Back to the Basics: Build Character (Stories from My Sabbatical)

We continued our series “Back to the Basics” at Gateway Church in Austin.

As school is set to start, let’s go back to the basics. In this series, we discover what it looks like to explore God and be rooted in the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Our goal is to help each other in knowing that God guides us to make wise choices and He has given us the Bible to grow in obedience, forgiveness, love, and faith.

Digging Deeper

Work through the following questions and scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner, life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.

Video from Gateway Church in South Austin:

Message Audio:

Message Notes from Jon Eng:

In a world full of characters, we yearn for character.

Character is what we often find lacking in our politicians, our leaders, maybe even in our own families. And just as often, it’s leaders and friends with character who inspire us. Character is the thing that we all want to experience from others. If someone’s full of character, we feel like we can trust them, that we can get behind a cause they’re championing. 

But character can be hard to define…. When you think of a person with character, what comes to mind?

For me, it’s their integrity, their honesty, and their reliability.
What about you? Is it their humility? Their selflessness? Maybe something else?

One definition of character sounds like this: Character: the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation

But does that fully capture God’s heart for you and me? But if that’s the only facet of character we care about, that I care about…. Then I’d argue we have a pretty emaciated definition of character.

And that’s part of the resistance around character these days. For any one of us, character can sometimes feel irrelevant or weak. Or maybe for you, character sounds too narrow-minded, or too by-the-books For some of us, character can be repelling too because we want to feel something! We want to color outside the lines sometimes. We want adventure. We want drama in our lives without needing to deal with the drama in our lives.

Yet none of us would stand here today and say that character is unimportant.

In fact, it’s the other way around – we know we live in a day and age that urgently needs people of character. We’re just not sure how to get there.

Think about your own life.

How many hours do you spend at work? How many hours do you spend watching Netflix or Apple TV? What about listening to music or podcasts?

  • The average American works 8 hours a week, or 40 hours a week
  • Most of us spend 4.5 hours a day on entertainment, or almost 31 hours a week watching Netflix, the news, listening to music, 

And how many hours do you allocate to truly being formed in your soul? 

  • If going to church is your primary place of character and soul formation, then that puts you at about 1 hour per week (if you come every Sunday)

1 hour vs 71 hours.

What do you think has more influence and more power in your life?

The reality is, every year, we spend thousands of hours at work, thousands of dollars every year on our entertainment.  And if we’re not careful, these forces have the power to shape our character in untold ways. Without realizing it, we can become disciples of the world, more than we are disciples of Jesus.

But maybe there’s a different way to look at character.  Something that goes beyond the rules and our limited definitions Something that engages us more than just 1 hour each week and invites all the different parts of our lives – work, rest, play, and relationships.

What if we framed character as a journey of formation?

Over the past couple weeks, we’ve been in our Back to School series. This series is an opportunity for all of us to engage God’s heart around the foundations of our faith, going back to the basics of growing and connecting with Jesus and others. And I want to encourage you to really press-in.  Going back to the basics doesn’t mean we’re going back to learning 1+1.  Going back to the basics is about returning to our foundations, re-familiarizing ourselves with our roots.  Throughout time and across different cultures, going back to your foundations was crucial for moving forward in life. 

I’ve heard it said that you can’t go forward unless you first go back.  So that’s what we want to do in this series. 

When it comes to faith, going back to our foundations means centering ourselves on the big-ness of God, acknowledging the small-ness of my humanity, and responding in childlike wonder at the grand-ness of the invitation you and I have from God – to be transformed people who make an impact in our world.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at scripture and the person of Jesus, and today, we’ll be focusing on BUILDING CHARACTER.

The Kids Team starts off their exploration of character by naming a reality:

“Sometimes kids have a difficult time distinguishing between ‘feelings’ and ‘choices’.”

…..Yep, that sounds about right for my kids. But if we’re being honest, that’s also an accurate description of me and you….

I bet for every one of us here today, you could probably pick a moment this past week where you had a difficult time distinguishing between feelings and choices. 

And that’s why I believe building character is a journey of formation….

Maybe over the past week, you felt like you had to say something or not say something.  You went with your feeling, you caved to the pressure, and you made a mistake. Maybe in the midst of all the feelings, you forgot you actually had a CHOICE. You just felt like you HAD to do the “right” thing, no matter the cost. When it comes to feelings and choices, we can all struggle in different ways…

But for us to become people of godly character, we have to learn how to navigate these parts of ourselves with wisdom. But that’s only part of our journey. Come to find out, it’s much more than just our feelings and choices….

2 Corinthians 3:18 starts to paint a picture of what character formation is truly about.

We all, with unveiled faces, are reflecting the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit.

