In recent months we have seen a series of very public failures of character by prominent Christians. Paige Patterson, Andy Savage, Bill Hybels…the list goes on and on. We all need a renewed emphasis on character in our lives, starting with those who are leading the church.
God wants us to be the fully virtuous people he designed us to be in the first place. Yet Christians have a long way to go to get there. What ideas from the Christian tradition can help us in our daily lives to bridge the character gap between how we are and how we should be? Here I want to highlight three such ideas.
Historically a number of practices have been central to the Christian life. Examples include prayer, reading scripture, contemplating the lives of the saints, fasting, confessing sins, and helping those in need.
To be sure, the main purpose of these practices may not be to become better people. They may ultimately exist to better worship or bring glory to God. But in the process of engaging in them, Christians also take concrete steps which can have a beneficial impact on their characters.
As an example, take confessing our sins. To admit a lie, or a theft, or an affair, can take a great deal of courage. We are often afraid of revealing our deepest secrets and wrongdoings to others, especially to those we want to like and admire us. Confession can also strengthen our trust in other people by sharing deeply personal information with them. It takes a degree of humility to acknowledge where we have messed up. When others forgive us, and we experience God’s forgiveness, it can make us more forgiving as well. Christians are to be grateful for being forgiven. Not to mention that confessing wrongdoings will hopefully make us less likely to commit the same ones again in the future.
If she is authentically carrying out Christian practices like confessing sin, the believer can gradually grow in virtue. She will be directing her attention in a better way (the head part) and reorienting her motives to respond accordingly (the heart part), whether she knows it or not. The head and the heart, in other words, are being aligned in a way that is virtuous.
The Social Dimension
There is more to a Christian vision of character improvement than just a bunch of different practices, though. In fact, the picture I have painted is badly skewed. It makes it sound like the individual Christian is on her own when it comes to bridging the character gap.
But when Christians pray, we often do so with other people. Many families say a blessing at the dinner table. We can pass along prayer requests to their church or small group. We often recite the Lord’s Prayer together.
When Christians confess sins, we do so to God. Frequently we also confess to fellow believers, whether a priest, minister, spouse, or trusted friend. Or we say a confessional in unison as part of a service.
When we worship, we can be in unity with dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of other people, joining our own voice to these others in prayer, song, and laughter.
Why does this social dimension matter? For all kinds of reasons. The most important is support. The Christian is not on her own. When she needs advice, she hopefully has people to turn to. During difficult times, she does not have to face them alone. She has other people who can pray for her, share advice, provide meals, and perhaps even offer financial support. As Christians struggles with a deep sin, we can turn to a minister or priest or fellow Christian at church to work through that sin, ask God for forgiveness, and try to come up with a plan for eradicating it going forward with God’s help.
The social dimension can also be a source of great comfort. For many Christians, it is comforting to know that there are others on the same path as us, all working together to, among other things, become better people. Even more so, it can be comforting to see that it is not an easy road for any of us, and everyone will have to struggle individually and collectively.
Amidst this struggle, being in a Christian community hopefully provides many role models who serve as inspirational examples to follow in our daily life (sadly, these days it can also provide many examples of what not to do as well). These role models for Christians need not only be historical figures or people we see on TV. They can be personal figures in our own life, ideally serving as religious mentors who are willing to disciple other Christians. This might take the form of praying together, reading the Bible together, holding each other accountable, and more generally sharing our life together. In such a personal setting, real progress can be made in becoming better people.
Character and the Holy Spirit
The last idea I’ll mention here is that from the Christian perspective, God himself is at work in character development in the form of the Holy Spirit.
This idea turns character improvement upside down. Rather than being left to our own devices in trying to improve ourselves, God chooses to intervene in an important way and actively contributes to the process.
To make the same point using theological language, sanctification in the Christian conception is not something left up to us to try and do all on our own. It also involves more than the help of fellow believers in the church. In addition, there are many things that the Holy Spirit is doing which bring about character change in a believer as well.
These points can be neatly interwoven. One way the Holy Spirit can change a Christian’s character is through the very practices that she is engaged in, such as prayer. Prayer becomes an avenue for the Holy Spirit to do its work. The emerging picture from a Christian perspective, then, is one of human and divine cooperation on the path to becoming people of good character.
There is never any suggestion, however, that this process will come close to being completed during this lifetime. The process of sanctification continues beyond this life and into the next.
This piece is taken from The Character Gap by Christian B. Miller. Copyright 2017 and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
The Character Gap is available for purchase here.
Christian B. Miller is A. C. Reid Professor of Philosophy at Wake Forest University and author or editor of eight books. His most recent, The Character Gap: How Good Are We? has just been released. The material above is an excerpt from chapter ten of his book, and is reprinted with permission of Oxford University Press.