The apostle Paul gave this advice to the young man Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim. 4:16 NIV). His advice was for Timothy to pay particular attention to himself and the gospel. Paul wanted Timothy to receive all that Christ had offered, and understood that self-knowledge was a critical part of receiving it.
Paul spoke of this work as necessary for Timothy to progress and necessary to set an example for other believers. Christian character always requires these two types of attention: self-awareness and gospel-awareness. It is formed by what we have received from Christ and through our working out that good news in the context of our own identity, instincts, and experiences. We practice and progress in character as we become more self-aware and gospel aware. That work always requires testing and endurance, but it will produce character. And it is character, according to Paul, that leads to hope, the assurance of reaching that distant port.
N. T. Wright has warned of the church’s declining interest in character and the work required to cultivate it. He explains his concerns by pointing out the advice typically given to new believers. “Now that he has come to faith, people in his church expect him to behave in a particular way (and not to behave in other particular ways), but this is seen, not in terms of character, but in terms of straightforward obligation. In other words, Christians are expected to live by the rules. When they fail, as they will, they are simply to repent and try to do better next time. You either live a Christian life or you don’t.”
We have been well warned of the consequences of sin, and rightfully so, but the best set of rules and self-willed discipline to avoid breaking them doesn’t guarantee maturity or true character. We have learned what we are against but haven’t developed the self-knowledge to mature into those better things worth living and sacrificing for. When we fail to teach men how to grow in character, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover they lack it.
When Paul urged Timothy to watch his life and the teach ing closely, he was offering Timothy a way of balancing his life through self-knowledge and knowledge of the gospel. Either pursued without the counterbalancing force of the other pro duces a thin veneer of a person prone to collapse. Obsess over self-knowledge and you will get lost in an endless maze of your own insecurities. But, perhaps surprisingly, there is an equal risk in ignoring self-knowledge and turning your spiritual life into the acquisition of biblical knowledge alone. A head full of properly defined theological affirmations will not guarantee character either. It’s never just one thing.
C. S. Lewis cautioned against elevating “any one instinct or any set of instincts.” Instead, he described moral character as “something which makes a kind of tune (the tune we call good ness or right conduct) by directing the instincts.”
“The most dangerous thing you can do,” wrote Lewis, “is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity,’ and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.”
Character is the balancing of these instincts toward something better. The instincts I’ve described in this book are not necessarily sinful but if left unchecked and overindulged, they have the tendency to collapse a man’s life into desperation and defeat. A desire for adventure is not sinful but if habitual and unchecked, it is prone to weakening your commitments and betraying you. Similarly, there is nothing sinful about ambition. Ambition has helped many men achieve good things, but when blindly indulged it tends toward anger, self-righteousness, and overwork. It will enslave you. All instincts are like that. The real risk is letting them go unchecked, driving you in their singular pursuit away from God’s grace and to your own destruction. They may not be sinful but the turmoil they unleash leads many men to places they never imagined going.
What the men of the Bible offer us are depictions of these instincts-second-hand experiences of their actual failures, pains, and destruction-and a witness to the God who led them and guided them on to something better than their own impulses. By their example, we learn to better understand ourselves and the grace we too have received. We learn where to look for both, keeping a careful watch on our own lives and drinking deep of the power of the gospel for new life in Him.
The goal of this book is not to annihilate your masculine instincts or to pull them back to some safer middle ground. The goal is to help you recognize the proper counterbalances necessary to keep those instincts from leading you into collapse. What you need is enough self-knowledge to recognize your instinct and a counterweight-an intentional practice of faith-by which to balance it and experience the power of His grace. You need the work of developing character to help you steward the ship and see it safely to its final port. The men of the Bible are your compan ions for doing just that.
This excerpt is from The 5 Masculine Instincts: A Guide to Becoming a Better Man by Chase Replogle, courtesy of Moody Publishers.