For decades Kathy and I have profited immensely from the pastoral wisdom of the converted slave trader John Newton. As an 18th-century Anglican minister, Newton was a good preacher, but it was as a pastor, counselor, and adviser that he excelled. His pastoral letters are a treasure chest. In one of his letters (entitled “Some Blemishes on Christian Character”) Newton points out that while most Christians succeed in avoiding more gross sins, many do not actually experience much in the way of actual spiritual growth.
Newton lays out a convicting and specific example of the kinds of Christian people who coast on their strengths but do nothing about their weaknesses and so rob themselves and others of joy and God of his glory. These blemishes are often seen by their bearers as mere “foibles.” Newton says they “may not seem to violate any express command of Scripture” and yet, they are “properly sinful” because they are the opposite of the fruit of the Spirit that believers are supposed to exhibit.
These “small faults” mean that large swaths of the Christian population have little influence on others for Christ. While our faults always seem small to us due to the natural self-justification of the heart, you can be sure they don't look so small to others.
Over the years I've gone back again and again to this list in the manner he directs to use in my personal self-examination (not as a way to find fault with others). As a result I've seen things in myself that I've sought to stamp out with God's grace. And as I've worked through the list I've expanded it—often breaking some of his larger categories into smaller ones in order to be more incisive.
Here I'll share my expanded list—based heavily on his Newton's original one. Since Newton gave each case study a slightly humorous Latin name, I've done the same.
Austerus is a solid and disciplined Christian but abrasive, critical, and ungenerous in dealing with people, temperamental, seldom giving compliments and praise, and almost never gentle.
Infitialis is a person of careful and deliberate character but habitually cynical, negative, and pessimistic, always discouraging (“that will never work”), unsupportive, and vaguely unhappy.
Pulsus is passionate, yes, but also impulsive and impatient, not thinking things out, speaking too soon, always quick to complain and lodge a protest, often needs to apologize for rash statements.
Querulus is a person of strong convictions, but known to be opinionated, a poor listener, argumentative, not very teachable, and slow to admit wrong.
Subjectio is a resourceful and ambitious person, but also someone who often shades the truth, puts a lot of spin on things (close to misrepresentation), is very partisan, self-promoting, and turf-conscious.
Potestas gets things done but needs to control every situation, has trouble sharing power, has a need to do everything him or herself, and is very suspicious and mistrustful of others.
Fragilis is friendly and seeks friends, but constantly gets feelings hurt, easily feels slighted and put down, is often offended and upset by real and imagined criticism by others.
Curiosus is sociable but enjoys knowing negative things about people, finds ways of passing the news on, may divulge confidences, and enjoys confronting too much.
Volatilis is kind-hearted and eager to help, but simply not reliable—isn't punctual, doesn't follow through on promises, always over-extended, and as a result may do shoddy work.
Look at these and ask which one or two most describe you. Have the courage to ask someone else you know, too. In future articles we'll look both at why so many of us seem to be stuck in these character flaws instead of growing and changing to be of more godly character.
This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church's monthly Redeemer Report.