When you think of a Mormon missionary, what image comes to mind? A clean-cut young man in black slacks, white shirt and black tie, going door-to-door? How about an artist using chalk on a sidewalk to illustrate stories or outline a message? That’s what they’re doing in New York and Colorado, and now in Italy as well. Italian pedestrians often say they were reared Roman Catholic but have lost their faith after facing tragedy or dealing with unanswered questions. “They wonder where God is in the midst of the chaos and difficulties of the world,” one missionary says.
People responding to Mormon chalk drawings are not the only ones asking such questions. An elderly professor once advised me, “Son, be kind to everyone, because everyone’s having a hard time.” We are all dealing with problems, issues, and pain. We all want our world to be better than it is. But how do we change the way things are?
Tuesday evening it was my privilege to meet and hear New York Times columnist David Brooks. He has written for The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly. He also serves as a weekly commentator for PBS News Hour. I have long considered him to be one of the wisest and most perceptive analysts of our culture today.
In his address, Brooks claimed that “the essential problems of life are moral problems” and lamented that we are “adrift in moral mediocrity.” Claiming that “character is destiny,” he quoted J. S. Mill, “We have a moral responsibility to be more moral every day.” Such moral progress is our individual responsibility, Brooks noted: “we cannot be wise with other men’s wisdom.” And it reflects our identity—he quoted a reader who once told him, “For a wise person, what they say is the least of what they give.”
How do we achieve integrity of character? Brooks recommends that we love with de-centered humility, grow through suffering, combat our core sin, define our vocation (which he describes as the organizing principle of our lives), and serve an organization or purpose larger than ourselves. Since none of us can achieve these goals fully, we must have grace for ourselves and one another.
I agree completely with David Brooks’s diagnosis: our problem at the root is moral. And I agree with his pathway to integrity. But here’s what I would add: humans cannot change human hearts. We can make our lives better, but not different. Churchill helped defeat Hitler, but he did not abolish war. Abraham Lincoln helped liberate slaves, but he did not abolish slavery. In fact, more people are enslaved around the world than at any time in human history.
What Brooks most wants for himself and us is character described by the Apostle Paul: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). But these are the “fruit of the Spirit,” the results of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives when we make Jesus our Lord and surrender to the Spirit’s control.
We will find transforming grace for others and ourselves when we first receive it from Jesus. We cannot give what we do not have, but we can have what we need. Have you asked Jesus to make you the person he wants you to be today?