Christian Character: What is It?

By Published on October 6, 2016

In America’s media-driven society, it appears that being a character is more important than being a person of character.

A character is one who has distinctive qualities, often exaggerated, that make him or her stand out from the crowd. That person’s qualities may have nothing to do with the cardinal virtues — if anything, they’re probably just the opposite. Being a person of character, on the other hand, means someone lives a life characterized by these cardinal virtues.

Yet unfortunately, the cardinal virtues are all but forgotten in our educational systems, in business, in politics, and even, it seems, in our churches.

G.C. Jones, in 1000 Illustrations for Preaching and Teaching, tells this story of a man of impeccable character:

Once in a football game between the University of Chicago, where the legendary Amos Alonzo Stagg was head coach, and the University of Illinois, an official sustained an injury. Coach Stagg was asked to step in and referee his own game — a crowning act of confidence! It would be like asking an attorney to judge a case in which he was involved, or a farmer to determine the price support for his crops and those of his neighbors, or asking a parent to evaluate his child’s conduct. Alonzo Stagg had so identified himself with integrity that a rival coach could trust him to place the demands of fair play above victory and self-interest.

Coach Stagg was a man whose character was shaped by the cardinal virtues. The four cardinal virtues were codified by Plato and Aristotle, but they existed long before these philosophers and could be seen in many Old Testament characters, such as Enoch, Noah, David, to name a few. “Virtues” are qualities of moral excellence. The four cardinal virtues are the following:

  • Prudence — This virtue speaks of discretion and wisdom; it implies insights into what undergirds circumstances and living a life based on these insights;
  • Temperance — This virtue speaks of the practice of careful control over one’s actions, one’s speech, one’s thoughts, emotions and reactions;
  • Fortitude — This virtue speaks of mental strength and courage that enables one to face life’s calamities with prudence, temperance and justice (in some lists of the virtues, this is called courage);
  • Justice — In the Greek and Hebrew vocabularies, there are not two words for “just” and “righteous,” but instead a single word for doing the right thing and being morally upright; this virtue thus speaks of honest and righteous behavior.

Yet another illustration from G.C. Jones:

General William F. Dean was a prized prisoner of the Communists during the Korean struggle. One day, the General was advised that he had five minutes in which to write a letter to his family. It appeared to be the end. Calmly he accepted the order and proceeded to write. In the body of this now-historic letter appears a single line worthy of remembrance: “Tell Bill the word is integrity.”

A secular man or woman, as well as the Christian man or woman, who exhibits these cardinal virtues in their lives is a person of integrity, a person who “adhere(s)” to a “rigid … code of behavior,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

The crucible in the development of a life characterized by these four virtues, according to David Brooks in his book The Road to Character, is when one moves from a self-centered existence to one that becomes involved in a broader purpose than mere self-aggrandizement; it is living a life that pursues vocation. Some define vocation as one’s career, but in its broader sense, vocation is a personal calling to a higher cause.

All humans yearn for lives filled with meaning. Meaning can take positive as well as destructive forms. Even a life of disillusionment is a life of meaning, a life in which meaning is found in a loss of belief in ultimate meaning. This desire for lives filled with meaning comes from the fact that we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

The Reformers understood that non-Christians of character could and did live lives that benefited the greater human community. In that respect, such a non-Christian is to be lauded and applauded for his or her contribution to the greater good of all. The questions, however, to ask the non-Christian is why he or she seeks meaning in living a life of character: Is the vocation that shapes your character serving as an idol? Does vocation supplant God as your reason for being? What are your motives behind your life of vocation? And, as Augustine would put it, is vocation serving as a lesser love supplanting the greater love of God?



Originally appeared in The Colson Center: Christian Worldview Journal, July 21, 2016.

Re-published with permission of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview

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