Developing Christ-like Character in Grad School

writing photoRecently, I was pleased to write a recommendation for an outstanding 4th year medical student’s application for a residency program. I’ve been asked to write and review a number of recommendation letters over the years. While the letters I’ve written and read highlight a wide range of positive attributes, two characteristics have stood out to me lately. Supervisors recognize someone who is confident. For example: “she displays decisiveness.” They also value someone who is humble—“receptive to feedback,” and “shows respect and concern for others.” Confidence and humility are what author Andy Crouch refers to as being ‘Strong and Weak’—embracing authority and vulnerability.[1] Personally, I aspire to such traits, but I struggle to cultivate them in my own life. I want to be confident, but I sometimes feel inadequate. I desire humility, but I can be prideful or arrogant. Perhaps you struggle with the same tensions. Most of us can agree with Paul who wrote, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15 NIV).

Grad school can be a place where we struggle to find confidence and humility. Following Christ can help us in this pursuit. Christ-like confidence and humility are traits which come to us from God. Christians are on a lifelong spiritual journey to become more like Jesus in our hearts and our actions. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:5-8 NASB).

Let’s consider two aspects of Paul’s message. The first is confidence. In the passage, Christ has a strong sense of who he is, which enabled him to lay down his life for others. Professor Ruth Groenhout writes: “self-sacrifice, properly understood, requires that one have a robust sense of the value of the self that is to be emptied.”[2] A person must have confidence and a healthy sense of self in order to engage in self-sacrifice properly. Christ became a servant, not because he was forced to, but out of his own strength and free will. Thus we are told, “He humbled himself.”

The second point of the passage involves God’s humility. The opening phrase is often translated ‘although he was God, he emptied himself.’ In this translation, God is like an earthly monarch who gave up his regal status for us. Some scholars suggest that a more nuanced translation might be ‘because Jesus was God, he emptied himself.’ [3] In this alternate translation, God, the all-powerful, all-knowing force behind creation, is most authentically known— astonishingly, through his humility. Professor Gordon Fee explains:

In Christ Jesus God has shown his true nature, this is what it means for Christ to be “equal with God” – to pour himself out for the sake of others and to do so by taking the role of a slave. Hereby he not only reveals the character of God but also reveals what it means for us to be created in God’s image, to bear his likeness and have his mindset. It means taking the role of the slave for the sake of others.[4]

Because Jesus is God, he acted in a manner that was consistent with God’s humble character and took on the role of a servant. Thus, God revealed his truest self through his great love and sacrifice for us. How do we apply these lessons in everyday life? In the next section, I offer a few suggestions for growing in Christ-like character.

  • Find your Identity in Christ. Paul’s passage gives us a glimpse of God’s character. Get to know this God for yourself. Pray, read your Bible, and have honest conversations with God. Prayer may come easily for you, or you may find it difficult. You may not even be certain if God exists. Pray anyway. Your prayers don’t need to be theologically sophisticated or eloquent. They need to be honest, heartfelt, and open. Ask for God’s strength to persevere and overcome obstacles. Find your identity in him. A seminary professor put it this way:

It is more than what you know, what and where you have studied, and what skills you’ve developed. Ministry (doing) flows out of being. Deeper humility also results from finding one’s identity in Christ. Crosscultural servanthood arises out of your very identity in Christ, not your academic training or professional skills.[5]

  • Embrace the Struggle. Realize that the development of character requires a long-term commitment. Although sometimes frustrating, the trials of grad school and academia can be challenges that actually help us to develop character. In my own journey, I sometimes feel further along the continuum of spiritual growth—and sometimes not. I’m beginning to understand that we don’t achieve a character milestone and not have to worry about it anymore. Author David Brooks says that character is ingrained slowly over time in our struggle against weakness, through a thousand small acts of self-control, service, and friendship.[6] We must consistently choose to recognize who we are in Christ and act humbly toward others.
  • Commit to a faith community. Join a small group through your local church or campus ministry. Pride can lead us to withdraw from others. It takes humility to become part of a close-knit community. Friends can be an important source of encouragement and support when we experience doubt. They can also provide a reality check when we are tempted by unhealthy ambitions.
  • Make peace with your past. Developing Christ-like character involves coming to terms with one’s past. Pride can lead us to hold on to past times when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly. This can rob us of hope and optimism for the future. Confident yet humble followers of Jesus have learned to practice forgiveness. They aren’t holding onto grudges or seeking apologies for past offenses. Forgiveness allows a person to move forward with life experience that informs, but does not control his or her future.
  • Dedicate your education to God. Reflect on how the knowledge, skills and professional expertise you are gaining in grad school may fit into God’s bigger purposes. Take time to experience God’s heart for the poor, marginalized and vulnerable. You may come to realize that grad school and your overall spiritual journey are part of God’s plan to bless others. Knowing you have a role in God’s bigger picture can help to give you confidence, fresh insights, and a deeper life perspective.

Conclusion

Growing in Christ-like character is not always easy. Confidence can be undermined by thoughts of inadequacy. Humble actions can be undone by pride. God is faithful in helping us to grow to be more like Christ. When we allow him to work in our lives, we can more fully become who God intends and be a blessing to others.

Appendix: Small Group Discussion Questions

1.     Describe a team you have been on. It could be in sports, science, music, or in a work or volunteer setting. What were some good characteristics you observed in a teammate or co-worker? What were not so good characteristics?

2.     Which good qualities have you seen in yourself? Share a positive example of a time when you acted with confidence or humility.

3.     ‘Impostor syndrome’ involves feelings of insecurity despite one’s achievements. Have you ever struggled with such thoughts? Explain.

4.     Have you ever struggled with thoughts of pride or arrogance? Explain.

5.     Spend some time reflecting on Philippians 2:5-11. Discuss the following:

  • Consider the phrase he humbled himself. How does this differ from someone being humbled by others?
  • How does the passage’s meaning differ in translations using although and because?

6.     Discuss possible ways God may lead you in the upcoming year. Pray and ask for God’s help in these or other areas of your life:

  • Getting to know God
  • Becoming part of a faith community
  • Making peace with your past
  • Dedicating your education to God
  • Serving others

Notes

     [1] Crouch, Andy. Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2016.

     [2] Hannah R. Stewart, “Self-Emptying and Sacrifice: A Feminist Critique of Kenosis in Philippians 2.” Colloquium 44, no. 1 (2012): 105-107.

     [3] A growing interpretation is that the cross is a theophany which reveals God’s essential attributes. Thus, Christ as described in Philippians 2:5-11 reveals who God is. For more information, see writings by biblical scholars Michael J. Gorman, N. T. Wright, C. F. D. Moule, Gerald Hawthorne, Markus Bockmuehl, and Richard Bauckham.

     [4] Gordon D. Fee, Philippians. The IVP New Testament commentary series 11. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 96.

     [5] Stephen Hoke and William David Taylor, eds., Global Mission Handbook : a Guide for Crosscultural Service (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2009), 40.

     [6] Brooks, David. The Road to Character. New York, New York: Random House, 2016.


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Scott Santibanez

Tito Scott Santibañez is an adjunct professor at Emory University and Trinity School for Ministry. As a volunteer physician, he has provided medical care for underserved populations for nearly 25 years. He also has a doctorate from seminary.

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