It’s Character, Stupid!

In the 1992 presidential election Bill Clinton’s campaign had a slogan that every campaign employee, every political operative, every ward boss, every media consultant was constantly challenged with this slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid!” It hung on the walls of the campaign headquarters, it was stamped on letters to state committees, it was plastered on the limos and airplanes and buses used to haul the candidate and his entourage around.

What the slogan was designed to convey was the conviction of those at the top that the election would be won or lost on economic issues alone. Nothing else really mattered and nothing else was going to be allowed to distract the campaign–not ideology, not foreign affairs, not family values, not even bimbo eruptions (as Rush Limbaugh so delicately puts it)–nothing but the economy. Since there was a slight recession in George Bush’s last year, along with a rising unemployment rate, the decision was made to exploit the people’s fears of job security and hope they would vote their pocketbook. As we all know, it worked.

This morning I want to borrow the form, though not the substance, of Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan as my theme in this, the first of a series of messages on the Christian home. During this series we are going to deal with such questions as:

Why Did God Institute Marriage?

Why Does God Hate Divorce?

How Does a Man really Love His Wife?

How Does a Wife Really Respect Her Husband?

How can I Meet the Two most Basic Human Needs of My Spouse and Children?

But this morning I want to ask and answer the simple question, “What is the single most important key to having a great marriage, a great relationship with your kids, and a godly family.” I am convinced that the secret to a great family life is not the dozens of books on marriage in your Christian book store, it’s not professional counseling, even Christian counseling, it’s not seminars, it’s not technique, it’s not methodology, it’s not Promise-Keepers’ conventions, it’s character–Christ-like character. Maybe this slogan needs to go up on the refrigerator or the bathroom mirror or the dashboard of the car, only substituting your name in place of Clinton’s term. It’s Character, Charlie! It’s Character, Tracey! It’s Character, Mike!

There’s no substitute for character. If you don’t have it you will never meet the needs and aspirations of your spouse, you will never raise a godly seed, you will never even find fulfillment in your own life. But if you do have it, you will find ways to work on and resolve the idiosyncrasies and personality quirks that try even the best of marriages.

I want to speak this morning on the most important passage in the Bible on marriage and family. And what is that? You might think it would be Gen. 1,2, Eph. 5, or I Peter 3, but while those are all foundational to understanding God’s blueprint for the Christian home, I am convinced that the most important passage on marriage and family is probably Gal. 5:22,23: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” But let’s read it in context, beginning in Gal. 5:13:

You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature ; rather, serve one another in love. {14} The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” {15} If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

{16} So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. {17} For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. {18} But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. {19}

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; {20} idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissension’s, factions {21} and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. {22} But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, {23} gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the fifteen acts of the sinful nature mentioned in verses 19-21 include virtually all of the leading causes of divorce in our country. Even more important, these behaviors are absolutely contrary to the law of God and those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

In contrast, however, there are some behaviors that are not against God’s law or anyone else’s law, for that matter. They are the characteristics and personality traits that make one attractive, productive, loveable, and pleasing to God. I am going to concentrate just on verses 22 and 23 this morning. Even that is an assignment much too large for the time we have available. As a matter of fact when Brad and I preached through Galatians in 1987 we spent three weeks just on these two verses. What I wish to do today is to look at these character traits from the standpoint of family life.

Now no doubt someone is anxious to point out to me that marriage is mentioned nowhere here in Galatians 5. I understand that. Gal. 5 is bigger than marriage; it speaks of all human relationships. There is no relationship between two human beings that is not damaged by the desires of the sinful nature or that is not enhanced by the fruit of the Spirit. None. The reason I have decided to preach from this text today is that I want us to see that a happy home is, more than anything else, the result of the character of Christ being formed in us.

