Politicians accuse their opponents of lacking character, and the press routinely exposes character flaws of athletes, entertainers and executives. Some say that private behavior is not relevant to public performance, and that character does not matter. But what does your Bible say?
Character is in the news. Many politicians are spending large sums of money trying to convince the electorate that they have more character than their opponents. These politicians are debating about what constitutes character and how important a role it should play in public life. Some are even claiming that private behavior is really irrelevant to public performance and should not be considered at all.
Issues of character have not been limited to politicians, however. From sports figures and entertainers to military leaders and corporate executives, scandals and even criminal charges have raised the issue of character in all phases of national life.
In the last few years, events in the political arena have focused national attention on character in a special way, as an American President has been impeached and has been subjected to disbarment proceedings in his home state. Yet he has not been the only one caught practicing immorality in high office; several of his congressional critics have turned out to have preached family values far better than they have practiced them.
What is the relevance of personal character to public life? As the United States approaches the selection of a new president and congress, the issue of character has been debated again and again. What are the ingredients of good character? What aspects of character are particularly important for the leaders of communities and nations?
There once was a moral consensus regarding what constituted good character, yet we increasingly find that the moral consensus in the Western world has broken down. Different segments of society often hold widely divergent views about what is acceptable behavior.
This is clearly illustrated by the controversy that recently embroiled the Boy Scouts of America. The Scouting movement had its origin early in the 20th century through the efforts of British military leader Lord Baden-Powell. It was designed from the start as a character-building institution for boys. Scouting was intended to produce young men who were "trustworthy, loyal, kind, brave, clean and reverent." Yet for several years the Boy Scouts were locked in a court battle over whether they had to accept acknowledged homosexuals as Scoutmasters. Can you imagine such an issue even being a controversy a mere 25 years ago? Societal agreement about what constitutes good moral character has become so eroded in the last three to four decades that it is hard to get a wide range of agreement on anything. It seems that tolerance is increasingly being touted as the chief, and perhaps only, virtue.
How can we even discuss the issue of character without a clear-cut definition of right and wrong? When all is said and done, does character really matter? Is there any overriding reason for the development of right character, beyond merely clearing up the scandals that grip our nation and its institutions?
Since our nation's beginning, there has been a great shift in public attitudes toward character development and its importance. George Washington, America's first President, in 1790 wrote to his nephew that, "a good moral character is the first essential in a man." Throughout the 19th century this emphasis persisted, and was reflected in childrearing.
Yet by the end of World War I the emphasis had shifted remarkably. Noted Harvard professor and criminologist James Q. Wilson called attention to this shift in his book, On Character. "In 1890, 1900, and 1910 one-third of the child-rearing articles published in a sample of articles from the Ladies Home Journal, Women's Home Companion, and Good Housekeeping were about character development; in 1920 only 3 percent were. Personality development had taken its place" (p. 3).
Why did this change occur? One key reason was the change in how man was viewed. No longer was he seen as having free choice; he was increasingly seen as merely the product of various external stimuli. Far-seeing educator and social commentator Richard Weaver noted: "The social philosophers of the nineteenth century found in Darwin powerful support for their thesis that human beings act always out of economic incentives, and it was they who completed the abolishment of freedom of the will. The great pageant of history thus became reducible to the economic endeavors of individuals and classes… Man created in the divine image… was replaced by man the wealth-seeking and—consuming animal" (Ideas Have Consequences, p. 6).
New ideas about man and his nature had been the subject of philosophical speculation in both the 18th and 19th centuries, but did not really penetrate the popular mind until shortly after World War I. The writings of men like Sigmund Freud and John Dewey popularized a new view of man and of the factors that contribute to his proper development. The post-war atmosphere of the "roaring twenties," with its emphasis on being "modern," provided fertile soil in which these views thrived.
