Numerous men and women throughout history have spoken at length about the importance of having an upright character, especially for those who serve in any type of leadership capacity. A simple search on the topic of character and leadership yields thousands of books, speeches, and quotes. Character is so important to us that we even recognize it as one of the principal requirements of trust, and trust is the essential prerequisite for all meaningful relationships.
Most people would never consider following someone with a past filled with dubious moral or ethical choices. Unfortunately, there appears to be a general incongruity in our society between what we say we value, and what people actually allow. Far too often the media is filled with sordid stories about the ignoble actions of people who are our society’s supposed “role models.” The daily media seems filled with scandalous stories that involve major sports figures, political leaders, religious leaders, and business executives. Stories such as a highly talented (and well paid) football player involved in illegal dog-fighting, a state governor accused of trying to sell a seat in the Senate, and even the former chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange pleading guilty to stealing billions of dollars from thousands of investors in a “ponzi” style scheme. Even the highest office of our land is not exempt from disrepute when a sitting President of the United States admits to sexual improprieties with a young intern. Sadly, we far too often learn of sexual misdeeds and other immoral actions by Christian leaders once again resulting in discredit to the Body of Christ. It is almost as if the unspoken message has become, “It’s okay to do what you want as long as you don’t get caught.” Every one of the activities cited above is really nothing more than a character issue.
What is Character?
A person’s character is who they really are. We all think about a lot of things that are not godly, and things we would be ashamed of if they were available for all to know. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” My reputation is what others think of me, which may or may not be true, but my character is who I really am. Your character is the real you in the sense that you cannot separate what you do from who you are.
Everyone has a “public” face and a “private” face. Most of us tend to act with better behavior around others than we do in private. The other day I was at a major retail store when I noticed sophisticated video surveillance equipment. It’s not that I was going to do anything wrong, but just knowing the cameras were there resulted in my thinking, “I need to watch what I am doing because someone could be watching me.” Stories abound of people being caught on camera committing rueful acts. It is sad but true that video cameras reveal what we all know: that a person’s real character is who they are when they think no one is looking. The British writer and politician Thomas Macauly (1800-1859) once said, “The measure of a man’s character is what he would do if he knew he never would be found out.”
Character is the aggregate of a person’s ethical and moral qualities, and it is demonstrated through the choices we make. So a person of good character is someone who acts morally and ethically upright. Undoubtedly, we are all a mixture of both good and bad, so we are not saying that to have “good” character a person never makes any missteps. Rather, he is someone who is always striving to take the moral high road and, when he recognizes he has done something wrong, does what is necessary to get back on track.
The list of “high value” character traits (those virtues we esteem) is extensive, and includes such things as integrity, courage, honor, honesty, and fortitude. In addition to the many noble traits there are, we Christians would also want to make sure that we are pursuing those virtues that God espouses. Certainly this list for us would incorporate the distinguishing qualities of love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and humility. In fact, it has been said that the fruit of the spirit mentioned in Galatians 5:22 and 23 represent the character of Christ.
Galatians 5:22 and 23a
(22) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
(23a) gentleness and self-control…
The type of character you have is your choice. This is why it was once said that, “Your character is the sum total of your life choices.” If you make poor choices, such as stealing, lying, or laziness, then you have poor character. I may not have a choice regarding the situations I am confronted with, but I always have a choice concerning how I respond to those situations. When dealing with frustrating or disappointing circumstances, I can respond with anger or with patience. The choice is always mine to make, so my character is always a matter of my choice, and thus it is my responsibility.
What does God Say about Character?
God absolutely cares about character, so much so that it could be said that the Bible is a character textbook. It is filled with instructions on what it means to live righteously, that is, in a “godly” and upright manner. The Bible is also filled with stories of men and women who have done it right, and many who have not. These are for our learning so we can benefit from the examples of others.
One of the very first records in the Bible is about a man (Adam) who failed to heed God’s instructions, resulting in calamity and pain that is reverberating even to this day.
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned-
Adam’s story is filled with numerous character lessons. When he sinned, Adam’s character demonstrated rebellion and rejection of God. Although Adam was created physically and morally perfect, he chose to disobey God, and character is always the result of choices. Adam’s actions included disobedience, and a lack of submitting to God, which is what we call P-R-I-D-E. One of the most important traits of godly character is humility, which is the polar opposite of pride. The words of the prophet Obadiah, written thousands of years later, ring as true for Adam as they do for us today.
The pride of your heart has deceived you…
Since that day of moral failure, God has been directing man back to the path of moral high ground through various means. The Ten Commandments include directives that show people what to do to have godly character. These include, “Thou shall not” lie, steal, commit adultery, covet, or murder (Exod. 20:7-17). Clearly, God’s Word is filled with instructions concerning how a person with godly character is to both think and act.
In the New Testament Paul instructed the first century Christians to put off their ungodly pagan lifestyles and “…become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation…” (Phil. 2:15). It is not news that the world will always be in conflict with God’s ways. God even tells us that “…friendship with the world is hatred toward God…” and “…Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
In contrast to the way of the world, we are to pursue the higher and nobler path.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
And, not only are we to think about these things, we are to put them into practice, that is, to do them, and character always involves the doing!
