(This article is based on points taken from The Practice of Godliness, by Jerry Bridges.1)
Becoming more like Jesus requires devotion to God, which is rooted in our reverence of God and our understanding of His love for us as individuals. Being God-centered positions us to grow in Christlike character. Our love for and dedication to God opens the door for the Holy Spirit to transform our character, to develop the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In addition to these specific fruits, any other trait commended in Scripture as being godly can also be seen as a fruit of the Spirit, such as humility, compassion, gratitude, contentment, and more.
While it may seem like quite a challenge to manifest this fruit, we can comfort ourselves that we grow in these areas as a result of the Holy Spirit working within us. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit does all the work and that we bear no responsibility for developing Christian character. We must be open to and cooperate with the Holy Spirit, and fulfill our responsibilities to grow in Christlikeness through the Spirit’s direction and empowerment.
Our devotion to God should be our motivation for actions that are pleasing to God. We can see this motivation in the Old Testament story of Joseph, when Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. He didn’t refuse her on the basis of “If I did that and my master found out, he would have my head.” Rather he said: How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?2
Our motivation for our actions should be a sense of devotion to God. The apostle Paul wrote: So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.3
By abiding in Christ we develop godly character and become more like Jesus. The power to transform us comes from outside of us. We must be plugged into the source—Jesus—and we stay connected to Him by abiding in Him and His Word, being in communion with Him through prayer and devotion.
Responsibility and dependence
Though the power to have godly character comes from Christ, the responsibility for developing and displaying that character is ours. We’re told to Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it;4 pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness;5 train yourself for godliness;6 live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.7 While we can look to the Lord for the grace and power to grow in Christlikeness, we can’t just toss it in His court and expect Him to make us godly. Some effort, in fact a great deal of it, is required of us.
In a sense we are totally dependent on the Lord, through the Spirit, to transform us; while at the same time we are totally responsible to do our part to make it possible. We are called to the active pursuit of God’s moral will, to devote ourselves to God, to do all we can to develop Christian character, to live according to and align ourselves with the teachings of Scripture, while at the same time depending on the Lord to transform us into His image through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Growing in Christlikeness isn’t about personality or temperament; it’s about seeking to grow, through the help of God’s Spirit, in every area of Christian character. We all have areas within our personality which align to some degree with Christian character traits. Some people are naturally generous, self-sacrificing, patient, etc.; but even in such areas, God’s Spirit nudges us to stretch and grow, often through our being faced with a challenge which calls for us to take an extra step or go an extra mile. In addition, there are fruits of the Spirit which may even run counter to our personality and will take much more focus to grow in.
No matter which godly attributes come naturally to us, we all face the need to grow in manifesting the fruit of the Spirit. We each have varying challenges when it comes to demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. When we don’t naturally display certain fruit, it’s not enough to say, “That’s just the way I am.” The principle to learn and apply is that we are each responsible to exhibit all of the traits of godly character in a balanced fashion. Some godly traits are more difficult to grow in than others. These will require extra prayer and attention, but that is part of training for Christlikeness.
Growth in Christlikeness, in godly character, is progressive. No matter how much we grow, there will always be room for further growth. Like athletes who need to train regularly in order to maintain the progress they’ve made, we need to keep growing in godliness; if we aren’t progressing, we will regress. Whether we’re aware of it or not, the decisions we regularly make and the habits we form train our character. When writing about false teachers, the apostle Peter wrote: They have hearts trained in greed.9
The implication is that we can train ourselves not only toward godliness but toward ungodliness as well.
Growing in godly character calls for understanding the intimate relationship between conduct and character. When we repeat an action (whether good or bad) over and over again, eventually that action will become habitual; it will become part of who we are, part of our character. At the same time, our character can also determine our actions; for example, if we are unselfish in character, then we are more likely to help someone who is in need, as our character causes us to act generously. If, however, we are selfish by nature, yet we are training ourselves to overcome selfishness, then we make a point to regularly help those in need; and the more we do it, the more it becomes second nature to us, and we develop an unselfish character. What we do, we become, and what we are, we do. Our conduct is always feeding our character, and our character is also always feeding our conduct. This makes it very important that we practice godliness every day in both conduct and character.
Growing in Christlikeness calls for commitment and determination, as well as the powerful work of the Holy Spirit within us. There are numerous godly traits spoken of throughout Scripture, and it would be overwhelming and unrealistic to try to work on all of them at the same time. Character formation takes time, both in “putting on” godly traits and “putting off” ungodly ones. Where to start is a matter for prayer, seeking the Lord to show you, by His Word and through the Spirit, which areas He may be leading you to give attention to for a time, and when it might be time to focus on a different trait. Let the Spirit of God guide you in this.
Don’t expect to become an overnight wonder. It takes time to change and grow. Make the commitment to pursue godly character, to become more like Jesus; and then work in conjunction with the Spirit, praying for guidance and for the strength to continue to work toward godliness in belief, action, conduct, and character. Do your part to put up your sails so that the breath of God can move you in the direction of growth in Christlikeness.
For more writings by Peter Amsterdam, visit Directors Corner.
1 Jerry Bridges, The Practice of Godliness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2010).
2 Genesis 39:9 ESV.
3 1 Corinthians 10:31 ESV.
4 Psalm 34:14 ESV.
5 1 Timothy 6:11 ESV.
6 1 Timothy 4:7 ESV.
7 Titus 2:12 ESV.
8 2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV.
9 2 Peter 2:14 ESV.