What is “noble character”?

Q. What is “noble character”? How is formulated? How can we recognize it? What are a few virtues within character—the heavy hitters, let’s say. Thank you.

There are some masterful descriptions in the New Testament of the components of mature, Christ-like character. One of the best known is Paul’s description in Galatians of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Another description of the qualities of noble character is Peter’s account of how we should progress into maturity: “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Anyone would do well to meditate on these qualities and aspire to the ideal that these New Testament passages hold up for us of  mature character in Christ. This may be enough to answer your question. However, let me also describe one more aspect of noble character that’s identified by that specific term in the Old Testament.

At a key point in the story of Ruth, Boaz says to her, “All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character.” He has already explained, a little earlier in the story, why she has this reputation: “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before.

It seems to me that Ruth is considered a woman of noble character (literally a “woman of valor,” chayil) because she has honored the implicit obligations of her relationship to Naomi. At great cost and danger to herself, she has worked hard to ensure that her mother-in-law will be provided for.

Every relationship brings with it certain responsibilities towards another person. These may be things that we promise explicitly to honor when we enter the relationship (as, for example, in wedding vows), or they may be things that are implicit: When you bring a child into the world, for example, you’re accepting an implicit obligation to feed, clothe, shelter, and raise that child.

The word chayil is used most often in the Old Testament to describe men who go out to war to protect their homes and families when these are threatened by enemies. It often has the sense of being brave in battle, but I think there’s also an overtone of fulfilling an obligation. Someone who could fight to protect loved ones but didn’t do this wouldn’t be considered a person of noble character.

But there are a couple of other interesting places in the Old Testament where chayil is applied to women, as it is to Ruth, apart from the context of fighting against invading enemies. One of Solomon’s proverbs says, “A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, but a wife who causes shame is like rottenness in his bones.” We’re not told specifically in what way the second kind of wife might cause shame, but in the cultural context of Proverbs, I believe it would have more to do with failing in relational obligations than with going off and doing some scandalous thing. Another proverb says, for example, “He who hurts his father and puts his mother out of the house is a son who causes much shame.” (By contrast, the one specific example that Jesus gave of what it meant to “honor father and mother” was to care for them as they got older.) The idea is that the community is looking on and that it’s aware of who is faithfully helping their family and friends (like Ruth) and who isn’t.

The other place where chayil is used to describe a woman is at the end of Proverbs:

A wife of noble character who can find?
    She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her
    and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
    all the days of her life.

This passage then goes on to describe how this woman faithfully and busily carries out all of her responsibilities, so that “the affairs of her household” are well-managed. She fulfills her obligations not only to her husband, but also to her children and servants, and to her neighbors in the community: “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.” (She would not have had to ask Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” as the teacher of the law did whom Jesus then told the parable of the Good Samaritan!)

It seems to me, then, that the starting point for becoming a person of noble character is to honor and fulfill such relational obligations consistently. Unfortunately some people do not do this, and they fail those they should be protecting and providing for.

This might not sound like being a “heavy hitter,” just being faithful day by day in fundamental tasks. But that’s actually what baseball teams always start with in spring training: the fundamentals. Those who practice them well become the heavy hitters of the later season.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, “Ruth in the Field of Boaz.” When Boaz met Ruth gleaning, he explained, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law.” (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)

Why do some people seem to suffer more than others?

Q.  My question has to do with suffering and the fairness of God. Why do some people suffer, even terribly, while others do not?  Judging from the stories of Job and Peter, Satan was given permission to cause suffering in their lives.  It seems even worse that God would allow some people to suffer by this means.

I’ll do my best to answer your question, although it’s one that people of faith have struggled with for all of human history without definitively resolving.

Without freedom there can be no love.  But freedom creates the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, of suffering, as freedom can be, and is, misused.  I believe that God knows, in a way that we cannot know, that a world with both love and suffering is infinitely better than a world with neither love nor suffering, and that those are the only two possibilities.  Love is worth what has to be for it to be.

But I don’t think this means that certain individuals are singled out for suffering. Every individual is liable to the possibility of suffering.  But precisely because suffering is the result of freedom (misused), the “free” (undetermined) nature of the world means that some will likely suffer more than others.  While the Bible does say that Satan specifically asked for and received permission to torment Job, and that Jesus warned Peter, “Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat,” this is actually what Satan wants to do to everybody, with or without permission.  If God granted permission in those two cases, it was because God knew He could bring a result out of the suffering that would advance His own purposes and defeat Satan’s—turning Satan’s own weapons against him.

