Great writers of fiction give us far more dynamic characters than static ones. Change is relatable to us, since we know inconsistencies within ourselves. We love observing the process of growth in people, whether we’re watching Ebenezer Scrooge, Jean Valjean, Jack Shepherd, or our own children. On the other hand, the character arc is not always an upward trajectory. We also encounter the tragic downfalls of Macbeth, Michael Corleone, and Walter White. In its historical narratives, the Bible gives us plenty of examples of both directions the character arc can take.
The story of Jacob is one long narrative arc of growth. He evolves from a deceiver who relies on his own tricks to a bulwark of faith. A long wrestling match with the "God of his fathers" produces a man who has stopped advancing by grabbing the heal of others and has surrendered to this pursuing God as his own. In the next generation, we are appalled by the unjust version of Judah we see in Genesis 38 - a man whose lack of sexual control and injustice toward his daughter-in-law is shrewdly exposed through a sexual encounter. But the later Judah is a man who offers himself as a slave in exchange for the freedom of his younger brother Benjamin. We later meet Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute (who probably runs a brothel in Jericho), who is willing to abandon her livelihood and culture when encountered with the true God. Then there is Samson - a violent, sex-crazed, impulsive young man - whose pride is shaved along with his hair and gouged along with his eyes. In the end, he relies on God for his strength and his sight. And perhaps the greatest examples of character growth are the apostles Peter and Paul. Peter is the one who goes from a rash small-town fisherman who can’t keep his foot out of his mouth or his sword in its sheath to being the leading preacher among the Jesus movement who introduced the Gospel to both the Jewish and Gentile worlds. Paul is a movement from persecutor to persecuted, a man who joins and leads the movement he was intent on destroying. All of these men and women offer hope to us. The early part of my narrative is not the final word. Radical change is possible when we surrender to God.
But we do have a few counterexamples as well. Saul, the first king of Israel, starts out well as one “among the prophets.” But pride, envy, and obsession with his intended successor set him on a downward spiral which actually becomes the model which inspired Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Judas Iscariot is another classic example of “breaking bad” when tempted by the love of money. Starting his journey as a chosen apostle, he ends his own life after being tortured by his aquisition of “blood money.” Time is not a friend to Saul and to Judas but only because they chose to refuse her friendship, closing themselves off from the possibility of redemption. They are like the seed which starts its growth upward but over time gets choked by the thorns of the world.
In Aesop’s fable “The Gourd and the Pine,” he tells of a gourd planted beside a well-spread pine tree. In a kind season, the gourd shot up and began climbing the tree, producing large leaves and flowers, until it reached the top and assured itself of value greater than this pine tree. “Why,” said the gourd, “you have been more years growing to this stature than I have been days.” The pine tree’s reply was grounded in pointing out that the gourd had seen neither the scorching heat nor the blasting cold yet. “We’ll see who is standing taller at the end.”
Graphing one’s spiritual journey rarely produces a line maintaining the same slope of growth or decline throughout its course. Like the stock market in recent days, there will be some peaks and valleys. But which direction is your character arc moving? And will it maintain its upward trajectory even when winter comes?
To His Glory,