Before we begin we must be reminded again that these qualities are called fruit. Fruit is not something made, manufactured or engineered. It is not the invention of a genius, or the product of sophisticated technology, or even the result of hard work. Fruit is the result of a long organic and living process–in this case a process that is the work of the Holy Spirit of God. Furthermore, if these traits are the fruit of the Spirit, then I would assume the only people who can exhibit these characteristics in their true form are those indwelt by God’s Spirit.

Oh, there are a lot of unbelievers and even a few carnal Christians out there who appear to be loving and patient and kind and self-controlled, but they remind me of the wax fruit you can buy in some of your better gift shops. Frankly some of it looks pretty good; in fact, from a distance you can’t tell it from the real thing. But when the heat is turned up, it melts. It’s only the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit in the lives of true believers that can stand up to the test over the long haul.

The Holy Spirit indwells every true believer. That’s a Scripturally demonstrable fact. But the Holy Spirit does not have control over every believer’s life. That’s an experientially demonstrable fact. The true test of how much control the Holy Spirit has over our lives is seen principally in whether the fruit of the Spirit is clearly in evidence in our daily living, especially in the home.

You see, it is much easier to exhibit these characteristics with strangers than with those who know us. It is easier to exhibit them at church, where we spend a few hours a week, than it is at school or at the office where we spend dozens of hours. The hardest place to exhibit them is in the home. So that’s the place where our examination should take place to see if love, joy, peace, patience, and the rest of these qualities are really present in our lives. Jesus said in Matthew 7:15-19, “You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree produce good fruit.”

I think it is not at all foreign to this text to suggest the following observation: a person of good character cannot produce a rotten marriage, while a person of rotten character cannot produce a good marriage.

Now let’s play the role of fruit inspectors this morning, not to inspect other people’s lives, but rather to inspect our own in relationship to what we see here in these verses.


There is no more important word for marriage and family than this one. So important is it that we will be devoting an entire message to it in a few weeks. But this morning I want to make a few general observations. As many of you know, there are a number of different words in the Greek language that are all translated “love” in our English Bibles. There is a love that is sensual in nature, there is a brotherly love, there is family love. But the word used here is the term agape. It not an emotional love; it is a love of the will, it is love in action. It is a love which causes a person to take the attitude, “I will do what is best for my spouse, no matter what I get in return.” Imagine how that kind of attitude could revolutionize a marriage! But do you know how rare that is in some homes?

Recently I came across a story that says it better than I can. A man named Tom Anderson wrote it of himself.

I made a vow to myself on the drive down to the vacation beach cottage. For two weeks I would try to be a loving husband and father. Totally loving. No ifs, ands, or buts.

The idea had come to me as I listened to a commentator on my car’s tape player. He was quoting a biblical passage about husbands being thoughtful of their wives. Then he went on to say, ‘Love is an act of the will. A person can choose to love.’ To myself, I had to admit that I had been a selfish husband–that our love had been dulled by my own insensitivity. In petty ways, really: chiding Evelyn for her tardiness; insisting on the TV channel I wanted to watch; throwing out day-old newspapers before Evelyn had a chance to read them. Well, for two weeks all that would change.

And it did. Right from the moment I kissed Evelyn at the door and said, “That new yellow sweater looks great on you.”

“Oh, Tom, you noticed,” she said, surprised and pleased. And maybe a little shocked.

After the long drive, I wanted to sit and read. Evelyn suggested a walk on the beach. I started to refuse, but then I thought, Evelyn’s been alone here with the kids all week and now she wants to be alone with me. We walked on the beach while the children flew their kites.

So it went. Two weeks of not calling the Wall Street investment firm where I am a director; a visit to the shell museum, though I usually hate museums; holding my tongue while Evelyn’s getting ready made us late for a dinner date. Relaxed and happy, that’s how the whole vacation passed. I made a new vow to keep on remembering to choose love.

There was one thing that went wrong with my experiment, however. On the last night at our cottage, preparing for bed, Evelyn stared at me with the saddest expression.

“ What’s the matter?” I asked her.

“ Tom,” she said, in a voice filled with distress, “do you know something I don’t?”