But this means that all of us must be willing to suffer if that will advance God’s purposes through our own lives.  The difficulty is that we see such a small part of the big picture that usually we can’t understand why we are suffering.  It feels pointless and useless.  But God is trusting us to trust Him, that He indeed is at work in the situation (that He has chosen to work in it, given the nature of the world He created, not that He directly caused the suffering) to bring about a purpose that is so positive and redemptive, that in the end, when we do understand, we will rejoice in this work of God.

Not that any of us should seek out situations of suffering.  But we should know that, as Amy Carmichael often said, “The love of God is very courageous,” and that God will therefore trust us to accept difficult situations as a part of His plan that we will only understand in the end, when we can see everything clearly.

Giaquinto, “Satan Before the Lord” c. 1750, Vatican Museum. The painting depicts the scene from the book of Job in which Satan requests, and receives, permission to torment Job.

Does God plan every move of our lives if we ask Him to?

Q. Many present-day follows of Jesus, including myself, believe that God is with us once we invite Him into our hearts. That said, I wonder at times how much He is directly involved in our day-to-day lives. Does He plan my every move if I invite that? The thought that God can be in complete “control” of our lives as we “tune out” seems to be a modern concept developed over the last hundred years. A verse often quoted to support His complete direction in our lives is “I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” But it seems to me if we just rely on this as our basis for this argument we may have applied its message too literally. The passage was written to the exiles but it is often quoted out of context as if it applied to every one of us today. I am thankful God gave us His word, the Bible,  the Holy Spirit, and a thinking brain. Would love your thoughts.

I haven’t actually encountered myself the teaching that we can and should “tune out” ourselves and allow God to control our day-to-day lives directly, but let me share some thoughts about this teaching as you describe it.

First, I agree with you that that often-quoted statement from Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles does not really support such an approach.  In context, that statement actually means something like this:  “You might not think that I have good plans for you based on your present circumstances, but long-term, big-picture, I really do.”  The Judeans of Jeremiah’s time thought that those who had been carried off to Babylon were lost from the community and doomed to a dismal future, while those who remained in Judea had excellent prospects.  Jeremiah wrote his letter to the exiles to assure them that just the opposite was true:  that they had a “hope and a future” as remnant that would eventually restore the nation, while those left in Judea were doomed to destruction.

So this statement can appropriately be cited to people today who are in difficult and troubling circumstances, to assure them that long-term, big-picture, God will work things out for His glory in their lives.  But it should not be quoted to support the idea that “God knows the plans He has for us” if we will just “let go” and let Him run every detail of our lives.

I wonder how that would actually work, in fact. How are we supposed to know where to go and what to do to fulfill these “plans” of God?  Are we supposed to be simply passive and trust that anything that happens to us reflects God’s plans?

I’m much more inclined to agree with you that “God gave us His word, the Holy Spirit, and a thinking brain,” and God expects us to develop wisdom and mature character so that we can make good decisions that reflect His values and purposes–not try to chase down His supposed “plans” for the tiniest details of our lives.

I talk about this more in my post entitled, “Should I be looking for ‘God’s will for my life’ in every decision?”  There I encourage us to pursue an approach of “co-operation” with God, which I believe Jesus modeled for us, and which I describe this way: “Within the context of his overall life mission as he understood it, Jesus discerned where God was already at work and considered how he could join in.”  As I see it, this honors God, as we take responsibility for using the gifts and opportunities God has given us, guided by our sanctified sense of His own working in and around us.

I hope this is helpful!

Why didn’t Jesus destroy demons when he cast them out?

Q. In any of the situations where Jesus cast out demons, why didn’t he kill them so they would not enter another person?

Matthew’s gospel relates how, when Jesus was casting out demons in the region of the Gadarenes, they cried out, “Son of God, what do you want with us? Have you come here to punish us before the time for us to be judged?” The encounters between Jesus and demons described in the gospels are typically brief and cryptic, but we can at least tell from this one that God has set a time for demons to be judged and punished. But as these demons knew, that time had not yet come during the ministry of Jesus, and they successfully appealed to be sent into a herd of pigs instead.

The reasons why Jesus allowed such demons to continue to roam the earth, at least for a while, have to do, I believe, with the need for there to be freedom in order for people to make the choice to love God and others. God could have removed all sources of suffering and discord in the world, but this would have been at the cost of making true freedom impossible and depriving the world of the fruits of freedom, including love, courage, creativity, and so forth.

