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Does Character Matter?
In a world in which most people take the easy way out, is it worthwhile to do things differently?
by Jerold Aust
Steve was popular. He was 6 feet
tall and a good basketball player, and he could play the piano. He made good grades
and had a great personality. He was a good listener and conversationalist. He was
popular with young ladies.
But what set him apart more than any of his natural talents was something that must be cultivated. That something is called character.
Steve was different from most teenagers because he exhibited good character, especially when his peers made fun of him for not breaking rules. I watched him on occasion, and during those times I could see his inward struggle as his friends insulted and ridiculed him for obeying the rules.
It hurt Steve to sacrifice his friends' acceptance and friendship because of his values. He didn't hold to his values for just a day or a week. He held the line throughout his youth. I felt for him because I knew how much he wanted his friends' acceptance.
Although he suffered at the hands of his fellow teens, he never caved in. He knew character matters.
Even though few seem to disagree with Steve's values, his timeless example illustrates why character will always matter, especially when so many adolescents care nothing about it.
Steve's story--an average teen who placed more value on building good character then his friends' acceptance--holds lessons for all of us. Does character matter to you?
What is Character?
As we approach the third millennium of the Christian era, character isn't a priority with many teens. Try talking about character to your peers and you will see from their reactions how odd you look to them. That's not to say there aren't teens who don't put a premium on good character. I know there are others, like Steve, who dedicate themselves to living exemplary lives in an increasingly immoral world.
What qualifies as good character? Further, should it be important enough for you to shoot for it, especially if it sets you apart among your friends as a little strange?
Here's the definition: Character is a distinctive trait, a pattern of behavior that shows moral strength, self-discipline and fortitude.
The character of a person is his inner makeup. Many young people don't think about character, good or bad. Younger people in our society would probably prefer this slogan: If what I want to do doesn't hurt someone else, then it's okay!
Teens pick up on this outlook and adopt it as their own. But is this a good test for you or anyone else?
The Downside of Cheating
Suppose someone cheats on a test. If no one sees him cheat, can his dishonest act hurt anyone else?
Cheating can hurt the honest person who has taken the time to prepare for that test. If the test is graded on a curve, the one who cheated and got a good score thanks to someone else's paper might bring down the score of someone who worked hard to get a better grade. If others see the guilty party cheating, and he (or she) gets by with it, his cheating can influence others to cheat on future exams.
The student who cheats hurts himself in the long run. He destroys his own character, though he might not realize it. If he continues to get away with cheating, he will set a pattern that will adversely affect his relationships for the rest of his life. It can also encourage him to cheat in other endeavors and against other people. If he continues to cultivate this kind of behavior, he will eventually begin to cheat in other of life's activities and wind up in bigger trouble.
Those who begin a pattern of continually taking shortcuts, of taking advantage of the efforts of others rather than succeeding through their own hard work, will eventually come face to face with reality. Most of us have heard the phrase, "You reap what you sow" but probably didn't realize it comes from the Bible (Galatians 6:7). Our actions eventually will catch up with us.
I've visited with people in prison who told me they began their lives trying to get something for nothing. Granted, such behavior doesn't automatically destine teens for jail, but repeated bad behavior reaps destructive consequences.
A Case in Point
A few years back I was in a class with several young people, about 15 of us. The teacher told the class that, if she caught anyone looking on another paper, that person would automatically fail the test. I was surprised she said this, and I assumed no one would take the chance.
I was wrong. Shortly after she left the room, a couple of students began discussing the test, and two of them asked their friends if they could copy their answers. I witnessed more cheating in that classroom in that one hour than I had ever seen. I'm sure part of the problem was the tenor of the times. But what surprised me most about this overt lack of character was the students' brazenness and indifference. I mentioned this to one of them; he laughed about it and then promptly ignored me.
Someone who would cheat on a test demonstrates he has little regard for building good character. Such an attitude can shape and mold someone for the rest of his life, and its effect on other people is not to be minimized. I noticed that, during the six tests we took in that class that semester, more and more students followed the ringleaders' examples.
"If it doesn't hurt other people, it's okay to do it," they, in effect, said. The problem with that philosophy is that our actions do affect other people, as well as our own character, especially during our early, most impressionable years.