“ What do you mean?”

“ Well . . . that checkup I had several weeks ago . . . our doctor . . . did he tell you something about me? Tom, you’ve been so good to me . . . am I dying?”

It took a moment for it all to sink in. Then I burst out laughing.

“ No, honey,” I said, wrapping her in my arms, “you’re not dying; I’m just starting to live! ”

Now my impression is that this man’s marriage was not exactly on the rocks; it just needed a tune-up. But it’s pretty sad when exhibiting one of the fruit of the Spirit for just two weeks would cause one’s spouse to think she’s dying. But frankly, friends, I suspect many of us might get a similar response.

I probably shouldn’t share this, but this little story reminded me of an embarrassing situation in my own family. I haven’t spent a lot of money on flowers in my life, but I have frequently brought home flowers from funerals I performed. You know, there’s umpteen flower arrangements and after the funeral the family says, “Pastor, if you know anyone who might enjoy these flowers, feel free to take them.” So I would take some to the hospital, some to shut-ins, and some I would bring home. Well, one day I stopped at Dierberg’s on my way home and bought my wife some flowers. It wasn’t for her birthday or Valentine’s or anything–just because I loved her. As I walked in and handed her the flowers she asked me in a rather concerned voice, “Who died?” Well, you can’t win ‘em all.

As I said, we’re going to return to the topic of love in a few weeks, so allow me to go on to the second in our cluster of fruit.


Joy is underrated as a godly characteristic in the home. As I read books on Christian marriage I find a lot of attention given to love, kindness, gentleness, and self-control, but this one is given short shrift. But the fact of the matter is that joy sets the tone for a household, providing an atmosphere where problems can be solved and the future looks bright. On the other hand, one of the quickest ways to destroy a marriage is by means of a negative, pessimistic, and complaining spirit.

The Psalmist says, “This is the day that the Lord has made. I will rejoice and be glad in it.” You say, “But you don’t know the circumstances I live with.” Or “You don’t know my wife or my husband.” True, I don’t, but the Lord does, and He indicates that joy doesn’t have anything to do with circumstances. True joy is a delight in life that comes from the knowledge that we belong to God and that no matter what situation we are in, He is in total control. Joy has its source in the Holy Spirit through a vital relationship with Jesus, and it is not subject to circumstances! The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippian church, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice,” and he wrote that from a Roman dungeon.

Is there laughter in your home? Is there a light-hearted spirit? Can you play practical jokes on one another without taking offense? Is there singing? Joy is something the Holy Spirit would like to bring into your home. Third, we come to peace.


The most important peace attainable in this world is, of course, peace with God. Man is naturally at enmity with God, but God Himself declared a truce when He allowed His one and only Son to go to the Cross as a common criminal to die for the sins of mankind. We can have peace with God when we lay down our arms and put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Peace with God enables us to enjoy the peace of God, which is the quiet confidence that God can be trusted with anything and everything we face.

The peace of God, in turn, allows us to be at peace with one another. Jesus broke down the dividing walls between Jew and Gentile, between slave and free, even between men and women. The Holy Spirit enables two people with different backgrounds, different desires, different ideas, and different goals to live in harmony with one another. If a battle is going on in your home, it’s not because men are inherently impossible to live with or because women are impossible–it’s because sin has violated the peace God has arranged.

But what does peace in the home look like? First of all, it involves cessation of open warfare. It means that husbands and wives and parents and children make a decision to solve their conflicts by communication and compromise and forgiveness and, if necessary, counseling, rather than by physical violence or verbal abuse. But cessation of open conflict is not the only kind of peace God wants for us in our homes. We have that kind of peace in Bosnia today, but none of us would want to go there, and we surely wouldn’t want to model our homes after the situation there.

A second kind of peace is like the peace of a stagnant pool. In this kind of home no one’s fighting because no one cares. Husband and wife are living in the same house but not engaging one another. Conflict is dealt with, not by screaming or hitting, but with the old silent treatment.

