Gifts vs. Character

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Samson is one of those Bible personalities who has been able to accomplish the near-impossible: make Sunday School interesting for elementary school-age boys.

He was absurdly strong.  His exploits were gloriously public.  He singlehandedly leveled the playing field between the Israelites and their unfriendly next-door neighbors, the Philistines.

But Samson’s story, which covers four chapters of the book of Judges (13-16), is largely one of unrealized greatness. 

Because Samson appears to be a combination of action figure, movie star, and professional wrestler, he is typically described as a “hero” of the Old Testament.  But there was a yawning gulf between his inner world and his outer behavior.  Samson had been given incredible gifts – not only legendary strength, but spiritually sensitive parents and a special call to serve God.  But he was bankrupt when it came to character.  There was nothing heroic about his interior life.

Samson began what can only be described as a troubled relationship with a Philistine woman named Delilah, hardly suspecting she was in cahoots with his sworn enemies.  After the world’s worst visit to Great Clips – shorn of his hair and his strength – Samson tried to do what he had done so many times before: use his gifts to beat his problems into submission.

Then comes one of the Bible’s most heartbreaking verses:  “But he did not know that the Lord had left him.” (Judges 16:20) 

When we neglect the cultivation of our inner worlds, we lose the capacity to know whether or not we are walking with God.

Three thousand years later, little has changed:  America is deeply confused about the difference between giftedness and character.

Our culture exalts gifts:  athletic prowess, artistic creativity, leadership savvy, physical beauty, and intellectual brilliance.  Giftedness appears to be the royal path to the Good Life.  If you have the right gifts and work like crazy to develop them, you can become rich, powerful, and popular. 

Character, on the other hand, is how we describe the landscape of our souls.  Character development takes time.  It is mostly a hidden reality that doesn’t translate easily into bullet points on a resume. 

Experience reveals that if we don’t have the character to support our gifts, our gifts will inevitably become destructive – both to us and to others.

That was true for Samson.  And day after day we hear fresh examples of what a group of Harvard psychologists some years ago identified as the Four A’s of broken leadership.

ArroganceI’m entitled and I can get away with anything.  Think of Michael Milken, Lance Armstrong, and Enron’s CEO Ken Lay.  We can almost imagine Samson wearing one of Armstrong’s Live Strong bracelets.  But the uber-talented Tour de France cyclist failed to cultivate the inner strength of integrity.

Adventuring:  Playing it straight is for ordinary people.  Pete Rose was a uniquely gifted baseball player.  So why did he throw it all away by betting on the game he loved?  Actress Lori Loughlin had all the money in the world to send her daughters to college.  Yet she and her husband went to prison for attempting an end run around the admissions process. 

Adultery:  I’m exempt from keeping fundamental promises.  Harvey Weinstein, John Edwards, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Bill Cosby, Tiger Woods, and so many others.  Incredible gifts, compromised character. 

Aloneness:  Nobody knows the real me.  Perhaps the greatest liability of giftedness is the illusion that life can be lived without accountability.  Jim Bakker of the PTL Club fell from grace largely because he had empowered no one to question his choices.

The Harvard researchers were asked if they ever encountered individuals who checked all four boxes at the same time.  “We call that ‘hitting a quad,’” they replied.  “We see that most often in televangelists.”  Likewise, some of us might nominate a few of the politicians who have recently been in the national spotlight.  

Gift Envy is a national pastime.  If only I could play the violin like her, or dunk a basketball like him, or make millions like that investor.

But character is where the action is.  The name of the game is who we become

Not all of us are equally gifted.  But all of us can nurture an extraordinary character.

True, if you cultivate character over giftedness, you’ll probably never be asked to host Saturday Night Live

But aligning our inner and outer worlds under the banner of God’s love turns out to be the real way to be strong.