hat Is Character?
Character assumes that our actions are not isolated from each other. Character is a pattern of choices flowing out of a person—a pattern of virtues or vices. Character assumes a kind of consistency, integrity, and dependability in our actions. We do not at each moment invent ourselves anew. Stanley Hauerwas in his ground-breaking work, Character in the Christian Life, says:
For to stress the significance of the idea of character is to be normatively committed to the idea that it is better for men to shape rather than be shaped by their circumstances….
Our actions come out of ourselves—our past choices—and our actions shape ourselves. It is all right to look at each individual action and judge whether it is right or wrong—sin or not a sin. But the neglect of evangelicals, while focusing on the sinfulness of individual behaviors, is to consider how deeply entrenched vices are dealt with. Each individual action either reinforces a previous pattern or not, and each action shapes the self in an accustomed fashion or sets a new path. Perhaps that is why Jesus talks not just of individual actions but of a way of life. Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus talks about the either/or. There are two ways and only two. Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate; for the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it. For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) Thus there are two ways, the broad or the narrow, and you are either headed down one path or the other.
Similarly, there are only two kinds of characters illustrated by Jesus with two trees. He says you will know false prophets “by their fruits.” Why? Because “…every good tree bears good fruit; but the rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:17-20) Jesus also indicates that the kind of fruit is determined by the kind of tree: “Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they?” You do not get blueberries from an apple tree or peaches from an orange tree. The character of the tree determines the kind of fruit produced.
There are only two foundations that can be laid—one on the rock and one on the sand. Jesus says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine, and acts upon them may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock. And the rains descended and the floods came, and the winds blew, and burst against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act upon them, will be like a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew and burst against that house; and it fell, and great was its fall.” Repeated obedient actions build the foundation of rock. Repeated acts of disobedience set a person’s life up to be blown away when the storms of life come.
Our actions come out of a kind of root that produces a certain fruit, and our actions also create the kind of foundation that will or will not withstand a storm. Our actions (fruits) come out of our character (good tree or bad tree) and shape our destiny (foundation of rock or sand)!
How To Cultivate Character
Character is won or lost in the little things. There is a classic saying that defines the process better than others:
Sow a thought, reap an act.
Sow an act, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character.
Sow a character, reap a destiny.
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