by Dr. Michael Firmin
ESTABLISHING A COMMITMENT TO CHRISTIAN CHARACTER
The term “character” is a construct, meaning that it denotes a quality that we assume exists—but it is very difficult to define in concrete terms. Other examples of constructs include words such as justice, intelligence, dignity, and beauty. No reasonable person denies the existence of these dynamics. Nonetheless, it is very difficult to define them in absolute and concrete terms. Within this challenging context, here I address the notion of “character” as it relates to the Christian life.
ALL BELIEVE IN THE IDEAL OF CHARACTER
Christians generally agree that (a) character is an important construct and that (b) character is a value to the Christian life. You never hear pastors or other Christian leaders preach against character or read articles advocating that Christians should not possess character. To the contrary, character is a touchstone quality that both deserves and receives apt attention in Christian circles. But what does it mean to possess character and what does that practically look like? If Christians genuinely desire to be people of character, then how do we take affirmative steps toward that end? While a plenary answer would require a book, and not an article, with the present space I will help provide answers to these questions by addressing the following dynamics.
CHARACTER INVOLVES COMMITMENT TO AN IDENTIFIABLE SET OF CORE VIRTUOUS BELIEFS
The notion of character is not a Christian idea. Some unbelievers possess character that is equal-to-and/or-better than some believers. For example, most West Point graduates who I personally know generally have “good character.” The training that they received at the military academy developed within them a character ethic. Not everyone who begins at the academy graduates; but those who do—generally learn character development. However, obviously not all West Point graduates are believers. Character is not the same as “spirituality;” rather, the construct means something different.
An essential element regarding character involves possessing a consistent commitment to an identified core of virtuous beliefs. In the case of, say, West Point graduates—they commit themselves to core virtuous beliefs such as honesty, integrity, hard work, perseverance, and the like. In the case of Christian character, believers commit themselves to the principles contained in the Bible. Consistent commitment to these identified set of core beliefs comprises a lifestyle that reflects good character. Obviously, the Bible contains much more than a code of character principles; nonetheless, Christians develop character qualities as they obey the character-building precepts contained in Scripture.
CHARACTER INVOLVES APPLYING CORE BELIEFS IN SELFLESS-TYPE WAYS
An important hallmark of exercising good character is that individuals behave in unselfish ways. Holding-open the door for somebody, for example, often is considered exercising “good character.” Saving some pizza for late-arriving-friends (not eating it all yourself) is another example. The point is that individuals possessing character commit themselves to virtuous beliefs regarding unselfishness—but they move beyond the beliefs—and show actions in tangible ways. Holding up an umbrella for somebody in the rain might mean that the umbrella-owner becomes wet. It is a commitment to the belief that oneself is not paramount—rather, it is the good of others that deserves due personal attention; these dynamics embody showing good character.
CHARACTER INVOLVES TAKING ACTION CONSISTENT WITH CORE BELIEFS, IRRESPECTIVE OF PERSONAL COMFORT
Character entails more than just doing kind things for others. Rather, character involves possessing a set of core virtuous beliefs that one exercises in a selfless manner, even when doing so mitigates against personal comfort or personal gain. Holding the door open for both attractive and unattractive individuals, opening an umbrella for another when it means your hair may consequently look poorly, and paying a lunch bill when having been unexpectedly ditched by a friend are a few examples of being selfless—even when it costs personal comfort or gain. Nice and kind people treat others well when apt motivation exists for doing so. Character, in contrast, results in doing well by others—even without positive reinforcement; the charter-motivation comes from a desire to consistently apply a set of virtuous beliefs to which one is committed.
So how does this notion of Christian character relate to daily living? I make three suggestions: (1) Commit yourself to adopting the Bible as the set of virtuous beliefs to which you are committed. The Bible is the book that instructs us regarding salvation—and much more. It is the book that provides the daily principles to which we are committed to obey. (2) Adopt selflessness as a general way-of-life. Philippians 2:3-4 explains that Christ exemplified this protocol as the model for our daily lives. We exist on planet earth in order to serve and minister to others’ needs—not our own. In the process of so doing, we will exercise good character (3) Exercise Christian character by applying biblical principles, when it is convenient to do so—and also when it is not convenient. If graduates of West Point can set aside their personal whims and defer to servicing others during challenging circumstances—then how much more should Christians—who have the love of Christ constraining us to daily act in this manner (2 Corinthians 5:14).
Dr. Firmin is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Cedarville University in Cedarville Ohio, having taught college for 30 years, and presently serves as a Preaching Pastor at Berea Bible Church in Springfield, Ohio