Our tendency to pursue success and idealize those who achieve it can sometimes result in paying less attention to the character of the person. Sometimes that may come because the tangible evidence of success is more often material things like promotions, awards, and monetary gains. More and more evidence of that other less tangible issue of character have shown up in recent years as we see persons who have reached high levels of success in all areas experience public disgrace for issues related to lack of attention to development of good character. We see it in the lives of those who are in sports, performance related fields, politics, education, and ministry.
What happens along the way that brings a sudden downfall?
The answer may vary from person to person but if we are honest about it the seeds of the downfall were planted long before the problem is often exposed. Character is something that develops over time. Many small choices and decisions and our response to experiences we encounter daily are weaving character together. Without attending to those it can be easier than we realize to excuse or deny the little weeds growing in our character that can later result humiliating exposure of what has been growing underneath our outward self.
“Every good choice strengthens one’s inner resolve to make another good choice next time, while every bad choice leaves one inclined to further bad choices down the road.”David C. Downing from Into the Wardrobe
Not unlike a garden, weeds in our character need to be attended to regularly or they will develop such a tenacious and broad root system that it will be difficult to remove them and may well damage the good growth in the process of trying to remove all of them. The most avid gardener will tell you keeping the garden weed free means vigilance daily. A garden free of weeds by the end of a morning can show the beginning of new weeds here and there by the next morning. Left to itself a garden will be overrun by weeds and destroy tender new seeds and plants in a very short time. Weeds in a garden are visible if we are looking for them but weeds in our character can be harder for us to see at times and far easier to ignore or discount as something that just happened because we were tired or had a “bad day.”
Do we even have a clear understanding of what character is?
“So, what is character? It’s moral excellence. But we don’t talk about morality anymore.”Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy
Too often we look at the word “moral” and associate it with only the areas of sexual transgressions of some sort, but morality extends to a much broader definition than that. In our digital fast-paced lives we lost track of some of those key words that were central to the lives of those we admire from past decades or centuries. Morality is just one of those words seldom used or attended to. Another is the word “virtue.”
“Virtues are the building blocks of character. Think about this short list of virtues: patience, kindness, humility, gentleness, perseverance, truthfulness, courage, temperance, justice, faithfulness, and goodwill. Would your life improve if you had more of these virtues, in both number and degree?”Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy
The answer to that question should be obvious. We would be a better spouse, child, friend, employee, believer, neighbor – better in every area if it were true. It’s evident that Paul understood what could bring that about in his letter to the Romans:
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”Romans 5:3-5 (ESV)
We don’t start climbing in the mountains without strengthening our bodies or learning how to handle higher elevations. There are skill sets we need to develop to climb mountains safely with endurance and enjoyment. Practicing those skill sets can produce a set of skills that give us a lifetime of adventure and pleasure.
And it isn’t going to work to simply read about these things or talk about them. They need to be put into action for them to become a part of us for the climbs we dream of taking.
If small choices and decisions are building blocks to develop virtue and character, what are some tips we can use to help us in our quest for character?
Reading Matthew Kelly’s newest book, Life is Messy, gives us some ideas on that as he describes a set of tools developed in the early 1900’s. They are called “The Four Absolutes” and Kelly describes their use and outlines them as follows:
“They have been described as: a way to keep in tune with God’s will for your life; moral standards; ideals to live by; yardsticks to measure actions against; a guide for anyone trying to live a good life; and a tool for anyone trying to live intentionally.
The Four Absolutes are:
1. Honesty. Is it true or false?
2. Unselfishness. How will this affect other people?
3. Purity. Is it right or wrong?
4. Love. Is it ugly or is it beautiful?”Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy
I think most of us would agree that these questions and this list would help us keep more weeds out of our character and move toward greater morality and a higher degree of virtue.
It could be that beyond pursuing the latest and greatest inventions, technologies, methods, and ideas, we need to consider moral standards and a pursuit of higher virtues. Because you see the very things we enjoy about “now” were created and developed by men and women who came before us whose center was founded on character and the higher virtues what built that character. The future will be brighter for each of us and all of us if we do.