own. Suffering is not pleasant, but it does a great deal of improvement to our character.
As we look at each character chain, think back to all the times you have seen God do incredible work in your life through the adversity you face. It changes your reaction to the suffering and adversity you encounter next. We will look at each character chain in canonical order. Let’s get started.
Christian Virtue Produces Godliness and Love (2 Peter 1:5-7)
In the opening of Peter’s second letter, he reminds us that we have escaped the corruption and sinful desires of the world system. He contrasts corruption and sinful desires with a character chain that shows us how we are increasing in God’s unconditional love toward one another, the result of growing through this character chain. Let’s look at it.
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” (2 Peter 1:5–7, ESV)
Unlike Paul’s character chains, Peter tells us to supplement our faith with these character traits. Christian virtue increases and helps faith. Virtue has the idea of excellence of character and good conduct. This may have a civic advantage to it, like being a good citizen. I would liken it to James’s discussion of faith expressed and confirmed by good works.
Virtue deals with how we interact with other people, when we follow laws of the land, and show our faith by how we live. This lifestyle confirms to those around us that Jesus has transformed our character and life. They can see the difference in us. Peter piles knowledge on top of virtue. Knowledge here refers to what we know, the facts of our life in Christ. This is knowledge of our faith in action. It is what we learn as we live in Christ.
Next, we pile on self-control based on our faith, virtue, and knowledge. Based on our faith, virtue, and knowledge, we now can practice self-control. This is a part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23). The Holy Spirit is working this part of His fruit in our character. But we must choose to show our self-control by the way we live. All these parts of the character chain Peter describes show themselves in our lifestyle and choices. When you are self -controlled, you show discipline and kindness.
Self-control causes a familiar character trait, endurance. This word includes our patients to see a trial through to its end, or as I described with previous character chains. Endurance is the fortitude to stand up under the pressures of life and the stress of trials. Some translations have “steadfastness.” It is the same character trait in Paul’s character chains. It gives us the fortitude to stand up to the adversity we suffer.
Continuing to pile all these character traits upon one another, we add to our endurance godliness. This is a piety, a religious devotion to God. Unlike Paul’s character chains, Peter stresses character traits visible to others. People can see our virtue, endurance under pressure, and self-control. We demonstrate them through our reaction to our trials.
Our pious godliness calls us to love others with brotherly love. It’s interesting Peter would use both Greek words for love, for the final part of his character chain says that brotherly love needs to the unconditional love God shows us to have for one another. In the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus has a private conversation with Peter.
Many scholars analyze this passage because John interchanges four words and their synonyms. One of these pairs is to synonyms for love. One refers more to brotherly love, while the other refers to unconditional love. All three times, Peter use the word for “brotherly love” while Jesus the first two times uses the word for “unconditional love” and the last time with “brotherly love.” These scholars postulate that Jesus came down to Peter’s level.
Peter uses both words here. First, godliness calls us to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, and to even demonstrate brotherly love to others in the world. Perhaps Peter learned and realized that this brotherly love for others leads us to see them as He sees them, and so demonstrate unconditional love, which God has taught us to have. We began with adding virtue to faith, and its result liens to loving others the way Jesus loves them.
Peter piles on character traits, and so did Paul. Paul talks about the character gained from adversity while Peter emphasizes the natural working of the Spirit in our character through the fruit of the Spirit working in concert with showing our changing character through the way we live. Lastly, we will look at how James describes our character transformation.
Testing and Trials Produce Perfection (James 1:3-4)
James also begins his letter abruptly, briefly mentioning himself and immediately move into the purpose of his letter, to encourage the saints who are scattered across foreign lands because of persecution (James 1:1). Living away from their homeland and their home church causes much strife, trials, and temptations. To this end, James pens his letter as their pastor.
Like Paul, he issues a shocking command when he says to count it all pure joy, every trial encounter we face. This is not Christian masochism. We do not search out trials and temptations to go through. But when we encounter them, we have joy because we know what will happen. God will use these trials and tests to prove our faith and character. We have joy, not because of the suffering of the trial, but because we know God uses it to improve and strengthen our character and faith. Let’s look at James’s character chain.
“for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:3–4, ESV)
Our joy is made sure it our trials because this testing of our faith produces steadfastness. We have seen steadfastness in every character chain except Ephesians. The word for testing we have already seen when we talked about character being the approval of God as we deal with trials. It’s not that God tests our faith because he doesn’t know what will happen. He is not surprised if we come through the fire of our test.
God already knows the strength of our faith and character. He doesn’t let us endure trials to see if we will make it. Instead, each trial proves our faith and character. There is no other way to show that we can stand each test. Many believers went through trials in the Bible from Abraham to Joseph to Job. I’m only naming a few. When we go through these tests, or trials, they produce perseverance, or endurance, in us.
James has one of the shortest character chains, but nothing that is not as challenging as the character traits we gain through the other descriptions from Paul and Peter. Unlike them, James focuses on that endurance, and he calls us to let it have its full effect. How many times do we want to get out of the trial instead of going through it? Sometimes Jesus removes or shields us from the trial. But when He allows us to go through them, they have a much more desired effect, that we are approved and any impurities in our character and faith are removed through the fire.
When we are fully exposed to the trial and must gain the fortitude and steadfastness to endure it, we are better off for it. The words for “full effect” here describe why we should wait until the end of the trial. Full effect is the complete working of the trial. As it works against us, our patients and endurance work against it. The more we endure, the stronger our fortitude becomes. For the trial to have its full effect on our character, we must go through it completely. We may want out of the fire, but the fire must burn away the impurities in us, or he may have to go through it worse trial later. It is the best way for God to improve us.
The words for “full” and “perfect” come from the same root. It describes the and the goal, the final result, of the trial and our steadfastness. They are the majority we gain, the completeness we have in Christ because we have suffered through the trial until its conclusion. When we work through the trial and come out on the other side, it not only proves are faith and character but completes whatever is lacking in us.
Earlier, James mentioned trials “of various kinds.” Each trial perfects and completes another part of our character, with each trial, our faith and character grows stronger. The adversity works on them like weights strengthen muscles. The heavier the weight or adversity, the stronger our faith and character at the end. The other word, “complete,” describes a person made whole. James even describes this further by saying, “lacking nothing.”
Our wholeness in Christ develops with every trial. He makes us complete in Him. Trial after trial, He makes us more like Himself. We add parts of our faith and character that are weak, making them stronger. We prepare ourselves for the next trial, perhaps finding it a little easier to come through approved. We learn life lessons with each trial. And whether we like the trial or not, we are better for going through each one. God’s fatherly wisdom makes His children more like His Son.
When you encounter trials, think and pray about what they are teaching you. How are you learning from your trials? How is God using your trials to make your faith and character stronger?
Now that we have talked about the character chains in the epistles, I want to dive deeper into Paul’s epistles to find out the character disciples of Jesus can glean from Romans.
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