If character is a journey of formation, then it is focused on being shaped to become more like Jesus.

For us to become people of character, people who are like Jesus, we have to start where we are, uncovering the negative places of formation that have shaped us. The truth is, we are always being formed,  And the question we need to wrestle with is – what are we being formed into?  Are you more generous, more humble, more loving than you were last year?  Or have you become more anxious, more stressed, more controlling? Becoming more like Jesus requires courage to see our reality and name lies in our lives.


Lie #1: Follow Your Heart

The world often says “follow your heart” 

But following your heart is like trusting your gut – it’s not always the best idea! Especially after eating loaded queso fries and a milkshake the night before…

Instead of following our hearts, God calls us to lead our hearts. And in the scriptures, we discover why.

Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

If the heart is deceitful above all things, if it is beyond the scope of my power to heal it, then what chance do I have in this world if I simply follow my heart? This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be in-tune with our desires and feelings

Having awareness of our emotions is healthy! But following my heart point-blank is a recipe for disaster. We see that in our lives, and we also see it in the scriptures.

2 Samuel 11:1-5 In the spring of the year, when kings normally go out to war, David sent Joab and the Israelite army to fight the Ammonites. They destroyed the Ammonite army and laid siege to the city of Rabbah. However, David stayed behind in Jerusalem.

2 Late one afternoon, after his midday rest, David got out of bed and was walking on the roof of the palace. As he looked out over the city, he noticed a woman of unusual beauty taking a bath. 3 He sent someone to find out who she was, and he was told, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 4 Then David sent messengers to get her; and when she came to the palace, he slept with her. She had just completed the purification rites after having her menstrual period. Then she returned home. 5 Later, when Bathsheba discovered that she was pregnant, she sent David a message, saying, “I’m pregnant.”

We won’t be reading the entire story, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg…..

David follows his heart in the passage above. David abdicates his leadership (doesn’t go to war) and then his unchecked desires lead to abuse of power, moral failure, and sexual/relational brokenness).

From here, David engages in deception, abuse of power, conspiracy, and eventually premeditated murder…. All because he followed the darkness of his heart and allowed his feelings and his desires to lead him.

When we entertain our basest desires, it leads to broken families, forgotten children, and an entire world reeling from the consequences of our carelessness as caretakers of our world. 

Lie #2: Follow the Rules

Now not all of us follow our hearts. Some of us take another approach – we follow the rules. And there’s nothing wrong with rules.

For ages, humanity has used guidelines to point us towards flourishing. The 10 commandments are a great example of how we need rules or guidelines in our lives.

Just following the rules doesn’t produce character! 

Trust me, I’ve tried it! When we trust ourselves and trust our rules, we actually become less human. Growing up, there were several years where I really wrapped myself up in following the rules. I tried to do the right thing. I took my responsibilities seriously. I stayed out of trouble…. But do you know what following the rules did to my heart? It hardened it. I started judging everyone around me who wasn’t doing the right thing. And before I knew it, I was snubbing my nose at everyone around me. Believing that I was somehow God’s great gift to the world,  And everyone else was just messed up. Pride took over, and I become a shell of who God made me to be. And I started to crack under the pressure of it all.

The irony is that by following all the rules, I became less gracious, less open, more judgmental, more hypocritical. I became more like the Pharisees, the religious rulers that Jesus rebuked. I became more like a cultural Christian not representing Jesus the way He should be represented.

We won’t build character by following our hearts or following the rules. Both options actually lead to the same destination – a long slow death to your soul. Our hearts will deceive us, and our rules will create a prison for us.

This is what David learned the hard way. This is what some of us are needing to learn right now. 

Building character isn’t about mustering up moral strength on our own. Building character is about becoming more like him, and in doing so, we actually become more fully human, more fully the way we are created to be.

Put another way, as we follow Jesus, character isn’t the best that we can do, but rather God’s best in us and through us. 

Have you allowed God’s best to flow in you and through you?


Did you know that God has already done EVERYTHING in heaven and on earth to love you and to pursue you and to lead you? 

Jesus life, death, and resurrection made the fullness of life possible for you and me. But the one thing he won’t do is force your hand. You and I have to do the work of responding to God’s beautiful love. We have to lead ourselves.

And the most honest expression of that posture is to unclench our fists, To let go of the things that we’ve been trying to cling onto or control, And simply say, “I’m here God – all of me. Here I am”

Instead of following our hearts or manufacturing our own morality, what if we simply just admitted that we don’t have the answers?

Whether you’re exploring faith or you’ve been following Jesus for some time, Can you say today, “I’m here God – all of me. Here I am”?

