The Danger of Character Studies

Byron Yawn

The Danger of Character Studies

 

Excerpted from suburbianity (Harvest House Publishers, 2013)

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did (1 Corinthians 1:6). 

We do the weirdest things to the Bible in the absence of the cohesive theme of redemption. No other book is treated so recklessly by people who honor that same book so greatly. Among our favorite rewrites are character sketches. Character studies are a staple of popular Christianity. We use the above exhortation of Paul to the Corinthians to justify such a translation. Almost universally we believe that Paul’s point is to encourage our pursuit of the moral character of fallen human beings. We seem to forget the fact that the example he offers was one to be avoided.

Despite this we like to examine the lives of Old Testament saints—triumphs and tragedies alike—and offer various patterns for living. Almost everyone assumes this is the very reason the Old Testament saints show up in the biblical record. Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, and Deborah have all come to represent examples to live by (or not to). What else could be the reason for the focus on their lives? Therefore we mine them for spiritual and moral principles. Sermons are preached and books are written about their lives and offered as blueprints for daily life, success in business, or practical decision-making skills. 

Every Sunday kids sit in Sunday school classes, look at flannel boards or snip at construction paper with safety scissors, and learn how these ancient figures are examples of faithfulness or failure. The consistent message is, be like them and life will work out better. Or don’t be like them and life will work out better. Work harder, make good decisions, and stay out of trouble like Joseph, and God will bless you.

When these same kids reach their early twenties, struggle with real life, and fail to reach Joseph’s moral high ground, they despair. They can’t do it. Joseph was exceptional. They get angry with God when life does not work out according to the coloring pages. Eventually they find Christianity irrelevant and powerless to save them, and they walk away.

They’re exactly right—Joseph is powerless to save them. We’re creating angry moralists, setting them up for failure, and blaming it on the Bible. Tragically, the one message that actually could save them from their failure was before us in the story of Joseph the entire time. We failed to mention it. Families would run from our children’s programs if parents knew the effect our Bible lessons are having on their kids.

This approach to understanding this amazing book could not push us further from the real message and central character of the Bible. I know this sounds ridiculous to most of us and maybe even sacrilegious to some, but it should be obvious. The Bible is about Jesus, not Moses or any other biblical figure. The point of Moses is not Moses, but the one to whom Moses points. The Bible explicitly argues this very thing.

Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession; He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house. For He has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house. (Hebrews 3:1).

 The individual characters in the Bible don’t show up because anything about them was particularly significant. In fact, most were chosen because they were insignificant. Significance is reserved for Jesus.

The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deuteronomy 7:7).

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