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
In the Old Testament, Boaz, speaking about Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David, said she was a woman of “noble character” (Ruth 3:11). The word translated “noble character” in this verse is the Hebrew word “chayil” which generally refers to strength and might. In this instance it applies to her inner strength of character. From the record about this wonderful woman we learn many character lessons from her interactions with her mother-in-law. Ruth shows herself to be faithful, kind, merciful, steadfast, industrious, and humble, all of which are wonderful and godly character traits.
Just as there are examples of people with great character in the Bible, there are also records of those who did not do quite so well. King Saul, although looking like the right choice as a king, had some serious character flaws. The prophet Samuel delivered some great promises that should have inspired and encouraged him. Yet despite this, from early in his kingly career he demonstrated fear. In one of the first accounts about him we find that “…he did not tell his uncle what Samuel had said about the kingship” and then later that “…he has hidden himself among the baggage” (1 Sam. 10:16 and 22). Saul’s failure to address this deep issue of his heart continues to show up throughout his royal career, resulting in numerous acts of disobedience, murder, deceit, and pride.
The life of Christ teaches us great practical character lessons. In spite of difficult circumstances and times of severe difficulty, he always responded in a godly manner. He was the epitome of love, kindness, and gentleness. Yet, at the very same time, he was a man of great passion, strength, and fearlessness. And now, we too are told that this is how we can, and should, live.
Character, a Matter of the Heart
One of the great lessons Jesus taught his followers is that a man’s or woman’s character is always a matter of what is in his or her heart. If a person commits adultery it is because that is what he has living in his heart, and a person’s heart is always his responsibility. This is why God tells us that we are to guard our hearts, to protect them with the greatest of care.
Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.
A wellspring is a source of water that bubbles up and comes forth from the ground. In a similar way, what we do is the result of what we hold and think upon in our hearts, the wellspring, or source, of our actions. When I lie, steal, or act immorally, it is because that is what I have fostered and nurtured in my heart. God will not only judge us concerning whether we do wrong or evil deeds, but also if there is wickedness in our hearts. A person may choose not to actually commit a wrong only because the evil in the heart merely lacks the opportunity to express itself. A person may have adultery in his heart, but lacking the opportunity, may never have been able to act upon it. This is why Jesus told his disciples that a man committed adultery even if he lusted after a woman in his heart.
Matthew 5:27 and 28
(27) “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’
(28) But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If a person with evil in his heart is presented with the opportunity, he will act on it. This is why we are often surprised and dismayed when we hear of someone doing a serious wrong, having no idea that he was that “type of person.” It is because we had no cognizance of the “evil” that was in his heart. Sinful behavior often happens because people fail to guard their hearts, so when presented with the opportunity to sin, the temptation is too strong for them to resist. They have not trained their hearts to do good, but have instead harbored evil. Above all else, we must guard our hearts because it is our hearts that will be judged.
All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the LORD weighs the heart.
1 Corinthians 4:5b
…He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts…
In the parable of the sower in Luke 8, Jesus makes the point that the “good soil” stands for those with a noble and good heart. A person who has a noble and good heart is a person with upright character. Throughout the Scriptures there are hundreds of lessons about a person’s heart because it is our hearts, our character, which will be examined before his throne, judged and rewarded accordingly.
With the exception of random thoughts and instinctive reactions, everything a person thinks about and does is an issue of the heart. When we speak (which is an action) we are merely vocalizing a thought, and our character is always a matter of our thoughts and actions.
Matthew 15:18 and 19
(18) But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’
(19) For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.
Every evil action Jesus listed above is a character issue, which is why God weighs (will judge) our hearts. Each of us will stand before the judgment seat of Christ, where our hearts, our character (all of our thoughts and deeds), will be exposed.
2 Corinthians 5:10
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
We do not believe, as some teach, that Christians will only appear at the judgment seat to receive rewards. Rather, the word “appear”, which is “phaneroo” in the Greek text, should properly be translated “made visible” or “exposed” here. What will be exposed? Our heart, our character, will be revealed and known for what they are. This is why it is so important for us to guard and purify our hearts (James 4:8).
The great news is that because character is a choice, you can choose to change it! I have a younger sister who once said, “If you don’t like who you are, then reinvent yourself.” That struck a chord deep inside me the minute she said it. There was a time in my life that I made some seriously wrong choices. As I reflect back on those times, I realize now that bitterness and other nasty things were brooding in my heart. I decided I did not like who I was, so I began to address the issues of my heart, and changed. The transformation did not happen overnight, and it was not easy, but I changed, one step at a time. I held a picture in my mind of the kind of person I wanted to be and then I began to behave in a manner consistent with that picture. Over time I changed my heart, and my character. Helen Keller once said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” We can change our character, but it takes work (effort), a lot of hard work (persistence), and time (perseverance).
