How Important Is Character?


If you were hiring a man or woman to handle your business affairs, what would be uppermost in your mind?  You unquestionably would want a person who knew your business or who had the ability to learn it, who was skilled in dealing with your customers and other employees and who knew the laws governing your business.  But would there be other requirements?  What personal traits should you seek in an employee?  Does the person's character have any bearing on the reliability of an employee?  What if the worker were a compulsive liar, a drunk, a drug user, a thief or a lazy person, would that make any difference to you?  On the other side of the equation, what kind of employer should you seek?  The questions I have raised today boil down to one other question and the one I shall discuss with you today.  "How Important Is Character?"


I am fully aware that character alone is not our only consideration in choosing our doctors, in searching for employees or employers, in buying our automobiles and in deciding for whom we shall vote in local, state and national elections.  There are morally good men who know little or nothing about running our state or nation.  They may be as honest as the day is long, but as ignorant as sin about political offices.  Some schoolteachers are model citizens, but lack the knowledge and the ability to teach our children.  So while character is of vital importance in every job, in every profession and in all other phases of life, it is inadequate in many situations.


Did you know that the King James Version of the Bible never uses the word "character," although it uses many words which relate directly to character, words such as, virtue, honesty, righteousness and integrity.  Other versions of the Bible use the word character.  Instead of using the word "virtuous" in Proverbs 12:4 and 31:10, some versions use the word "character." The King James Version reads: "We glory in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation works patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope" (Rom. 5:3-4).  The New American Standard Bible translates the Greek by the word "character" rather than by the word "experience."


Many of you, no doubt, have heard the following contrast between reputation and character.  Reputation is what people think you are; character is what God knows you are.  Dr. Os Guiness's new book, When No One Sees: The Importance of Character in an Age of Image (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 2000), records these well known words: "Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny" (p. 13).  Former president Eisenhower, according to Dr. Guiness, lists the following as essential qualities of a great leader: "vision, integrity, courage, understanding, the power of articulation and profundity of character" (p. 15).  Dr. Guiness believes-and so do I-that "character is central to good leadership"-in the home, in the school, in the church, in business and in the nation (p. 15).


But what is character?   Dr. Guiness argues that character consists of three basic ideas: core, consistency and cost.  "Core" pertains to what one is inwardly-the very essence of one's being.  This quality of character often becomes evident when one is under stress and pressure.  "Consistency" means one strives always to do what is right.  Some writers have called this attitude "habits of the heart." "Cost" relates to what one is willing to sacrifice to live by his convictions.  Paul outlines what Christians may have to endure in their commitment to Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 11:23-28).  He also provides his reasons for not giving up when life seems almost unbearable.  "For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.  For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding weight of eternal glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2 Cor. 4:16-18).  Dr. Guiness concludes: "Character, then, is what we are when no one sees but God" (p. 16).


I read these words to you a few minutes ago.  "Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny." I shall analyze these wise observations in our study of the importance of character.  This traditional saying emphasizes the influence of our thinking on our actions.  "Sow a thought, reap an action."  Some Hollywood producers, directors and actors seem to think that people's thoughts have no bearing on their behavior.  But the man in the street has enough good common sense to know better.  Most of us know that our thoughts determine our actions.  To deny that fact is to fly in the face of the almost universal experience of the human race.  How can intelligent people deny it?


Even if we fail on our own wisdom to understand how one's thinking influences his conduct, we should pay attention to the wisdom of God as revealed in the Bible.  King Solomon, whose thoughts were often centered on wine, women and song, fully understood the dangers of not thinking as God thinks.  He urged his readers: "Keep your heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life" (Prov. 4:23).  Watching sexually oriented television or movies has led many people--both young and old-to pursue a life of depravity.  Incidentally, movies do not have to be as vulgar and sleazy as "The Jerry Springer Show" or the "Howard Stern Program" to cause people to have thoughts that will lead them into degradation and debauchery and eventually to eternal damnation-if they do not repent.