The kind of peace God wants for our homes is different from either a truce or a stagnant pool; it is the refreshing kind of peace one experiences when one goes to his favorite vacation spot and unwinds. For me it’s Beaver Lake in NW Arkansas, where my parents live, or Door County, WI, where we have spent a week of vacation each of the last three summers. I can go to either of these places and completely relax. Walking the shoreline, soaking up the sunshine, eating Swedish pancakes at Al Johnson’s restaurant with the goats on the roof, or Norwegian lefsa hot out of mom’s oven. That’s peace.

By God’s grace our homes can be like that. In fact, I enjoy that kind of peace with my wife. We don’t fight. We don’t yell at each other. We don’t ignore one another. We’re friends. And my home is a refuge from the sometimes difficult and demanding issues that I face at work.

Now let’s be honest. I have a son who turns 13 this year, so the peace I’m talking about is not absolute; it does get disturbed from time to time. But I’ll tell you this; if my wife and I are at peace with one another it makes any other disturbance a lot easier to handle.

Now the fourth fruit on this cluster is patience.


There are two principal NT terms for patience, one speaking of patience under circumstances, and the other addressing the matter of patience with people. The word for patience under circumstances is a Greek compound made up of two words, meaning “to remain under.” Sometimes God calls us to remain under a pile for a while, without giving up. Patience with circumstances is not easy and the heavier the circumstances, the harder it is to exercise patience. But the second kind of patience is even harder to exercise, and that’s patience with people. And it is patience with people that is listed here in Gal. 5 as a fruit of the Spirit.

For a definition of this term I think Reader’s Digest came up with as good a one as I have seen: “Patience is the ability to count down before we blast off.” Losing patience is a childish characteristic, but it’s amazing how many adults do it regularly, especially in the home. No doubt there are dozens of things that try your patience with your spouse–things you have mentioned a hundred times but they keep on happening–like moving your keys from the table where you put them, like taking the towels out of the bathroom to wash them without replacing them, so when you come out of the shower there’s not a towel in sight, like turning up the thermostat instead of putting on more clothes, like failing to keep hand soap at the kitchen sink. (My wife’s teaching S.S. this hour, so I can get by with this).

Now stop and think about this list or your list for a moment. How many of the things we lose patience over are really earth-shattering? Not many. Strangely, I think most of us probably handle the earth-shattering things better than the little things. God wants us to have patience with people in the little things. (But those towels really drive me nuts!)

We’re going to consider the next two pieces of fruit together because they are so similar.

Kindness and goodness

Friends, tell me, who would you rather have as a neighbor–a brilliant surgeon, a famous athlete, a great movie star, or someone who is just ordinary in every way except he is kind? It’s not even a contest, is it? The same could be asked about whom you’d like to be married to, couldn’t it? Simple kindness turn an ordinary person into a saint. Perhaps more importantly, simple kindnesses are contagious. Someone has said, “One of the most difficult things to give away is kindness, for it is almost always returned.” That’s why, of all the fruit of the Spirit, kindness and goodness may be the most effective instruments of healing for a troubled marriage. I am convinced that there are very few people so hard of heart that they can resist a persistent barrage of kindness for any length of time.

Kindness is closely related to forgiveness. Eph. 4:32 says, “Be ye kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake, hath forgiven you.” One of the kindest things you can do for another person is to forgive him. And if you refuse to forgive the one who has wronged you, any kindnesses you do will seem empty and hollow. If a wife is holding angry feelings against her husband, or vice versa, the little kind things that make a house a home are nothing but hypocritical gestures if forgiveness does not come first. The sixth fruit is


Faithfulness is loyalty to long-term commitments based on invisible values rather than immediate and tangible self-interests. Faithfulness and marriage should be synonymous terms, but sadly they often are not . The fabric of many marriages has been damaged by a one-night stand or a clandestine love affair, or even a series of such affairs. Do you know how serious this is in God’s eyes? The Scriptures tell us that God hates divorce. It is contrary to everything He planned for the epitome of His creative power, namely mankind. Yet, unfaithfulness in marriage is so heinous to Him that He grants permission to the one who is a victim of sexual unfaithfulness to get a divorce. He hates divorce, but He hates unfaithfulness even more.

