Whatever happened to character?

Sharper Focus

I recently came across this quote from Booker T. Washington, “Character, not circumstances, makes the man,” (1) and it immediately struck a chord with me. I had been hearing in the news about people with questionable character—seemingly good people—who made wrong decisions and exposed themselves to society as corrupt people. I had been thinking about the things that drive people to abandon moral values—power, status, peer pressure, desire to win at any cost, greed, jealousy—and how easily we succumb to seemingly uncontrollable urges. Our culture seems to have deserted and discarded basic moral values in favor of convenience and expediency.

Everywhere and every day, people stoop to further their careers or gain advantage over others. Sadly, conduct that once was considered reprehensible is now accepted as routine, something everyone does. Behaviors such as cheating on exams and tax returns, cheating on spouses, or simply betraying a trust are rampant. It is in the news daily—CEOs, CFOs, politicians, television personalities, teachers and even church leaders, exposed for unethical and unabashed conduct. The cry emerges—whatever happened to character?

The ethical behavior of community leaders helps set the tone for societal norms. As communal creatures, we feel justified in responding in kind or mirroring the standards of our leaders. We have a society where the ethos seems to be that we compromise conscience, convictions, and yes, even compromise Christ. Character, that essential criterion, has been covered up, messed up and recklessly abandoned; character, originally conceived in biblical thought, cemented by Christian ethics and once crocheted into the needlework of life, has been erased like a virus from our hard drive.

The irony is that our personal character is a prime asset that we should judiciously guard, a resource built up over time, available as a safety net for difficult times, but easily forfeited with a single immoral act.

There is hope! I believe we are at the beginning of a gentle wind of change in societal circles; one that will challenge timeworn conventions about success and life and in their place reinstitute a theology of moral behavior and character. We all know what character is, even though we may not precisely define it. It is character that causes us to show reverence for life and property; character, not based on inheritance, position, national origin, ethnicity, function, or wealth, but according to our calling in Christ, that causes us to handle relationships with dignity and foster trustworthiness, respect and accountability.

John 16:13 reminds us that the Spirit “guides us into all truth.” He troubles the conscience, causes us to love unconditionally and not exploit others, and reminds us to be careful about how we use our authority, always “in honor preferring one another.” (Romans 12:10 KJV) Our “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:5 NIV)

We must lead with humility, live with integrity and walk with security, submitting to the Holy Spirit. We must gladly apply the truth of God’s Word and intricately weave it into the very fabric of our living, so that every step we take, every move we make, reflects every single day, the Lord we serve.

Character is a quality of spirit that exists within each of us. How we respond to the circumstances and opportunities of life reveals the content of our character. Character, where the substance is not who we are, but whose we are; character, where life it is not based on how we do, but how we live; character, where significance is not on where we work, but if the Holy Spirit is at work in us. We can choose to submerge into a lifestyle of elastic compliance to the unhealthy norms of this world, or we can choose to live according to God’s standard and be people of character. Which will it be?

“Character, not circumstances, makes theman.”

1 Booker T. Washington, “Democracy and Education,” address before the Institute of Arts and Sciences Brooklyn, New York, September 30, 1896.

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