Character is very important for our moral behavior. It gives orientation and direction to our lives. Our moral life is rooted in our character. How we live morally is not determined simply by rules or how we may respond to one particular situation. Rather our lives are shaped by our moral vision and by how we have been formed in character. Our character is not determined by the particular environment or society we live in, except in so far as we allow these forces to influence the way we see the world and act. Character has to do with willing, choosing, and desiring what is morally good.
Character in its purest form is most clearly exemplified in the example of one whose life is dominated by an all-consuming purpose or direction. Francis of Assisi gave up inherited wealth for a life of voluntary poverty in his single-hearted pursuit of the love of God. Mother Theresa's life of heroic service to unwanted and poverty-stricken children and to the neglected dying invalids of Calcutta is fueled by her all-consuming love for Jesus.
We grow in character to the degree that we attain singleness of purpose and direction. If we discover that we cannot accept a higher job promotion or status in our career and at the same time act honestly in all our transactions, or if we discover that we cannot gain as much money as we can and at the same time treat all others fairly, then we must choose between one or the other. We become as we have chosen. The kind of person we are, our character, determines lo a large extent the kind of future we will face and live. Character is thus not an end in itself, but a means for achieving the purpose God created us for, namely to live Godly lives that bring honor and glory to his name.
Moral virtue is essential for society. No community can be decent and just without it. Moral instruction, however, cannot be taught simply in academic classrooms or through the media, nor can government dictate character. The First and primary source of moral instruction is the family." As scripture says: "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Proverbs 22:6). The second important instructor is the body of Christ.
Moral education often involves moral tales and parables to instill moral principles. The survival of the Jewish people and their way of life would not be possible without the stories that gave meaning to Jewish moral tradition. One such story, taken from a collection of traditional Jewish tales, highlights the importance of example in moral education.
There was once a rabbi in a small Jewish village in Russia who vanished every Friday morning for several hours. The devoted villagers boasted that during these hours their rabbi ascended to Heaven to talk with God. A skeptical newcomer arrived in town, determined to discover where the rabbi really was.A Community of Virtuous People
One Friday morning the newcomer hid near the rabbi's house, watched him rise, say his prayers and put on the clothes of a peasant. He saw him take an axe and go into the forest, chop down a tree and gather a large bundle of wood. Next the rabbi proceeded to a shack in the poorest section of the village in which lived an old woman and her sick son. He left them the wood which was enough for the week. The rabbi then quietly returned to his own house.
The story concludes that the newcomer stayed on in the village and became a disciple of the rabbi. And whenever he hears one of his fellow villagers say, "On Friday morning our rabbi ascends all the way to Heaven," the newcomer quietly adds, "If not higher."13
A person grows, for better or for worse, by imitating others, that is, by living the way others live. Christians are called to imitate Christ, to be like him, to possess the same character and virtues that Jesus Christ had. This is not something we can achieve by our own efforts, but by cooperating with God's grace. To be like Christ, to grow in Christ-like virtues, requires that we become part of a community that practices Christian virtues. Christians need a community of a particular kind to live well morally. Since the Christian church is called to be a holy community, we need to be a people capable of being faithful to a way of life, even when that way of life is in conflict with what passes as "morality" in the larger society. Christians cannot be morally autonomous, but must be willing to belong to a community which is committed to worshipping God and to living a Godly way of life.
Christians are called to be a certain kind of people, a people of Godly character who live virtuous lives, and who shine as lights in a darkened world, pointing the way to the kingdom of God. As Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount:
You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put in under a bowl. Instead they put it on a stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16) [Go to "Character in the Image of God"]