Character is tested in commitment. We worship a God who commits, who covenants. The strength to commit is part of character’s definition. We see Biblical examples such as the one in 2 Samuel as Ittai committed to David. When David gave him an out to join the opposition with Absalom, he said, in effect, “I came to stay.” Another is Ruth, who when encouraged by Naomi to leave replied. “Where you go, I will go and where you stay, I will stay.” She had made her commitment —- she came to stay.
Years ago I read a story of a pastor struggling with a small church on the frontier, seeking out a living for his growing family, yet devoted to his small flock. One day an opportunity arose for him to go to a bigger church that would provide better for his family. He announced his departure, and on the day they loaded up the wagon to leave, the townsfolk gathered around, crying to see them go. As they started to leave, he suddenly pulled up the horses, the family got out of the wagon, and they started hugging their friends and unloading the furniture. They had decided to stay.
Tongue control is another character issue, illustrated by the book of James. When I was a young man, I led singing for revivals in the South. I was never a good musician, but I could wave my arms enthusiastically, remembering that Billy Sunday got Homer Rodeheaver to lead singing not because he was the best musician but because he was the best cheerleader in school. A small church in an outlying suburb was without a music director, and the pastor invited me to lead singing on a temporary basis. When I agreed to come, he had a serious talk with me and asked me to promise him that I would never say a negative thing about anybody in the congregation. This was a difficult promise for me, but I kept it, and I’ve never felt such freedom with people in my life.
Since I knew I had never said anything negative about anyone there, I could be perfectly free in conversation, without any veil of guilt. It was a lesson I wish I would have applied in other situations.
Obedience builds character. Fortunately, character can be strengthened just the same as habits and reflexes can be developed. First, there must be the desire, then there must be the repetition over a long enough period for it to form into a habit. When the habit is practiced it develops into a reflex. Frank Laubach wrote of how his thinking of God constantly started out laboriously but as it developed, it became easier and easier until at last it became natural. That is how aspects of character are developed.
Confession clears or cleans our character. Theologically, we speak of the “washing of the blood.” In confession we bring ourselves to this fountain, this source of cleansing.
Instead of confession, often we see leaders put a spin on sin. Before we got the modern term spin, we called it “rationalization.” When the prophet Nathan confronted King David, David didn’t run for the spin doctors. He had the character to confess and to accept forgiveness—and to take the consequences. He wasn’t like the chicken thief down South who when confronted by the judge replied, “Guilty, and waive the hearing,” to which the judge asked,
“What do you mean, ‘waive the hearing’?”
He replied, “I done it, and I don’t want to hear any more about it.” David did not turn against God when he had to suffer the consequences of his sin even though he was forgiven.
Character grows strong under pressure, suffering, loss, tribulation, and failures, in which the mind gets experiences and the heart gets convictions. Character is the element that makes us stand when we want to run, to live when it would be easier to die, to fight for right in a losing cause, saying with Abraham Lincoln, “I’d rather fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed than succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.”
To read more from Fred Smith, Sr. go to Breakfast With Fred Leadership Institute.