Some of us may not fully trust Jesus. That’s okay. Can you exercise some curiosity around Jesus? That’s where many people started. They said things like, “Who is this man who can heal and forgive sins?” They took to the hillside and listened to his upside-down teachings – teachings that seemed to free them and challenge them toward something greater than themselves.

When we start to lead ourselves to Jesus, the One who pursues us, we begin to open ourselves up to the God of transformation. And at one point or another, we ultimately learn to surrender ourselves to God, just like we would surrender ourselves to a deep dive into the pool (And isn’t that what we all need today anyway?)

Taking a deep dive might take time for some of us. You might not do it immediately. Maybe you gotta dip your toes in for a bit, or wade in the shallow end of the pool. But eventually, we have to surrender ourselves and immerse ourselves into the waters. “Here I am – all of me.”

It’s the same with Jesus. 

At some point in our journey with Jesus, we have to respond fully in surrender. Surrender is different for every one of us. But it’s a crucial part of building your character. When we surrender, we start saying yes to the difficult things God asks us for….today and tomorrow and the next day….

To make the choice to trust and obey Jesus daily, even when we don’t feel like we want to.

  • That may mean asking for forgiveness, because Jesus teaches us to seek forgiveness when we’ve wronged others.
  • It might mean releasing your bitterness, or befriending someone in need.
  • Or just praying for those who frustrate you. Jesus says pray for your enemies, and when you pray for those you hate, you’re allowing your heart to be changed.

To surrender is to live how he calls us to live. That means every moment….not just on a Sunday for 1 hour, but on your car ride, with your co-workers, at home, at rest…. When Scripture gives us rules, commandments, and guidance the goal is not mind control. God is saying, “I know what’s best for you. Trust me. Don’t hurt yourself; don’t hurt others. Learn what it means to flourish.”

This isn’t always easy. And for some of us, we have to learn this the hard way, but even then, God doesn’t abandon us. 

Listen to more of David’s story….

2 Samuel 12: 1-7 The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

4 “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

5 David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! 

David, recognizing that his scheming and plotting and murdering had come to the surface, immediately confesses. 

2 Samuel 12:13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

He led his heart to do the thing he had resisted for so long – to change his ways.

Some of us are hard headed like David, and we like learning the hard way…. But if we really want to flourish, then we must become people of character. And one of the best ways to do this is to be in community.


For as much as David wreaked death and destruction, He wasn’t so set in his ways that he couldn’t hear God breaking through his deception. David, even as King, kept his door open to the prophet Nathan. And if you’re wondering what a prophet is all about, a prophet is simply someone who tells God’s truth.

Do you have prophets in your life? People who are willing to speak difficult but needed truth into your life, and to do so in love?

This was King David’s saving grace. After Nathan confronted David, David entered a time of confession and mourning 

If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive… – 1 John 1:9

He experienced the consequences of his actions. But he also experienced the grace of God. In community, he was shaped to become more the person God created him to be. So much so that when we take into account David’s life now,

We don’t talk about him as a murderer or a schemer or an adulterer. Yes – he did all those things, But they didn’t define him because in light of his mistakes, He changed. He recognized the darkness of his heart. He surrendered to God, sought out community. And ultimately led his heart to be shaped by God.

And instead of failure or deceiver, God calls him a man after my own heart.

After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’ – Acts 13:22 

How is that possible? Because….

As we follow Jesus, character isn’t the best that we can do, but rather God’s best in us and through us.

Are you leading your heart today?
Are connected to prophets in your life….doing life in a community where you can be authentic, where you live transparently with God and others, where you invite feedback?

Several years ago, I ran across something called the Johari Window.
It’s a way of understanding ourselves in the context of relationships and community.

And it highlights how our character is formed, not in isolation, but with others around us.

-In the top left quadrant is the open self.

This is what’s known to yourself and others. It’s common knowledge between everyone.

-The bottom left quadrant is the hidden self. It’s also sometimes called the facade self.

Here resides everything that you know about yourself, but others don’t know. It might be hidden talents and skills, but it could also be the skeletons in your closet, the places of shame or guilt that you hide from others.

-Then there’s the blind self. And you can probably guess – this has everything to do with things that others see or experience, but you don’t. It’s all of our blindspots. And this is where we may need prophets – Nathans in our lives to speak truth in love.

-The final quadrant in the bottom right hand corner is the unknown self. This is the area that no one knows about you. You don’t know it about yourself, and others don’t know it about you. And can we all agree that we need God, our Creator, the One who fashioned us in our mother’s womb, to speak God-sized truth and imagination into this area? That you might know more of God’s visions and dreams for you and for our world? That you might begin to see yourself, not as a liar, a fraud, a failure, but as someone supremely loved, trustworthy because of Jesus, gracious?

