Some Christian writers believe that their characters should sprout wings—or at least tote a halo throughout the book. Others, taking the negative approach, think their characters should be devils who transform into angels (undoubtedly due to a five-minute conversation in which the understanding of spiritual realities is suddenly knocked into them). If our characters resided in heaven, this stance would be acceptable—but they don’t, and it’s about time we pushed them off the cliff into reality.
But how do we keep from shoving them too far? Is it possible to guide readers toward the right decisions if our characters choose the wrong ones? How can a character be both godly and flawed? God’s Word is filled with records of believers’ faults and sins. Yet, God often presents these people as examples to follow. If God can use imperfect humans as godly examples, why can’t we use imperfect characters?
The book of Job offers a wonderful illustration of how to blend spiritual strength with spiritual weakness in the heart of a Christian character.
Job’s Strengths and Weaknesses
Job appeared to be a perfect being. God Himself declared “there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil” (Job 1:8). The worst Satan could condemn Job for was serving God for materialistic purposes. Even when all his possessions were destroyed, consumed, or stolen, and his children killed, he worshiped God and surrendered to His will. As Scripture verifies, “through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God” (1:22). Later, when his skin was smitten with boils, his wife told him to curse God so that his life (and thus his pain) would end. Nevertheless, he refused, believing he should accept blessings from God as well as adversity.
In Job’s case, God certainly exemplified the principle of making numerous catastrophes happen to a character. But Job clung to his faith even when His Author seemed to be writing new agonies every paragraph. He knew his Redeemer lived, and he treasured God’s Word. He displayed more confidence than most of us when he said, “though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (13:15).
You may be wondering how someone so upright and devout could have anything but a flat arc. What could such a wise sage need to learn? How could he possibly have any faults? At first glance, he doesn’t appear to have any. But if you peer closer, you’ll notice that his clothes are not as white as they seem.
Job may not have questioned God’s existence, power, or wisdom, but he doubted God’s fairness in allowing the righteous to suffer (9:20, 10:3–7). He asked if it was right for God to look favorably on the wicked (10:3).
Secondly, he wanted to debate with God and justify himself when it would’ve been better for him to silently wait for vindication (9:32, 23:1–6). He accused God of indifference: “If I called and He answered me, I could not believe that He was listening to my voice” (9:16). He thought God was severe enough to make him inherit the iniquities of his youth (13:26). In addition to all this, Job became so pessimistic that he made Puddleglum look like a ray of sunshine. He loathed his life, cursed his birth, and wished he had never set foot on earth (Job 3).
Lastly, Job formed the wrong conclusion about God and himself. He assumed the hand of God had struck him and always referred to his afflictions as coming from the Lord (19:8–22) rather than from their true source, Satan. Since he could find no other explanation, he was forced to agree with his friends’ simplistic notion of retribution and thought his suffering must be punishment for an unknown sin he had committed (7:21, 13:23).
Applying This to Our Characters
The book of Job teaches us many lessons. One of them is that even the most moral person still needs to grow. Other biblical figures such as David, Peter, and Jonah attest to this. However, Job’s weaknesses were more internal struggles than outward actions. Unlike David’s adultery, Peter’s denial, and Jonah’s reluctance, Job’s sins were imperceptible on the surface. Similarly, most of you reading this have not (I hope) committed anything too dastardly. You are honest citizens and faithful churchgoers. But we’re born sinners, and we’ll continue to wrestle with our flesh even after we’re born again. Sin subtly creeps into our words, thoughts, and feelings.
The concept is the same when we create Christian characters. Readers will more easily identify with a character struggling to trust God than with a character who steals. They will more likely sympathize with a protagonist who has an angry outburst than with one who recently stabbed an opponent.
The primary issues Job struggled with were linked to his emotions. His melancholia instigated his doubts and shook his faith’s foundation. His confusion propelled his beliefs in the wrong direction. All sin (large and small) begins in the heart. Eve’s initial sin was doubting God and it caused her to eat the forbidden fruit. This is why Jesus said, “for out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man” (Matthew 15:19–20, emphasis added). If you can give your character only one imperfection, let it be connected to his emotions. If your characters don’t experience the normal battle of emotions, readers won’t be able to empathize. Your characters are Christians, not stoics, and it’s downright unnatural for them to be benevolent when they’re getting pounded with a club.
The other lesson Job teaches is how a believer can be strong and weak simultaneously. Job acknowledged many of God’s attributes but doubted others. His dialogue was seasoned with profound insight and wisdom, but also with foolish presumptions (40:3–5, 42:3). His faith remained firm, but some of his doctrinal beliefs began to crack.
Likewise, characters should have an equal amount of negative and positive traits. For example, your character is thrust into prison on false charges. He successfully resists falling into the habits of his fellow inmates, but anger starts burning inside, and he doubts God’s love. Or maybe your character accepts a job promotion. He trusts God wholeheartedly and praises Him profusely, but to keep his job he compromises on a few doctrinal points. Basically, your character should have one foot firmly planted while the other is slipping.
To flesh out your character’s strengths and weaknesses, ask yourself these questions: What is one truth your character steadfastly believes? Why does he/she cling to it and not another? How do the outward circumstances threaten those beliefs? What is one temptation your character will never succumb to? What makes him/her so resistant to it? What sin is your character struggling with? How does that relate to his/her emotional/internal struggle?
How This Glorifies God and Edifies Readers
If Job had been perfect, he wouldn’t have repented in dust and ashes (42:6). If his beliefs were entirely correct, God wouldn’t have needed to answer him out of the whirlwind. Job’s faith seemed tenuous at times. Yet he is still considered a godly example (Ezekiel 14:14, James 5:11). How can this be? How could God praise Peter and build His church upon him when he was also used by Satan? How could either of these men be included in the hall of faith? Because their sins did not overrule their faith.
If your characters don’t have sin, their faith can’t overcome it and then readers will never know the power of good versus evil. If Job had been flawless, the story would have lost its impact—neither he, his friends, nor us would’ve learned anything. His failings highlighted God’s power. Your characters will actually magnify God more when they’re flawed and insufficient because this forces them to rely on the One who can make them sufficient.
Your characters don’t have to live in Eden to glorify God. Like Job, they can blaze a path of purity for readers even while they’re tripping over ruts. In the end, Job still wasn’t perfect and our characters won’t be either. But God didn’t place us here to make our characters—or readers—perfect. That’s His job, and He’ll accomplish that when He returns to earth. However, we can use our stories to guide readers toward sanctification and bring them one step closer to heaven by showing them the brokenness of their own ladder.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 16, 2018. Updated July 8, 2021.
Mariposa Aristeo is a writer of quirky characters and fantastical adventures filled with heart, humor, hope, and, very often, dinosaurs. If you can’t find her in one of her own imaginary worlds, try combing the pages of a great middle-grade fantasy novel.
At Story Embers, igniting (and sometimes imploding) ideas is her favorite pastime, so she often uses her creativity to make graphics for articles and writing quotes, as well as implement new strategies for SE’s social media channels. Explosions aside, she loves getting to know each and every writer here at SE by running the popular #embersgram hashtag on Instagram and responding to your questions and emails.
Besides being a co-owner of Story Embers, Mariposa is an ACFW First Impressions contest finalist, a children’s book illustrator, and the host of the IGTV series #middlegrademagicwithmari. You can check out her book recommendations (and shenanigans) on her Instagram page or her character sketches on her art account.