Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Etching Our Character

It is, in my opinion, impossible to solve absolutely the centuries-old debate about whether we are shaped primarily by our nature or our nurture. Are we the way we are because we're born that way, or because of how we are raised to be? This is not only a discussion of how we know what we know, but also of why we do what we do. What exactly is our character, and what produces character?

Some will speak of character as something that is already residing within us, just waiting to be revealed. Since everyone is already talking about Mariah Carey this week after her New Year's Eve performance fiasco, let me reference her song "Hero" as an example of this sort of thinking:
There's a hero
If you look inside your heart.
You don't have to be afraid of what you are.
There's an answer
If you reach into your soul,
And the sorrow that you know
Will melt away...
...So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you'll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you.
On the one hand, we would want to affirm that as people made in God's image, all of us have incredible potential to accomplish good and important things, and even more so when we work together. In that sense, we all have an inner hero that needs to be let loose. But this type of thinking is somewhat removed from the way a person's character is actually developed. It is not by an increasingly inward, self-centered focus that we find the best answers or our sorrows melt away. The English word "character" comes from a term for engraving. It meant a mark or symbol branded on a person's body, or engraved into an item of property. To have character meant going through the process of being scraped and scratched, often with harsh instruments, in order to bear this mark. For a person to have good character, it would involve good craftsmanship and a lot of patience.

Many teachings in Scripture place character in the realm of one's actions. Jesus says that when Satan lies, he is speaking from his own character because he is a liar (John 8:44). Paul teaches that endurance produces character, and character produces hope (Romans 5:4). Job was known as an upright and blameless person because he consistently feared God and turned away from evil (Job 1:1). In all of these examples, it is a person's persistent action that defines what their character is, and not whether they think in their hearts that they are probably a "good person" if you would just get to know them.

Paul's description of his own character formation sounds a lot like a boxer preparing for a fight: "I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified." (I Corinthians 9:27) In physical training, our bodies tend toward whatever motion feels easiest. The only way to get stronger is to identify our weaknesses, and to target them specifically with better form and deliberation. If we fail to correct this, our growth becomes unbalanced.

If you are not quite sure how to approach your own desire for better character, a good baby step is to figure out what good thing you are most inclined to resist, and systematically challenge yourself to do it. Whether it's the social dimension of Christian fellowship, the thinking required to study Scripture more deeply, or the inward urge we must rebuke that demands we keep checking our notifications every 5 minutes, our character is etched into us by what we choose to do with what time we have. Is God being given enough time and opportunity to do his etching work in your life? It is through scratching, hammering, and enduring that our character becomes strong, but only you can decide to allow it to happen.

No comments:

Post a Comment