What Is Character? How to Develop It?

What Is Character? How to Develop It?

It was Saturday morning at about 7:00, and not a long time to prepare for the counseling session with James (not his real name), though given our history, it was sufficient time. And yet, there was an uneasiness. So, I prayed, “Lord, give me some passage of Scripture with which to challenge James differently.” The book of I Samuel came to mind, and the narrative of King Saul’s character development.

This uneasiness was likely the result of a text from his father the day before (James has agreed to this arrangement) indicating that he had on slip during the week using his drug of choice, alcohol. In those 45 minutes before our meeting, the concept of character development leading toward a person’s destiny was fomenting.

As we talked and walked through the highlights of Saul’s life [observing his wrong response to anxiety and taking unauthorized action to avert it. Followed by jealousy in response to the success of David. Followed by his attempt and then plan to kill David and his willingness to execute his son, Johnathan, to save face—and on and on till committing suicide], we noted that Saul’s value choices grew out of his ever-deteriorating character. We also note that the character deterioration was the direct result of his choosing to be king of his life rather than God being King of his life.

Also, as we talked, James shared that the church he was previously attending was teaching through I Samuel, and now the church he was attending with his folks was also going through I Samuel. “I think God has a message for me,” was his conclusion. The Lord answered my prayer! It was just the right book and the right person to be observing.


This experience triggered a decision to do some research the rest of the morning on the idea of character. At Bob Jones University in my college years (57-62), character was an important word, and its development was emphasized. The common parlance then was that character is what you are, and personality is what you want other people to think you are. Perhaps not 100% correct, but nonetheless helpful distinction for college students.

Here are two dictionary definitions of character. A dictionary seems to be a good place to start as long as one remembers that dictionaries reflect culture.

Here is what Merriam-Webster offers.

One of the attributes or features that make up and distinguish an individual; the aggregate of distinctive qualities characteristic of a breed, strain, or type; the detectable expression of the action of a gene or group of genes; the complex of mental and ethical traits marking and often individualizing a person, group, or nation; main or essential nature especially as strongly marked and serving to distinguish.

Collins Dictionary:

The dictionary gives us a quick and pointed definition. “The character of a person or place consists of all the qualities they have that make them distinct from other people or places”.

Historical Findings

Suffering the web, I stumbled on an interesting site from which this lengthy quote derives.

Character. Like honor, it’s a word we take for granted and probably have an affinity for, but likely struggle to define and articulate. It’s a word most men desire to have ascribed to them, and yet the standards for its attainment remain rather vague in our modern age.

It’s certainly not a word that’s used as much as it once was. Cultural historian Warren Susman researched the rise and fall of the concept of character, tracing its prevalence in literature and the self-improvement manuals and guides popular in different eras. What he found is that the use of the term “character” began in the 17th century and peaked in the 19th – a century, Susman writes, that embodied “a culture of character.” During the 1800s, “character was a key word in the vocabulary of Englishmen and Americans,” and men were spoken of as having strong or weak character, good or bad character, a great deal of character or no character at all. Young people were admonished to cultivate real character, high character, and noble character and told that character was the most priceless thing they could ever attain. Starting at the beginning of the 20th century, however, Susman found that the ideal of character began to be replaced by that of personality.

But character and personality are two very different things.

As society shifted from producing to consuming, ideas of what constituted the self began to transform. The rise of psychology, the introduction of mass-produced consumer goods, and the expansion of leisure time offered people new ways of forming their identity and presenting it to the world. In place of defining themselves through the cultivation of virtue, people began to express themselves through hobbies, dress, and material possessions. Susman observed this shift through the changing content of self-improvement manuals, which went from emphasizing moral imperatives and work to personal fulfillment: “The vision of self-sacrifice began to yield to that of self-realization.”

While advice manuals of the 19th century (and some of the early 20th as well) emphasized what a man really was and did, the new advice manuals concentrated on what others thought he was and did. In a culture of character, good conduct was thought to spring from a noble heart and mind; with this shift, perception trumped inner intent. Readers were taught how to be charming, control their voice, and make a good impression. A great example of this is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People from 1936. It focused on how to get people to like you and how to get others to perceive you well versus trying to improve your actual inner moral compass.

Susman argues that the transformation from a culture of character to a culture of personality was ultimately about a shift from “achievement to performance.” Susman illuminates this difference by noting that while the words most associated with character in the nineteenth century were “citizenship, duty, democracy, work, building, golden deeds, outdoor life, conquest, honor, reputation, morals, manners, integrity, and above all, manhood,” the words most associated with personality in the twentieth were “fascinating, stunning, attractive, magnetic, glowing, masterful, creative, dominant, and forceful.”

There’s nothing wrong with the cultivation of personality….It can help you navigate the world, form relationships, and become successful. But personality is absolutely no substitute for character, which should be the foundation of every man’s life. Thus, today we will be exploring the true nature of this largely forgotten ideal. We’ll be doing so by tapping into the writings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when character was still king.

You can follow their discussion at another time. It is my intent here to make several observations.

First, character development is the product of one’s worldview. Character flows from one’s anthropology and theology proper if speaking in theological terms. In simple terms, man is created in the image of God but fallen and plagued by original sin that tends to configure one’s worldview towards self-rulership. Secondly, God is not only the Creator but also the Sovereign and our King, which indicates that we should submit to Him.

Second, the history of Israel, with some highlighted rare exceptions, demonstrates individual and corporate tendencies towards self-rule and rebellion, with many characterological illustrations like Cain, Esau, Ahab, and Saul.

The Reformation with the return to the Word of God as the only rule of faith and life, along with the exhortation for every Christian to study the Scriptures for oneself. Little wonder there was a counterreformation, Satan’s attempt to squash this broad exposure to the Word of God. In the Providence of God, the invention of the printing press and the translations of the Bible into the vernacular spread the Word like wildfire across Western civilization. These developments produced this emphasis on character and character building. The following diagram from the same online article above is very illustrative.

Conclusion and Implementation

The Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the qualifications fo church officers along with James and I Peter are much about character development. The exhortation of the Old Testament and Peter, “Be ye holy as I am holy,” says the Lord God Almighty. Bring your character into conformity with my character, exhorts God.

When personality contours are supported by godly character, God is pleased, those around us will be pleased, and we will be pleased with ourselves internally and externally—with our behavior, both choices and habits.

Now, think about this!

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