“One who faces and who fears the right things and from the right motive, in the right way and at the right time, possesses character worthy of our trust and admiration.” Aristotle
As a nation, we recently celebrated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. One of the well-recognized lines in his epoch-making “I have a dream” speech is: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Lately, it would seem as though a person’s character doesn’t elicit the same high regard that it has for prior centuries. One must ask, does character even matter anymore?
A good character has been highly valued and admired throughout history. However, there was a time in the not-too-distant past when our character was our currency. One’s word was as good as money in the bank.
I can still remember being told as a child, “The only thing you will take to heaven is your character.” So, while I knew that character was very important, I didn’t quite understand how I was to develop one. It wasn’t until many years later that I assembled a clearer understanding after reading the following:
“A character formed according to the divine likeness is the only treasure that we can take from this world to the next. Those who are under the instruction of Christ in this world will take every divine attainment with them to the heavenly mansions. . ." (E.G. White, Child Guidance, p.161).
To further reveal the components of character, White writes: “If the thoughts are wrong, the feelings will be wrong, and the thoughts and the feeling combined make up the moral character” (Testimonies to the Church Vol. 5, p. 310). This concept clarifies the role that our thoughts and emotions play in who we are, especially when no one is watching.
The Gospel of Mark clarifies the origin of twisted character behaviors: “For within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, and evil-eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man” (Mark 7:21–22, NKJV).
Thus, our character — the sum of our thoughts and emotions — has the power to build up or degrade us. It can facilitate glorious moments where our spirit connects with God’s Spirit, revealing in us the glory of God. Or, it can connect us with the prince of darkness.
Character determines one’s destiny because it creates the foundational motivation for the behaviors and activities that will shape the personal, relational and vocational life of a disciple of Jesus.
You can’t fake character. A disciple of Jesus does the works of Jesus and follows in His footsteps. We can fool ourselves into thinking we are His disciples, that we are following in His steps, however an anonymous writer once said: “Conduct is the best proof of character.” Another anonymous writer said, “Characterize people by their actions, and you will never be fooled by their words.”
Can we improve our character? Of course, by improving the quality of our thoughts and emotions, and there is one guaranteed way to accomplish this feat.
King David asked the question, “How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word” (Ps. 119:9, NKJV). The cleansing and restorative properties of the Word can expel impure thoughts and toxic or negative emotions.
Character can be improved, even completely changed, when you set your mind to improve and mentally renew yourself. It is so efficient that Paul says that our thinking can undergo a metamorphosis like experience, like the caterpillar can go through a complete transformation until it becomes a beautiful butterfly. Michael Josephson said, "People of character do the right thing even if no one else does, not because they think it will change the world, but because they refuse to be changed by the world.”
Nevertheless, Jesus thought that people of character did have the power to change the world, hence the invitation to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13-16). Jesus changed the world with the power of his words that clearly revealed his thoughts and emotions which were driven by love.
Paul’s theological framework and life changed the primitive Christian church with clear purpose and direction. Followers better understood what it meant to be saved by faith and grace. Just like Paul, many other men and women through the ages have changed their world by whom they had become through the renewing of their minds.
However, Paul’s metamorphosis wasn’t effortless. White reminds us, “Christ has given us no assurance that to attain a perfection of character is an easy matter. A noble, all-around character is not inherited. It does not come to us by accident. A noble character is earned by individual effort through the merits and grace of Christ. God gives the talents, the powers of the mind; we form the character. It is formed by hard, stern battles with self. Conflict after conflict must be waged against hereditary tendencies. We shall have to criticize ourselves closely and allow not one unfavorable trait to remain uncorrected” (E.G. White, Mind Character & Personality Vol. 2, p.546).
Today it is our turn. It is time to be the change the world needs. As Adventist spiritual leaders, it behooves us to examine the quality of our thoughts and emotions and pray that these are fueled by the same profound love that drove Jesus Christ’s life and ministry.
Our mandate continues as the third angel’s message — the eternal gospel that needs to be proclaimed to the whole world, embedded into a powerful, love-fueled invitation — fear God (Rev. 14:6,7).
God’s people are people of character. They are followers of the only true and living God, Jehovah King of the Universe and Lord of all who revealed His character through the life and ministry of His Son, who not only preached words, but also lived out a love-driven life of sacrificial service to alleviate the pain and sorrow of sin-sick humans. Truly, His character and life are worthy of imitation.