“Character is like a tree and reputation its shadow,” says Abraham Lincoln. “The shadow is what we think it is and the tree is the real thing.” This truth journeys across generations to reach a global culture fixated on shadows.
God's character, described in Scripture as chesed, or “sacrificial mercy," never shifts like shadows (Jam 1.17). In the Old Testament God expresses his chesed through creation, each covenant, the Mosaic Law, and his prophets. He then commands his people to display sacrificial mercy so that the world may know him. Boaz sacrifices the sides of his fields to the poor (Ruth 2.1-3; Lev 23.22). Ruth sacrifices the security of her pagan nation to venture into the land of Yahweh (Ruth 1.6-18; Dt 29-30). David sacrifices his rightful succession, dodging Saul’s spears without slinging his own (1 Sam 18.11, 19.10, 26.11; Pr 20.22). Each testifies to the fact that one’s capacity for sacrificial mercy directly correlates to the depth of their character.
The extent to which we exercise character and express chesed depends upon the extent to which our hearts and lives have been transformed by the Spirit and Word of God. As those in Christ submit to God through sanctification, his character becomes increasingly instinctive and our capacity to sacrifice, inestimable. We no longer fidget in response to the fine shades of feeling which shift at the slightest twinge of difficulty. We no longer inflate our reputations. Instead, we let self-regard leak out of our hearts like infection from a lanced wound.
Character prompts us to pick up the toy left on the lawn, wipe the tear left on the cheek, and speak the truth left on the table. It enables employees to submit to employers, children to parents, and Christians to Christians. It empowers the single person to surrender reliance on his perfectly-timed commute, precisely-tuned sedan, and presumably-together lifestyle to the ooey-gooey, goodness of marriage. Character enables chesed.
People create and maintain reputation on the basis of manners, education, situational ethics, and a handful of attributes parading as morality. Those concerned with reputation use acts of apparent selflessness like a line of credit, never withdrawing time, talent, or treasure from their accounts. They never actually sacrifice anything. They may support an orphan across the globe, yet neglect the daughter across the hall. They converse with strangers on social media, yet ignore their siblings.
While on earth, Jesus confronts this disparity in the Pharisees, religious leaders who display themselves like dishes: clean on the outside. Yet Jesus sees their souls, crusted with bitterness and slicked with wickedness (Lk 11.37-44). Like the Pharisees, nonbelievers and nominal ones use reciprocity and religiosity as motivation for their attitudes and actions. As a result, self-righteous pride strangles the dignity, humanity, and individuality from everyone they touch. Bewilderment ensues.
“How could so-and-so dismiss my overture, my obvious disregard of self?” they ask. Never mind the sulking and sighs they supplied while serving plates at the soup kitchen, splitting wood for the neighbor, or sweeping the floor for the parent. Whether ethics or ego motivates their dive into the pool, without character, they cannot swim.
Beloved, sacrifice, or death to self, is not the antithesis of life, but rather the way Christ leads us to it. Chesed is the currency of the Kingdom. You see, while reputation operates on credit, chesed actually costs something: a life. Character enables us to spend it.
We die with every act of patience, humility, self-control, charity, gentleness, chastity we exercise in this fallen world. Yet we live, growing stronger as we prepare to fully steward the new creation as those who rule and reign in the likeness and manner of Christ, the One whose character enabled the ultimate act of chesed: death on a tree.