It’s important, however, that we come to understand that faithfulness in a marriage is more than abstaining from adultery. It is more than a negative concept, more than what we haven’t done. Faithfulness means we are committed to being there for our spouse–body, soul, and spirit. By that definition there are probably some people who have made a tragic mistake in a moment of passion, but, having repented, actually fill the bill of faithfulness better than many spouses who have never climbed into the wrong bed.


Men, I think this may be the sweetest piece of fruit in this entire cluster to most of our wives, but unfortunately it is also very rare. It is not in most men’s nature to be gentle, and not a few women come up short here as well. When I think of gentleness I cannot help but go back to a letter I came across years ago, written by Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse, the Bible scholar I often mentioned in our series on Romans. Dr. Barnhouse was widowed in 1944, and then a decade later he met Margaret, to whom he became engaged. He wrote this letter to himself, a few excerpts from which I would like to read:

Memo from D.G.B. to D.G.B. about Marge:

In just thirty days you are due to marry Marge. My boy, you have hit the JACKPOT, and you are in the position of a man who has never had money and is suddenly coming into a brace of oil wells. Or of a spinster who has just inherited her sister’s nine children. Or of a bull who is taking title to a china shop. In other words, you have a very valuable property with great potential that must be handled with extreme care. So stop and assess the situation.

The Bible says a husband is to love his wife. There will be no difficulty here. You love her all right, and with a love that scares you because it is so different. You loved and married before, but it was not a love that made you want to think of D.G.B. in second place while this distinctly is. The first was selfish. You were going someplace and nothing should get in the way. Now you have been someplace and you don’t want to travel alone anymore. And it is rather wonderful and a little frightening to have a love that does all this to you at your age . . . . This, then is something that must be watched, protected, safeguarded. Bull, watch out for that china as you walk in the aisles.

I think it would please the Lord if a little topsoil were taken off and the bulb allowed to flower . . . . Watch your step lest Marge become a yes-woman. Delight when she says no in a good cause. Learn to listen when her spiritual perception catches something that is even slightly off-key.

Watch the growth of her feathers. She has flown for many years with wings clipped. . . . Encourage her to soar. You know that she has great capacities and will be hesitant because of past restraints. She probably doesn’t realize the heights of her possibilities. It will be up to you to lead her gently to greater and greater heights.

Now the modern women’s movement would undoubtedly consider the whole tone of this letter to be condescending, perhaps even chauvinistic. There’s nothing they hate more than the perception that a woman needs to be treated with any special deference by a man. But 99% of the women I know would give their right arm for a husband who saw gentleness as a top spiritual priority and practiced it.

Children, too, need to be treated with gentleness. Their spirits are so delicate, so easily bruised, and great damage can be done to their futures when father or mother do not understand gentleness.

Now the last piece of fruit is self-control.


Proverbs 25:28 says, “Like a city that is broken into and without walls is a man who has no control over his spirit.” Paul adds in I Cor. 9:25, “Everyone who competes in athletic competition exercises self-control in all things. Athletes do it to receive a perishable wreath; but we an imperishable one.”

What is self-control? It is the healthy regulation of our desires and appetites, avoiding harmful excesses. It is needed because we are bingers by nature. Some people binge on food, others on sleep, others on work, and others still on TV or golf. We need self-control of our bodies, self-control of our minds, and self-control of the emotions. The latter may be the most important in respect to our homes. Some of the emotions that need control are anger, resentment, self-pity, and bitterness. Solomon warned, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life.” When one allows his emotions to control his life, rather than exercising control over his emotions, the springs of life are polluted and great problems result.

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