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Does Character Really Matter?

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We commonly hear of people seeking wealth, power and prestige. How often do we hear of someone seeking to develop greater character? What can character do for you?


Character is in the news. Politicians are accusing each other of lying to their constituents. Businessmen are finding themselves in court, defending against charges of financial corruption. Religious leaders are under scrutiny for financial and personal sins that appear to violate the principles they preach. Sports fans are wondering which of their favorite athletes will next be found to have used illegal "performance-enhancing" drugs.

All of this raises the vital question: what is character, and how important a role should it play in public life? Is a leader's private behavior even relevant to his or her public performance?

Within the last decade, the United States has seen one President impeached, and another accused of lying in order to drum up support for war. Congressmen who preached "family values" have endured messy public scandals revealing that they did not practice what they preached. Yet elected officials are not the only ones caught up in questions of character; even some of the reporters covering political misconduct have themselves become caught up in scandals involving their own professional ethics.

In years past, there was a moral consensus in the U.S. and British-speaking nations regarding what constituted good character. Increasingly, however, we find that in our present day this moral consensus has largely broken down. Different segments of society hold widely diverging views as to what is acceptable behavior.

The example of the Boy Scouts of America illustrates how this moral consensus has changed over the course of the last century. 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 generation ago? Societal agreement about what constitutes good moral character has become so eroded in the last few 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 world and its institutions?

Attitudes Toward Character Development

In the more than two centuries since the U.S. was founded, there has been a great shift in public attitudes toward the importance of character development. In 1790, the U.S.' first President, George Washington, 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 most aspects of life, including child-rearing.

However, 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 human beings were viewed. No longer were men and women seen as having free choice; they were 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 mankind and its 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 human beings and of the factors that contribute to their 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 Great Depression and World War II brought a temporary slowdown in the pace at which values changed. But by the 1960s and 1970s, the pace of change had picked up speed once again, as "baby boomers" reared amid post-war affluence brought their new perspectives to bear on society. Over the last generation or two, these new perspectives have seen many urban areas turned into battle zones, and much of public education turned into an environment that fosters violence and disrespect for authority. These trends are making themselves felt even in highly selective environments, and in institutions that have long prided themselves on high test scores and honor codes.

The Cheating Game

From grade school to graduate school, it seems that students everywhere are cheating. In its November 22, 1999 issue, U.S. News & World Report ran a feature story on the role that cheating plays in American culture. In a USN&WR poll, 84 percent of college students said 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.

The USN&WR article goes on to point out studies showing that students who cheat are likely to make cheating a way of life as adults. Why should we be surprised that the workplace is full of adults who have lied on a resumé to get a job, then continue to lie about any number of other matters on the job? 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. Even most "religious" people—and their ministers—have long since moved away from talking seriously 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 crisis of character with which we are confronted.

Character and Leadership

The Bible says much about government, leadership and right character. In fact, these topics are very much intertwined. Declaring that human beings are not by nature good, but rather are 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.

When he appointed ancient Israel's magistrates, Moses recorded the essential criteria for leaders. First, they were to be capable of doing the job. Ability alone, however, was far from enough. Yes, leaders needed to have intelligence, and be able to analyze situations and deal with people. However, another attribute was vital. In addition to having capacity, the leaders of the nation were to be those who feared God, who loved truth and hated covetousness (Exodus 18:21).

The fear of God lies at the starting point of good character. Because God is not real to most people, they feel 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 his Lord, it means that he is deeply conscious of the reality of God, and seeks consciously to please God with his actions and attitudes.

Leaders who have this approach will not be for sale at any price! They will understand the profound meaning behind Jesus' question: "What will a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:26). Those who love truth and hate covetousness will pursue what is just and right, without seeking personal profit or advantage. Such leaders will not be swayed by opinion polls or potential financial gains when discerning which side of an issue to support, or what course of action to take.

In Proverbs 31, the king's mother admonishes her son about the virtues that are essential in rulers. She reminds him to "waste not your strength on women, your love on these destroyers of a king" (v. 3, Moffatt). 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" (vv. 4–5, 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, near the end of his life and his long reign over Israel, gave final advice to his son (and to all 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, without showing favoritism or taking advantage for personal benefit.

Producing Right Character

Right character is not simply a matter of knowing what is right; it requires 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 is perseverance in doing right—even when facing adversity. 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 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…" (Romans 5:3–4, Amplified Bible).

It is the struggle against adversity that deepens and solidifies our character. If we learn to make right choices even when those choices 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.

The Apostle John explained the great transcendent purpose behind character development. He wrote: "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" (1 John 3:1–3). When we recognize the great purpose that God has for us, we have every reason to seek to purify ourselves and to cooperate actively 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 members 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 to you? Regardless of how it may sound, 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 meant to prepare us for our ultimate destiny. At the resurrection, we are to be born into the universe-ruling family of God. To prepare us for that destiny, God reveals in Scripture the laws and principles that distinguish good from evil. Only through God's revelation can we truly know what is right and what is 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 so that we may 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 put our trials into perspective when he explained: "Our troubles are slight and short-lived; and their outcome an eternal glory which outweighs them far" (2 Corinthians 4:17, NEB). When we actually demonstrate our willingness to suffer for righteousness' sake as Jesus Christ did, God sees that we value eternal life with Him far more than we value anything this present world has to offer.

Individually and collectively, we are in the throes of a character crisis that no human legislation can solve. Most of mankind has forgotten its Maker, and utterly disregarded His "instruction manual" for human life. In our materialistic and self-indulgent age, people are taking the soft and easy path, avoiding suffering and hardship at all costs. "Values" are seen as financial measurements, rather than principles of right and wrong, or justice and injustice. But if each of us will come to understand the great purpose God is working out here on earth, we will come to understand why character really matters—and why it matters not only now, but forever!

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