These new ideas had their origin in the philosophy of ethical optimism, which "…taught that man has a natural moral sense which can be relied on not only to recognize virtue but to delight in it" (Weaver, pp. 79-80). This approach leads away from discipline and toward impulsive individualism. Weaver noted this trend and its outcome: "Egotism in work and art," he wrote, "is the flowering, after long growth, of a heresy about human destiny. Its abhorrence of discipline and form is usually grouped with the signs of 'progress.' It is progress for those who neither have a sense of direction nor want responsibility. Their heresy is that man's destiny in the world is not to perfect himself but to lean back in sensual enjoyment" (p. 91).
The rapidly changing mores of society, slowed down by the Great Depression and World War II, picked up speed again during the 1960s and 1970s. The same trends have turned many of our urban streets into battle zones and have produced a public school system increasingly characterized by a climate of violence and disrespect for authority. These trends are making themselves felt even in highly selective environments, even in institutions that have long prided themselves on their honor codes.
From grade school to graduate school, it seems that everyone is cheating. In its November 22, 1999 issue, U.S. News & World Report magazine ran a feature story on the role that cheating plays in American culture. According to a USN&WR poll, 84 percent of college students believe that they need to cheat to get ahead in the world today. Ninety percent of college students do not think that cheaters will ever really pay the price for their actions.
Students who cheat are likely to make cheating a way of life as adults, according to studies cited by USN&WR. Why should we be surprised that the workplace is full of adults who have lied about job experience and continue to lie about any number of other matters? And if they will lie, they will steal! Several years ago, a University of Southern California study estimated that employee theft costs retail stores about 16 million dollars a day!
Recognizing the correlation between student cheating and future job performance, the U.S. Air Force Academy was shaken several years ago in the wake of a cheating scandal. The aftermath of the scandal led the academy to establish, in July 1993, a Center for Character Development. General Patrick Gamble, the cadet commandant at the academy, told the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph why this seemed to be necessary at the time: "The raw material is not coming in the door with the same values that our grandparents and parents taught us 30, 35 years ago."
Why not? Because character cannot exist in a moral vacuum! At the bedrock of right character has to be a clear-cut sense of right and wrong. Popular religion has long since moved away from talking about sin. Such talk is viewed as judgmental, and has been replaced by platitudes helping people to "accept themselves" and to "feel better about who they are." The Bible has increasingly been ignored, and the result is the national crisis of character with which we are confronted.
The Bible says much about government, leadership and right character. In fact, they are very much intertwined. Declaring that man is not by nature good, but rather is a mixture of good and evil, the Bible lays out in clear terms the distinction between right and wrong. It also defines the virtues that are necessary for those who would lead others, whether a husband leading his family or a ruler leading a nation.
Moses, when he appointed ancient Israel's magistrates, recorded the essential criteria for leaders. First they were to be capable men who were able to do the job. Ability alone, however, was far from enough. While intelligence, the ability to analyze situations and the ability to deal with people were all-important, something else was also vital. In addition to having innate capacity, the leaders of the nation were to be men who feared God. They were to be men of truth who hated covetousness (Exodus 18:21).
The fear of God lies at the starting point of good character. Because God is not real to people, they are emboldened to do whatever they believe that they can get away with. Proper fear of God means to hold Him and His ways in awe and reverence. It involves deep, abiding respect for the Creator and Judge of the universe. When an individual lives his life in the fear of the Lord, it means that he is deeply conscious of the reality of God and seeks consciously to please God with his actions and attitudes.
As Moses understood, leaders who fear God will love truth and hate covetousness. Such men will not be for sale at any price! They will understand the profound truth of Jesus' statement in Matthew 16:26: "what will a man give in exchange for his soul?" Loving truth and hating covetousness are crucial to pursuing what is just and right without regard to personal profit or advantage. Such a leader will not be taking an opinion poll to find out which side of an issue he should support.
In Proverbs 31, the king's mother admonishes her son about the virtues that are essential in rulers. She reminds him in verse 3 to "waste not your strength on women, your love on these destroyers of a king" (Moffatt). In verses 4 and 5 she admonishes him that it is not "…for rulers to desire strong drink; lest they drink and forget what has been decreed, and pervert the rights of all the afflicted" (RSV). How many leaders have failed because they lacked the character to say no to their lusts? Sexual immorality and alcohol abuse have destroyed the effectiveness of many. Lacking the character to rule themselves, they have sought instead to master and rule others. The corruption and injustices so prevalent in our society are, to a great extent, the products of self-indulgent leaders. When leaders lack character, the institutions they guide will reflect it and will suffer accordingly.
