Tomorrow, a new president will take the oath of office. Whether you voted for President Trump or not, there are lots of people who are telling you what you should be doing for your country, either in support of his policies or in opposition to them: folks are telling you to register voters or call congress or attend a protest or donate to a cause or pray for a candidate. All of those actions might be important, but they are not most important. In fact, I believe the most important thing you can do for your country is not to do anything. Let me explain.
Character is Destiny
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that character is destiny. What he meant is that who you are will inevitably determine what you do. A brave man will act bravely, a dishonest man will act dishonestly, etc.
Jesus said the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:16-18).
The English word character has roots in the Greek word for engraving. You might say that character is etched into a person; it is something foundational to who the person is.
Formation vs. Education
In our culture, we tend to overlook the slow importance of character formation and instead prefer the quicker and easier work of intellectual education. Our leaders talk about improving education and argue about how best to do that, but I cannot recall a public figure who has recently been talking about the best way to form character in our children. Education is important, but education without character will be useless at best and dangerous at worst. Character matters.
One of the major themes of the New Testament is about how a follower of Jesus can become Christlike in character. The reason the New Testament is so concerned with character change is because the early Christians knew that you can’t actually live like Jesus unless you are being changed like Jesus from the inside out. Only then—with a “mind transformed and renewed” (Romans 12:1-2)—is Christlike living possible. It is not possible to love your enemies, e.g., without first becoming the kind of person who loves her enemies.
The moralistic instruction that we are constantly given—be more civicly engaged, reach out to your neighbor, call your congressman, pray for your senator, start a movement—is all good advice, but it is given out of order. Before you start a movement, you first need to be the kind of person who starts a movement; before you pray for your senator, you first need to become the kind of person who prays for her senator. Character matters. “Good trees produce good fruit.”
This is why I believe the most important thing you can do for America as our new president assumes office is not to do anything. Rather, you should focus on becoming.
So, how is character formed? How can we become the kind of people who do good things, or to use Jesus’ metaphor, the kind of trees that produce good fruit?
Silence and Scripture
I believe the most effective way to become more like Jesus is to spend the first 15 minutes every morning in silence and scripture. Before you reach for your phone or check your Instagram feed or see who won the late game, you need to just sit and be still and read a bit of Scripture. Taken by itself, the principle of the #First15 seems useless: how does sitting in silence result in any new voters registered or any new movements funded or any congresswomen prayed for? But becoming the right type of person will result in your doing the right type of actions, and on a daily basis nothing will be more formative to your character than the #First15.
Character is destiny: good trees produce good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit. Who you are determines what you do. There is a lot that needs doing in America, but doing comes after being. If you become more like Jesus, you’ll inevitably act like him. (In fact, the more you become like Jesus, the more Christlike actions will be second nature to you.) This is what the early Christians meant by discipleship.
It was fifty-six years ago that President Kennedy delivered that thrilling conclusion to his Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” As a new President assumes office, I believe that what’s most important for you to do for your country is to be a certain sort of person: someone who thinks and acts like Jesus.