Imagine if we become people of character, people who trusted and followed Jesus and had an increasing awareness of our constitution and our calling? Where we aren’t trapped in facade because we’ve learned the way of confession? Where we have increasing awareness of our blindspots because we’re in trusted community where truth is spoken and received in love? Where we hear from God about who we are?

History seems to suggest that those with that kind of character move our world! 

But we don’t all start there. Sometimes we have to stumble our way into our character, through mistakes and challenges… allow our character to be forged through the trials of life. But trials themselves don’t produce character. Ultimately, it’s our willingness to surrender ourselves to God’s leadership in the midst of trials.

As we follow Jesus, character isn’t the best that we can do, but rather God’s best in us and through us.

Message Notes from Eric Bryant:

One of my favorite things to do was going on prayer walks in the wilderness. I would just follow God’s promptings. It could be just an impression or a thought. Sometimes I would go off the road or off the trail. At one point I went down a dry creek bed and discovered an entire neighborhood I didn’t know existed! When walking through that secret neighborhood I was asking God to show me my blind spots – to show me how he wants to grow me.

Then at the end of the trail, I stopped and immediately saw a stirring in the trees. A giant owl flew from the top of one tree to the top of the tree closest to me! I just stared at him in awe! And he stared at me as I stared at him! Then he flew away. Immediately as I asked God what He May be saying to me through that experience, a verse popped into my mind:

“Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” – Proverbs 1:7

Owls often mean wisdom in our culture, My blind spot has been finding wisdom from fearing the Lord.

I have not communicated enough on the importance of the fear of the Lord. Does not mean being scared of God. 

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”- ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭10‬:‭28‬-‭31‬ NIV

Jesus is saying:

  • Don’t be afraid of people.
  • Only fear God – respect, honor, trust, obey
  • No need to be afraid of God because He cares for you!

From an article by Mitch Bedzyk called “What is the ‘Fear of the Lord'”:

“For God’s people, fearing the Lord is a response of reverent awe, obedience, and trust in the Lord…. In the Psalms we see that fearing the Lord means to stand in awe of the living God (Ps. 33:8), to glorify him (Ps. 22:3), and to trust him wholeheartedly (Ps. 40:3). Those who fear the Lord receive his steadfast love (Ps. 103:17)  In the book of Proverbs the fear of the Lord is a continual submission to God in humility and faith (Prov. 23:17) and consists of a hatred of evil and the desire to turn away from it (Prov. 8:13; 16:6). Fearing God is better than all earthly treasures (Prov. 15:16) and leads to greater love for and knowledge of God (Prov. 1:29; 2:5; 9:10; 15:33)….”

– Mitch Bedzyk

“Obeying” is not a popular word or idea, but think of it more like this.

Has anyone ever thrown you a surprise party?

You end up trusting someone who is asking you to do things that may not make sense at the time, but in the other side of your willingness to obey him or her is a party in your honor!

“Friendship with the Lord is reserved for those who fear him. With them He shares his secrets.” – PSALM 25:14 (NLT)

Those who are in awe of Him, respect, revere, trust, and obey Him experience a closeness, intimacy, friendship. God shares secrets with us.

More from Mitch Bedzyk:

“when our delight is in fearing the Lord, we will be controlled by an unspeakable and glorious joy. Why? Because when we fear the Lord, there is nothing else to fear! When we acknowledge God for who he is and regard him as holy, and when we trust his only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, we can face whatever the future holds with our heads held high.”

– Mitch Bedzyk

I posted a few times this summer,,,

  • Not pictured are the times God spoke to me in the midst of overwhelming anxiety or fear in the middle of the night and brought me peace.
  • Not pictured are the times I experienced God’s Grace and forgiveness for all the ways I failed during my sabbatical and cried tears of joy.
  • Not pictured are the times I was in the wilderness on prayer walks or having a long and hard conversation with one of my family members. 

Building character isn’t usually the thing that any of us get excited about. But what you can get excited about is the journey you’ll be on with Jesus.

Jesus is someone who will love you, who will challenge you, who will confront you even as he comforts you.

And as we follow Jesus, God will start speaking to you and prompting you and moving you to do things that will slowly but surely shape the contours of your character, until one day,

It’s not a challenge for you because it will be like second-nature. It will be your character, produced in Christ and not out of your own self-will. God’s very best flowing in and through you for the flourishing of our world and all of humanity.

Today, as we close, I want to challenge you to get into a group if you aren’t in one yet. Try one out this fall! It’s in groups where we can identify lies, learn surrender, and be transformed.

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