How Early Comes Character?
Our minds--especially when we're young--are malleable. Whatever we have read, heard or seen is recorded on the soft clay of our minds. Studies show that a child's character begins formation even before his birth. Pediatricians acknowledge that much of a young person's attitude and outlook are shaped by age 5. Afterwards much of our life's perspective has been molded, and much of what comes later is window dressing. As Alexander Pope wrote: " 'Tis education forms the common mind: Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclin'd."
Parents especially, but also their young peers, imprint children's minds. If people we admire show evidence of high moral character, it's likely we too will exercise good character. Our friends' words and actions profoundly effect our lives.
Still, teens can turn their lives around and exhibit good character based on two things: knowledge and desire. Your teen years offer you an opportunity. The period between 13 and 19 years of age represents the best time for a young person to make behavioral decisions that develop moral character.
Before your adolescent years, your actions were primarily based on others' influence. During your teens, though, you can exercise the capacity to choose, on a daily basis, the type of character that will serve you best. Knowing the basics of good character is half the battle. The other half is a strong desire to follow through with doing what's right. Practicing what's right in life guarantees you ultimate happiness, security and success.
Most parents want their children to have good character. They know that high moral standards will serve their teens well in their later years, and their principled behavior makes life easier for parents.
What Do You Want?
But what about you? Why should you personally want to build and exercise good character? That depends on what you want out of life. Do you want a happy, secure and successful life? Most teens do. But how to achieve this is not always apparent.
Know this: You, as a teenager, will not remain a teen for long. Sooner than you think you will enter your 20s, perhaps go to college and maybe get married and have children. You will age, just like the rest of us. When I was ages 14, 15, 16 and 17, I thought time stood still. Everything moved so slowly; I thought I would never enjoy the things I saw adults enjoy every day.
Boy, was I wrong. Now I'm a little older. I've attended college, married and had children and--you guessed it--I've aged! I find time flying by like a falling star in the night sky.
An old German proverb says that we're too soon old and too late smart. Another axiom advises that youth is wasted on the young. Both sayings suggest that youth would be better spent on the wisdom that comes with age.
Regardless, no one can easily change the course of life's main events. Soon you will experience the same things your parents did. But you are ahead of the game if you will make right character choices today. This involves sacrifice. When you begin noticing the differences between good and bad choices, you can start changing your character for the good. You will be happier, you will feel more secure, and you will succeed more often in the things that add meaning to your life.
Character's Ultimate Source
I don't know what role God plays in your life, but I'm guessing that you--like everyone else--have given Him some thought. If you've thought about Him, you may have wondered if He cares about you.
Rest assured that He does care (Luke 12:6-7), and He cares about your character. God is the ultimate source of righteous character. The Bible makes this clear (James 1:17).
The Bible also reveals stories of young people who took a stand for God early in their lives. Each instinctively understood that character matters.
A young king named Josiah was one of these (2Kings 22). At age 8 he was crowned king of Judah. He had already been taught that God's laws make for a happy and secure life, but he had to make the decision to follow them. The many adults who surrounded and clearly outnumbered him did not obey God's laws. In fact, they were at the other extreme: worshiping idols.
Young Josiah recognized that his decisions would be opposed by the citizens of his kingdom, but this didn't deter him. He set himself to rid the land of anything that offended God. This approach inspired his people, and they respected the young ruler for standing up for what was right. He showed good character and wasn't ashamed to stand up for godly morals. Josiah eventually became a great king, and God honored him as an example for people down through the ages to follow. The character that made him a truly great leader was formed during his youth.
How Can You Improve Your Character?
Few teens have to face the responsibilities of a king. But every teenager can exercise character similar to Josiah's by developing confidence and inspiring other people to uphold godly principles and behavior. When you show high moral character you ultimately gain the respect of your peers, teachers and parents.
Success in life is directly related to right character. Let's notice a few ways you can do this.
ï Get the Big Picture. Everyone is challenged every day. Successful people see beyond their smaller problems. They grasp the big picture.
It's how we handle minor crises that often makes the difference between our success and failure. If we are discouraged by the negative influences in our lives, we dedicate our existence and energies to struggling with them. But, if we focus on a greater goal, something that promises better things in life for us and others, most of the small, negative, everyday crises will melt away.