One of Jesus’ parables shows how God wanted people to respond instead to the fact that demons remained at large even after they had been cast out of their victims.  Jesus said, “What happens when an evil spirit comes out of a person? It goes through dry areas looking for a place to rest. But it doesn’t find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives there, it finds the house empty. The house has been swept clean and put in order. Then the evil spirit goes and takes with it seven other spirits more evil than itself. They go in and live there. That person is worse off than before.”

Jesus actually told this parable about his own generation as a whole, to illustrate how, by rejecting his true message of the kingdom of God, they were leaving themselves open to the influence of false messiahs who would lead them astray into destruction.  (This happened during the two Jewish-Roman wars in the decades that followed.) But for the parable to make this point by application, its story needs to make a valid point of its own, and that is that people who have been freed from a demon are responsible themselves to fill their lives with godly and wholesome influences that will discourage any demons from ever returning.

In other words, while Jesus didn’t destroy the demons he cast out, he brought the truth of the kingdom of God, and ultimately he sent the Holy Spirit, to occupy the place the demons had left so that they would never try to fill it again.  And I think this is how we need to think about all of the evil and destructive influences around us as we live in these “in-between times,” when the kingdom of God has already been inaugurated but not yet completely established.  God has not yet removed all these influences from the earth.  But he has sent other influences that can effectively displace them in our own lives, and increasingly in our world, if we recognize and accept our responsibility to welcome and cultivate these life-giving endowments.

A painting by Vangelo di Marco of Jesus casting out the demons from the Gerasene demoniac. Why didn’t Jesus destroy the demons instead of allowing them to remain at large afterwards?

Why did Jesus tell the women of Jerusalem, “Weep for yourselves, not for me,” when he was going to the cross?

Q. This morning I was reading Luke and was confused about Jesus’ response to the women who were following him, wailing and lamenting, as he walked towards his crucifixion. His remarks seem hard to understand at first glance and harsh. The women seem to be doing a very human and appropriate thing, that is, mourning the mistreatment of the Son of God. I see myself doing exactly the same thing. Yet he turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and your children.” That’s confusing enough, but then he goes on to say, “Blessed are the childless women.”  His words seem very out of context with the events that are taking place.

I believe that even here, on his way to the cross, Jesus is looking ahead to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 at the end of the first Jewish-Roman War, and he is expressing his pity and compassion for the victims of that impending conflict.

This is actually the third place in the gospel of Luke where Jesus does this.  The first time is when he approaches Jerusalem on this final visit and sees the city in the distance. He weeps over it and says, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

In other words, by rejecting the understanding of the kingdom of God that Jesus brought, and by following other leaders into a political and military revolt, the Jewish people would put themselves on a collision course with Rome that within a generation would have this tragic result.

Then, when Jesus and his disciples are touring the temple, he predicts that it will be destroyed, so that “not one stone will be left on another.”  When his disciples ask when this will happen, he describes the destruction of the city in more detail. (This is in the so-called Olivet Discourse, a long speech that also looks farther ahead, at its end, to Jesus’ Second Coming ).  Once again Jesus expresses his compassion for the innocent people who will suffer: “How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land.”  This is a second reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman war, in which Jesus recognizes the suffering it will bring to innocent people.

The statement Jesus makes to the women of the Jerusalem as he is walking towards his crucifixion is a third such reference.  The suffering will be so terrible, we discover, that people will consider women fortunate who have not had children who will have to go through it.

And so it’s not that reflecting on Jesus’ sufferings and expressing sorrow over them is a bad thing to do. It was appropriate for those women, and it is still appropriate for us today.  But Jesus knew that terrible sufferings also awaited them, so he both warned them and expressed compassion for their impending fate.

Showing concern for others’ sufferings, even as he was about to be crucified, demonstrates our Savior’s heart of selfless compassion for others.  And so I believe he is honored in this Lenten season not only when we meditate on his sufferings, even weeping over them as these women did (and as countless believers have done in the centuries since), but also when we show the same compassion for the suffering of the innocent that he did.

A modern icon of the “Eight Station of the Cross,” where Jesus speaks to the weeping women.

Can Satan hear our thoughts?

Q. Someone once told me that God hears our silent prayers, but that Satan can not, and that if we want to address Satan, we must speak the words to him out loud.  From what you know, is that a fair assessment?