MTV probably has done as much as any other element in our society to put dangerous and destructive thoughts into the impressionable minds of our children.  It glorifies illicit sex, violence and other unhealthy attitudes and actions.  Do the owners of television stations feel any obligation to raise the moral tone of our nation?  Are they willing to sacrifice the welfare and lives of our children just to make a fast buck?  Of course, the station owners and program directors are not the only ones involved in MTV, ungodly movies and suggestive television programs.  Parents must know what their children are seeing and where they are going.  In addition, community leaders, including preachers, have an obligation to protect the morals of our young people.   Many of us are guilty before God for allowing our nation's morals to sink to the level of barnyard animals. 


I grew up, as did many of you, listening to country music.  My father played a banjo and two of my brothers played guitars.  Most of the songs fifty years ago dwelt on family, country and church.  Many of them still do, but some country songs promote adultery, drinking and other evils.  Why not go back to the music of Eddy Arnold, Jim Reeves and Marty Robbins?  I cannot imagine Eddy Arnold's singing "One Has My Name, the Other Has My Heart" or similar songs.  Songs-good or bad-have an influence on individuals' thinking.  As a nation, we have an obligation to make sure our songs contribute to good thoughts and hence to good character.


How can Christians listen to or allow their children to listen to songs that teach values that are the very opposite of biblical values?  Our courts have ruled that the government cannot regulate speech-whether or radio or on television or in the movies, although it is attempting to do so in passing so-called "hate laws."  What could possibly be worse in the eyes of liberal politicians and theologians than censoring movies, television, music and books?  But there is someone who can and must censor what their children see and hear-parents, that is, if they care about the moral values their children imbibe.  Tragically, some parents are too busy with their own interests to care about what their children learn from the popular media.  Then they wonder why their children drink, get into trouble with the law and have babies out of wedlock.


Three verses from Paul's epistles show just how important thinking is in building character.  The apostle urged his faithful brothers at Philippi: "Let this mind (or thinking) be in you, which was in Christ Jesus " (Phil. 2:5).  "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things" (Phil. 4:8).  Why should Christians think on truth, honesty, justice, purity, loveliness, virtue and praise?  Are these attitudes and attributes just to be an exercise of the mind?  If we think and meditate on these qualities, we tend to incorporate them into our actions.  Paul's powerful advice to the Colossian Christians has a direct bearing on our attitudes.  "If you then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God.  Set your affection on things above, not on things of the earth.  For you are dead, and your life is hidden with God.  When Christ shall appear, then shall we appear with him in glory" (Col. 3: 1-4).


"Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit."  Most of us know that regular actions become habitual.  For example, my family of orientation and my family of procreation always made a habit of going to all the services of the local church.  Attending services was much more than a habit at our homes, but it was a habit.  On the other hand, many families have a different habit-not attending.  The word "habit" is not used in the King James translation of the following verse, but there is no doubt about the author's meaning.  "And let us consider one another to provoke to love and good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching" (Heb. 10:24-25).


The New American Standard Bible uses the word "habit" instead of the word "manner."  So does the New Revised Standard Version.  Dr. A. T. Robertson's volumes Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1932), comments on the word translated "manner' or "habit": "Already some Christians had formed the habit of not attending public worship, a perilous habit then and now" (volume 5, p. 412).  As you can understand from Dr. Robertson's comments and from your own experience, habits can be good or bad.  If our habits are good, they help us to build for time and for eternity.  If they are bad, they can lead us to eternal condemnation.


Millions of Americans have formed the habit of drinking alcoholic beverages.  When they started drinking, they almost certainly never said, "I intend to keep on drinking until I become addicted to alcohol."  But alcohol has very strong addictive qualities.  I cannot really explain it, but some drinkers never become addicted, although no one ever knows for sure he will not.  I had one member of the church to tell me he would never allow alcohol to get control of his life.  He was either ignorant of the power of alcohol or he was dreaming.  More than 20,000,000 Americans are alcoholics, including several million women and teenagers.  The damage alcohol addiction does to individuals' bodies, to their homes and to our society can never be measured in this life.  No wonder Solomon wrote: "Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise" (Prov. 20:1).


