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The Road to CharacterThere’s a certain delight you can take in reading the lives of some of the world’s greatest thinkers and inspiring leaders. David Brooks explores the internal struggles as they give insight to the development of “character” in his book, The Road to Character. Now that’s a word we don’t hear as much about these days.

I’m not talking about the way the phrase goes, “oh – he’s a real character, ha, ha.” Character is what is there when the lights are off; when no one’s looking. It is as basketball coaching great John Wooden said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”

In this reputation-obsessed culture we are beckoned to take the road to character. What we find over and over again – as the people from whom Brooks draws their stories – and the stories behind the stories – character is built in struggle. Brooks revisits this theme several times in the people he studies, and he distills the lessons they teach us.

Five things Suffering does For us:

Suffering “drags you deeper into your self… people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routine busyness of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be.” Suffering “smashes through a floor they thought was the bottom floor of their soul, revealing a cavity below… and then it smashes through that floor, revealing another cavity, and so on and so on. The person descends to unknown ground.”

This is part of the human experience, and in some of our ancient texts Moses writes,

The eternal God is our refuge and underneath are His everlasting arms.”

God undermines our depth; He is deeper than our depth. There is something about being found out, sounded out as by sonar, to be found by the God for whom we have been waiting…

“Suffering opens up ancient places of pain that had been hidden. It exposes frightening experiences that had been repressed, shameful wrongs that had been committed. It spurs some people to painfully and carefully examine the basement of their own soul. But it also presents the pleasurable sensation that one is getting closer to the truth… it shatters the comforting rationalizations and pat narratives we tell about ourselves as part of our way of simplifying ourselves for the world.”

“Suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, of what they can control and not control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, thrust into lonely self-scrutiny, they’re forced to confront the fact that they can’t determine what goes on there.”

“Suffering, like love, shatters the illusion of self-mastery. Those who won’t suffer can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or stop missing the one who has died and gone… suffering teaches dependence. It teaches that life is unpredictable and that the meritocrat’s efforts at total control are an illusion.”

“Suffering, oddly, also teaches gratitude. In normal times we treat the love we receive as a reason for self-satisfaction… but in seasons of suffering we realize how undeserved this love is and how it should in fact be a cause for thanks. In proud moments we refuse to feel indebted, but in humble moments, people know they don’t deserve the affection and concern they receive.”

Though we may not like suffering, suffering is par for this course. My dad died when I was some 15 months old. It catapulted my family and me into uncertain prospects and diminished hopes. Over time, the narrative of my life has been profoundly influenced by what suffering has paid me, and more, by how Jesus has used all the shards and strands of life to lead me to his Abba, Father. It has been amazing, overwhelming grace.

We may start our suffering asking “Why me?” But we soon realize a better question is, “What now?” Embedded in that question is the presumption that we ask it of the One who will answer it. If we become wise – or should I say – if we walk the road to character, suffering is turned into something sacred. And when we find the sacred, we find He is more enigma than dogma.

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