For years I’ve been haunted by one of John Newton’s letters, which was later titled “Blemishes in Christian Character.” Newton was an 18th century Anglican minister who had once been a slave trader. After a dramatic conversion, he went into the ministry and became one of the wisest and most insightful pastors of his time. His hundreds of pastoral letters are masterful and many are in print to this day.
In the letter I’ve referred to, Newton points out that while most Christians succeed in avoiding the more gross external sins, many nonetheless overlook blemishes on their character by passing them off as mere “foibles.” 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. While our faults always seem small to us due to the natural self-justification of the heart, they often don’t look so small to others. As a result, these “small faults” cause large swaths of the Christian population to have little influence on others for Christ. Newton lists these faults that we tolerate in ourselves, and which do great damage to our public witness as well as to our relationships within the Body of Christ.
Over the years I’ve gone back again and again to this list in the manner he directs—for self-examination, not as a way to find fault with others. As I have done so 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 for better discernment. Here I’ll share my expanded list—based heavily on 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, but also impulsive and impatient, not thinking things through, speaking too soon, always quick to complain and lodge a protest, often needing to apologize for rash statements.
Querulus is a person of strong convictions, but known to be very opinionated, a poor listener, argumentative, not very teachable, and very slow to admit they were 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 his or her feelings hurt, easily feels slighted and put down, is often offended and upset by real and imagined criticism by others.
Curiosus is very sociable, but enjoys knowing negative things about people, finds ways of passing the news on, may divulge confidences, and enjoys confrontation too much.
Volatilis is very kind-hearted and eager to help, but simply not reliable—isn’t punctual, doesn’t follow through on promises, is always over-extended, and as a result may do shoddy work.
Let’s end this post as Newton does his letter: “Other improprieties of conduct, which lessen the influence and spot the profession of some who wish well to the cause of Christ, might be enumerated, but these may suffice for a specimen.”