My first thought in response to your question is, “Why would anyone want to address Satan?”  I know that in some circles there is a practice of “claiming authority” over Satan, commanding him to depart, etc., but I’d be very careful of that kind of thing.

I don’t recall any place in the Bible where a human being directly addresses Satan.  (Jesus said to Peter, who didn’t want him to go to the cross, “Get behind me, Satan,” but that was actually a reference to Peter’s motives—“You do not have in mind the concerns of God”—not a direct address to Satan.)

Jude warns us that even the archangels do not address the devil on their own:  “Even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil . . . did not dare to condemn him for slander himself but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’”  So I would not address Satan at all, either in spoken words or in silent thoughts.

A wise man, an authority on spiritual warfare, once told me that instead, “The best way to chase away the darkness is to turn on the lights.”  As he saw it, when our individual lives and community gatherings are full of love, joy, holiness, and praise, the forces of darkness simply don’t hang around.

But perhaps another concern here is whether Satan can listen in on our thoughts in order to get information he can use to tempt and entrap us.  Here’s what we need to realize:  Satan is a finite being.

We often speak of him as if he had infinite attributes like God—omniscience (knowing everything), omnipresence (being everywhere at the same time), etc.  When people all over the world address Satan as if he were present with them, that suggests omnipresence.  When lots of people say “the devil made me do it” they’re suggesting that he has comprehensive knowledge to use in temptation. But he doesn’t.  Satan’s knowledge and presence are limited because he is a finite created being.

So where is the devil, if he’s not omnipresent?  At one point the Bible depicts him standing before God and accusing us.  (The word for “devil” in Greek is diabolos or “accuser.”)  At another point the Bible says he “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  But no matter where he is at any given moment, he is finite, and so not able to be everywhere and know everything.

What we are probably encountering instead when we feel as if “the devil is tempting us” is the continuum that the Bible refers to as “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”  Wrong thoughts, attitudes, and actions are fueled by “the world” (the planet-wide conspiracy to value things other than as God values them), “the flesh,” (everything in us that resists the cross, that is, living a sacrificial life for God), and “the devil” (which to my mind includes all evil supernatural beings, in league with one another and their leader against God).

I don’t think we should spend a lot of time trying to tease out which part of the world-flesh-devil continuum we’re up against at any given point.  Instead, we should “turn on the lights” by using our wills to choose positive thoughts, attitudes, and actions.  As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

 

Why did Jesus say, “Mary has chosen what is better”? Wasn’t Martha’s hospitality a spiritual gift?

Q. I’ve always wondered why Jesus said that Mary sitting at his feet listening to him was “better” than Martha working to fix a meal for him and his disciples. Wasn’t that an important and needed form of service? Isn’t hospitality supposed to be a spiritual gift?

My understanding is that this was an informal occasion–travelers entertained spontaneously in a home along their route–for which a basic meal would have been sufficient. It was not a wedding or similar occasion that called for elaborate preparations. The “main event” was simply having Jesus in the house and having the opportunity to converse with him, and that was where the emphasis should have been placed.

But Martha apparently wanted to go “above and beyond” what the situation required and put on a really fancy meal. In fact, she wanted to do far more than she could do alone, and so she asked Jesus to tell her sister to help her. I think Jesus was saying, “It’s one thing if you want to go ‘above and beyond,’ that’s your choice, but you can’t also choose it for someone else who wants to give her attention to what should be the ‘main event’ here.”  In other words, when simple will suffice, if you want to do more, that’s on you, not anybody else.

This is not to say that the ministry of hospitality was not important to Jesus or to the new community he was founding.  In Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in the gospels, there’s great appreciation for those who receive traveling messengers of the kingdom of God into their homes, as Martha was doing here.  We find the same emphasis in the epistles. In his third letter, for example, John praises Gaius for receiving traveling messengers from his community, saying, “We ought to show hospitality to such people so that we may work together for the truth.”

And Martha eventually did get to host a more elaborate banquet for Jesus and his disciples. She did this to celebrate the resurrection of her brother Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. (Now that called for a full celebration!) So Martha’s gift and ministry of hospitality did find a place for its appropriate expression within the life of the community of Jesus’ followers.  I hope that those today with the same gift and ministry will find and be given similar opportunities, but also that we will all recognize when an occasion calls for something simpler and a different focus.

Allesandro Allori, “Christ with Mary and Martha.” The Latin inscription in the background reads, “She has chosen the better part.”