By recognizing that most of our challenges are temporary, we can use our energies to a much greater advantage, focusing on and taking the right steps toward a much greater goal.
For instance, if you desire to teach or be a medical doctor or train to be an astronaut, you will focus more of your attention and energies thinking about, envisioning and working toward your goal. The minor dilemmas of your life will be appropriately placed within a greater, grander context and as such will not occupy and waste so much of your valuable time and energy.
So envision a bigger picture in your life, specifically concerning your career. The Bible says we are what we think (Proverbs 23:7). If you focus on the bigger picture, the smaller annoyances will assume their proper, minor roles. A proper focus will take you a long way toward successfully negotiating your teenage years and setting you on a long-term path of ultimate success.
ï Focus on Doing Right. Like the first point, above, doing the right thing requires focus. When you keep your eye on doing right things instead of allowing others' faulty character to shape your thinking, you will rise above mind-draining, mundane, body-debilitating activities. You will immediately notice a difference in outlook. You do not have to let the negative influence of others rob you of the good things in life. Remember King Solomon's wise observation: "He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will be destroyed" (Proverbs 13:20).
Your life is like money in the bank. If you deposit character into your life's reserves, you'll grow rich in good character. And good character leads to all kinds of desirable rewards: happiness, security and, yes, even material goods and money. So focus on doing the right things today and you will be rich in character (and other good things) tomorrow.
ï Don't Worry That Some People Will Not Appreciate Your Character. When you make right decisions, realize that your example may cause some of your peers to become aware of their own bad habits. Therefore they may resist you and even make fun of you. But, if they ridicule you for doing the right thing, they are only tacitly admitting that they are uncomfortable with their own behavior, that your example is forcing them to see their bad habits. Do not let this deter you. Just know this will happen, and understand why it will happen.
Teens who rise above habitual bad behavior are achievers. You are not responsible for your friends' behavior that causes them embarrassment. They are responsible for their own bad habits. Also realize that the more you make character-building decisions, the more others can be positively influenced by your example.
Exemplary behavior may occasionally require some sacrifices. But the compensation for following the straight path will bring great rewards later. Always remember that happiness, security and success come by practicing proper values. Happiness is achieved one step at a time.
ï Never Give In! When you set yourself to build good character, some of your peers will try to influence you to quit doing what's right to do. During World War II, when England was threatened by a powerful adversary, Germany, Winston Churchill inspired his fellow citizens with these timeless words: "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never--in nothing, great or small, large or petty--never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense."
Why was Prime Minister Churchill so intent in his exhortation? Because he knew that perseverance counts, especially in worthwhile pursuits. If you know to do right and you do it in spite of scorn and ridicule, in the end you will win. You will see rich rewards come to you in dramatic ways. You will be amazed how the good character you build while a teen will reward you in your 20s and 30s.
This brings me back to Steve's story.
Steve never gave up. Sure, he had occasional doubts, like everyone else, because, after all, he was human. But Steve had the big picture. He was focused on doing the right things, he accepted that his peers would not appreciate him rocking their boat, and he never gave in.
Steve is a living success. The character he built as a teen serves him well to this day, and it will for the rest of his natural life and in the next. He went on to earn master's and doctor's degrees. He married, and he, his wife and child are dedicated to living the right kind of life, one that is governed by what God thinks, not by others' bad character. They teach their son the benefits of good character, and he will be a teen who practices good character and has a head start in life. This pattern will help him to succeed as an adult, husband and father.
You can be like Steve and build good character. All you need is knowledge and desire. We have discussed the knowledge necessary for developing good character. Now you need to act. You can do it. God will help you do the right things in life if you set your hand to do them and ask for His help. Young King Josiah did what was right. He followed God's rules for successful living and was honored for doing and teaching them.
The ultimate source of life, Almighty God, says that character matters. Good character will make the difference between experiencing a successful life or a life of bringing painful frustrations on yourself. Today's world labors under the false premise that good character doesn't count. But the viewpoint of this world is dead wrong (Romans 6:23). Don't believe everything others think, and don't follow this world's example. Take charge of your life, and make character count.
© 1999 United Church of God, an International Association
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