must confess: I dislike driving. I’m nervous about merging into thick traffic, about trucks that tailgate, about the possibility of my old car breaking down and the two of us being stuck pathetically on the side of the road. But mostly, I dislike sitting at the wheel, unable to take a nap.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying a solitary road trip from New Mexico to Minnesota, a journey I’d been appropriately dreading. It was August, and my car does not have air-conditioning. I’d been imagining long afternoons of hot wind hitting my face and drowning out my book on tape.
As often happens, my fears were needless. What had been a hot, hot summer turned cool and overcast. I drove under gray skies and even put on a jacket. I drank yogurt, listened to compelling books, and watched the miles fall away in my rearview mirror.
In the morning I would be in one place, and by evening I would very vividly be in another. A landscape of piñon pines and cactus gave way to bluffs that gave way to evergreens that gave way to cornfields and pastures with cows. I could see the progress I was making. I could feel it in the weather. I could even hear it in the changing accents of gas attendants and motel receptionists.
There was no ambivalence about whether I was going somewhere. I could see my progress in the concrete certainty of numbers. The truth of both mathematics and maps promised that I was drawing ever nearer to my destination.
As I drove, I began to think that it’d certainly be handy if character development was as concrete and tangible. Imagine if you could reach visible, nonnegotiable benchmarks. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to graduate out of pettiness and into absolute kindness—with no danger of slipping back and forth from one moment to the next? Or to move permanently out of selfishness into altruism?
Perhaps that’s how it works for some people, but certainly not for me. I identify more with Paul, who said, “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing” (Rom. 7:18, 19).
If desire (and yes, even prayer) were enough, I’d be less judgmental and more patient, more encouraging, more generous. I’d be less materialistic. I’d worry less about money.
In fact, like the birds of the air or the flowers of the field, I wouldn’t care about it at all. And I’d think more before I spoke. I’d have a filter on my mouth or a 10-second pause between my reaction and my verbalization. I’d forgive easily and often. I’d be more diligent.
Unfortunately, character development is a more organic process. Have you ever tried to watch grass grow? Watching a character develop is perhaps even more illusive. There’s no earthly point where you can brush the dirt off your knees, clap your hands together, and say: “Well, that’s finished.”
Sometimes when I’m kicking myself for my stupidity, for saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing—I wish that others could peer into my heart and see my good intentions. They can’t, of course, and that’s the point I’m making. Most people are trying to become a better version of themselves, yet we tend to judge them based on what we see.* We seem to think of character development as a road trip; if only that person had driven longer, they would have reached their destination by now. We judge, and sometimes we judge harshly.
Perhaps the elder shouldn’t be so critical, perhaps the kids in the back of the church shouldn’t whisper during the sermon, perhaps the Sabbath school teacher shouldn’t get offended so easily, and on and on. I’m not arguing.
But imagine a church where people gave others the benefit of the doubt. Imagine a church where people reached out across generations and cultures and various levels of liberalness and conservativeness and looked for the best, not the worst.
Of course, learning not to judge is a character trait just like any other. But like all positive traits it is well worth cultivating. As Jesus advised, first work on taking the plank out of your own eye; then try to help your brother with the sawdust in his (see Matt. 7:1-5).
*Instinct can be protective. I’m not talking here about the kind of gut response that tells you not to trust someone with your child.
Sari Fordham is working on a postgraduate degree at the University of Minnesota.