King David, at the end of his life and his long reign over Israel, gave final advice to his son and to all of the rulers who would come after him. In 2 Samuel 23:3, he emphasized that those who rule over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God. This is a matter of character, and right character begins with fear and awe of the great God. Living life in deep awe and awareness of the presence of God will lead to treating others fairly; not showing favoritism and taking advantage for personal benefit.
Right character is not simply about knowing what is right; it is about doing what is right! We can identify three primary ingredients necessary to the development of good character. The first is knowledge of what is right and virtuous, the second is habitual practice of what is right and the third involves the presence of adversity and trial. It is one thing to practice doing the right thing when it is convenient or even advantageous. It is quite another to do what is right in the midst of stresses and pressures to compromise or to give up. The Apostle Paul explains in Romans 5:3-4: "…that pressure and affliction and hardship produce patient and unswerving endurance. And endurance (fortitude) develops maturity of character—that is approved faith and tried integrity…" (Amplified Bible).
It is the struggle against adversity that hardens and solidifies our character. If we learn to make right choices even when they seem to be to our immediate detriment, we are developing the long-term view that lies at the heart of right character. This view is based upon an understanding of the ultimate reason why right character is so important.
In 1 John 3:1-3, the Apostle John explains the great, transcendent purpose behind character development. He writes: "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God… Beloved, now we are children of God… but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure." When we recognize the great purpose that God has for us, we have every reason to seek to purify ourselves and to actively cooperate with God in the development of His holy, righteous character within us. We understand that when Jesus Christ returns to this earth in power and glory, we are to be glorified with Him, as a part of His family. After all, God is bringing MANY sons unto glory (Hebrews 2:10).
God's very purpose for placing mankind upon this earth, created in His own image, is that we might some day be born into His very family as real sons and daughters (Romans 8:16-19; 2 Corinthians 6:17-18). Does this sound strange or even blasphemous? Regardless of how it may sound to you, it is the plain and simple truth straight from your Bible! True Christians are to be shaped and molded to conform to the very character of Jesus Christ Himself, for Christ is accounted as the firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29).
The returned Christ is to reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. Who are the kings that will reign under Him? Revelation 20:6 and other scriptures make plain that it is the resurrected saints who will literally rule over the cities and kingdoms of this earth.
The Christian life is to prepare us for our ultimate destiny. We are to be born into the universe-ruling family of God at the resurrection. In order to prepare us for that destiny, God reveals in His word the laws and principles that distinguish good from evil. Only through God's revelation can we truly know what is right and wrong. God offers all of mankind forgiveness for past sins upon coming to Him through Jesus Christ in a spirit of faith and repentance. He then offers us His Holy Spirit to enable us to share in His very nature (2 Peter 1:4). Through that Spirit He actually begins to inscribe His laws into our minds and hearts (Hebrews 8:10). We are admonished to be followers—imitators—of Jesus Christ in our daily lives (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Right knowledge and the habitual practice of that right knowledge are the first two steps toward developing righteous character. Then comes the third ingredient necessary to "set" our character—the trials and adversities of life. The Apostle Paul puts our trials into perspective by explaining: "Our troubles are slight and short-lived; and their outcome an eternal glory which outweighs them far" (2 Corinthians 4:17, NEB). By demonstrating to God that we are willing to suffer for righteousness sake as Jesus Christ did, we show Him that we value life with Him far above all of the blandishments of today's world.
Our nation and our world are in the throes of a character crisis. This fall's election will not solve that crisis! Our people have forgotten their Maker and they have disregarded His instruction book. In this materialistic and self-indulgent age, they have increasingly taken what they consider the soft and easy way. Suffering and hardship have been viewed as something to be avoided at all costs. Value has been measured in dollars and cents, not in right and wrong or justice and injustice.
If we understand the great purpose being worked out here below, then we will understand why character really matters. And we will realize that it not only matters now—it matters forever!