The use of tobacco is also very addictive.  Smoking and related uses of tobacco may kill as many as 400,000 persons per year.  But everybody in the nation who can read his newspaper knows tobacco is dangerous to one's body and highly addictive.  So why in the name of common sense do lawyers and judges use the law to punish the tobacco companies for selling a drug that everybody knows is deadly?  People choose to smoke knowing it can kill.  The American people have known that for a half century or more.  When will the lawyers begin to sue the liquor manufacturers for making and selling beverage alcohol?  Is it possible the lawyers and judges are being bribed by the liquor industry?  Maybe they are unwilling to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.


As Christians, we should form a whole spate of good habits, such as, attending all worship activities of our local congregations, reading and studying our Bibles everyday, speaking kindly to all with whom we come in contact, including our family members, taking some responsibility for the atmosphere of our nation, working hard at our jobs and professions and helping our young people to grow into decent men and women.  We should also work at eliminating our destructive habits.  None of this is necessarily easy, but it is the right way to live to find fulfillment in this life and to prepare for the life to come.   Habits, according to the traditional saying, form character.  Dr. Os Guiness's book contrasts the contents of two popular magazines between the period 1890-1910 and later dates.  The two magazines are Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping.  Between 1890 and 1910 thirty-three percent of the articles dealt with character.  By 1920 the number had decreased to 3% (p. 18). Today articles on character have almost completely disappeared.  Why are there no articles or very few articles on character in these very influential magazines?  Could it be that the editors and writers have no idea what constitutes desirable character?  Have they joined a major contingent of academic scholars, liberal theologians and entertainers who deny the existence of absolute truth?  If absolute truth does not exist, then trying to define character is an impossible task.


In the words of the traditional saying, we sow character and reap a destiny.  Our standing before God in the judgment will rest on the character we have formed.  Is that not what Paul meant when he wrote: "Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (for we walk by faith, not by sight;)  We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.  Wherefore we labor, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that everyone may receive the things done in his body, whether it be good or bad.  Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are made manifest in your consciences" (2 Cor.  5:6-11).  Our thinking and acting have formed our character by which we shall be judged in the last day.   Does that mean we have earned salvation through our own goodness?  It simply means that God is saving us by the plan he instituted.  Obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ is absolutely essential for our salvation.


As I bring this study to a close, I need to make a few observations.  There are no greater needs in modern society than people with good character.  That is true of the men and women who are running for public office as well as all other Americans.   Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for President Reagan, says, "In a president, character is everything."  She argues that a president does not have to be brilliant, or clever or know all there is to know about foreign policy.  "But you can't buy courage and decency, you can't rent a strong moral sense."  Even if the president has vision, but lacks character, he cannot be the kind of president our nation needs.


What Peggy Noonan has said about President Reagan should be true of every American.  Character is everything in husbands, fathers, wives and mothers.  Tragically, many young women have married men who were handsome or rich or popular and then waked up to the fact that they were married to scoundrels.  Young women, which would you prefer-a man who always tells truth, works hard for his family and lives his beliefs or a handsome man who has no moral values?  Handsomeness wears off, but character remains.


I have counseled with young men and older ones who married beautiful women only to learn they had married a pretty face that lacked character.  Every marriage counselor and preacher could furnish you with dozens of examples of the heartaches such foolish choices have caused.  I am not denigrating beauty, but warning you that physical attraction alone does not furnish a very solid foundation for marriage.  These wise words from Solomon ought to be helpful in choosing the right kind of wife or husband.  "As a jewel of gold in a swine's snout, so is a fair woman who is without discretion" (Prov.  11:22).  Proverbs 31 describes what many have called "the ideal woman."  Will you listen to the way the scriptures speak of that woman?  "Who can find a virtuous woman?  For her price is far above rubies....She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life....Strength and honor are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in the time to come....She opens her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness....Favor is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised" (Prov. 31:10, 12, 25-26, 30).  Would you say that such a woman has the kind of character necessary to be a good wife and mother?


Winford Claiborne

The International Gospel Hour

P.O. Box 118

Fayetteville, TN 37334