Create in Me a Perfect Heart
No one has a perfect heart. We all make mistakes all the time. The question is never whether or not we make mistakes, but, “Are we deliberately sinning, acting pridefully, insisting on doing things our way, and not walking in humble submission to God and others?” Everyone is a mixed bag of both good and bad; we are a complex mixture of thoughts, motives, and actions. We all sin and will continue to do so, most probably on a daily basis (Rom. 3:23 and 5:12). Because of Adam’s rebellion against God, the struggle against sin and ungodly character is something that all mankind is cursed with, and will be until the day of our redemption. In Romans chapter 7 Paul describes the struggle that wars within him between his carnal self, and the new spiritual man inside him.
(15) I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
(16) And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.
(17) As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.
(18) I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
(19) For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
(20) Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
(21) So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.
(22) For in my inner being I delight in God’s law;
(23) but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.
(24) What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
The gift of holy spirit literally provides us with a new spiritual nature. We received it as a gift from God, so now it becomes our responsibility to act in a way that conforms to this new holy nature. We are to transform our character so it mimics the character of Christ. We actually have an obligation, a moral responsibility, to change our character so that it is aligned with the reality of the spiritual holiness that we now have.
Romans 8:11 and 12
(11) And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
(12) Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.
Most people remember King David for his valiant exploits, like his defeat of the giant Goliath, or his profound sins, such as his adultery with Bathsheba. Like King Saul, David had some serious sins including lust, adultery, deceit, manipulation, murder, cover-up, pride, and hypocrisy. Yet the testimony about David is that he was a man after God’s very heart. How can this be? It is not because David was perfect, or never did wrong, but rather, that when he did sin, he repented, changed, and corrected his heart.
‘…I have found David son of Jesse a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’
David recognized his sinfulness, yet he passionately pursued God with his whole heart.
Psalm 51:5, 6 and 10a
(5) Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
(6) Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
(10a) Create in me a pure heart, O God,…
As the king of Israel, God placed David in a position of tremendous importance. He was undoubtedly gifted in many ways and had an important calling on his life. Yet David, like us, will not be rewarded for his gift or the position he held, rather he will be rewarded for what he did with those things. In other words, he will be rewarded for his character.
David’s son, Solomon, was also very gifted, specifically with wisdom, yet it was Solomon’s character deficiencies that allowed him to disobey God by taking many foreign wives, amassing great personal wealth, and going to Egypt to build up his army with horses and chariots. God specially forbade the kings of Israel to do those things (Deut. 17:16 and 17). Solomon’s character was wrong and the record of the Bible shows that his heart was turned from God.
1 Kings 11:4
As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been.
1 Kings 11:9
The LORD became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice.
Despite Solomon’s great gifting, it was his character flaws that caused his downfall. This should serve as a sober reminder to everyone that we must put our focus on our character, and not on our gifts and callings. The fact is we have all received gifts of grace (Rom. 12:6a), but what is important is what we do with those gifts (and our doing always flows out from our character), not that we have the gift. The record of Scripture shows that God never promotes a gifting over a person’s character. This is in direct contrast to the way the world works. In the world, people with great giftings get promoted, become “superstars,” and often rise to the top of their area of expertise, despite their character. A person can be mean-spirited, a substance abuser, sexually immoral, a thief, a liar, and more, but if they are good at what they do, the world still promotes them. Not so with God.
Our giftings are just that—gifts from God, and they do not impress Him. What impresses God, and thus what should impress Christians, is when someone has godly character. We must remember that we are not rewarded for our gifts, but for our character. We can be sure that good character is what will count at the Judgment.
God tells us that He will discipline us like a father. He disciplines us because He wants us to correct our character. He is referred to as the Gardener who seeks to prune us so we can be more fruitful. He prunes us by removing the things in our lives that interfere with our godliness, so that He can make us more fruitful.
In many ways our lives are like a garden plot. God has given us the plot (our life) and it includes our gifts and talents. We had no choice in what we were given (the location of the land, or the quality of the soil), just like we had no part in the gifts and talents we received. We can think of God as the sun because “God is light,” and like the sunlight, it is the source of all life. His Word is the good seed that will grow if the soil is right, and the gift of holy spirit is the water. My garden will grow wonderfully if I continue to do the work necessary to make it good, fertile soil. But, just like my life, I have a choice about the soil. I can ignore my heart and let it become devoid of nutrients, or I can fill it with weeds by not guarding it from worldly influences. It is my choice to do the hard work of weeding (discipline), and cultivating the soil. Farming, like character development, takes a lot of time and effort. As author Stephen Covey says, “Could you ever “cram” on the farm—forget to plant in the spring, play all summer, and then race in the fall to bring in the harvest? No, because the farm is a natural system. You must pay the price and follow the process. You reap what you sow, there is no short cut.” No matter what I choose to do, the day will come when the soil will have produced a crop, and if I have done my work well, the fruit that is reaped will be godly fruit.
God is always attempting to get us to change our character. We must do what we can today to conform to His image, the image of Jesus Christ. Our character is important because it is a demonstration of our heart, and just like my garden, I will reap a bountiful harvest of righteousness on The Day if I tend to my character. It is always a matter of the heart!
Character Quotes to Consider:
“Live your life in such a way that when you die they can give your pet parrot to the town gossip.” Will Rogers, humorist.
“Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, riches take wing, and only character endures.” Horace Greeley (1811-1872) — New York newspaper editor.
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