Why Character Is Important and 3 Sure-Fire Ways to Grow It
- Noelle Kirchner Contributing Writer
- 2021 19 Feb
I remember an evening that I commuted into New York City when my two oldest boys were little. What seemed like an uneventful occurrence made a lasting impression.
Everyone was filing off the train in Penn Station, eager to board the escalator that wasn’t working (again), to start the long climb up the stairs and into the corridor. Picture someone climbing in front of you, to the side of you, and behind you to the point that if you really thought about it, claustrophobia would get the best of you. But you don’t have time to think about it. You just look down and keep climbing.
I was about to start mounting the escalator in this familiar scene when someone did the extraordinary. Someone looked up. A young man with his hands full noticed an older woman to the side of him, and he stopped to let her go ahead. She nodded quickly in acknowledgment as strangers do.
That young man had the courage to act differently. He evaluated his surroundings, chose to break the norm, and showed someone else a sign of respect. No one was applauding him. In fact, some people were pushing him from behind to keep moving. But he chose chivalry instead.
His simple act of courtesy may seem so small. It may seem insignificant. In fact, you may be wondering, “Why does it bear repeating at all?” Because as a pastor and mom of three boys myself, it means everything. It speaks of character.
Character and Its Importance
One definition describes character as “moral excellence and firmness, earned through one's actions.” Character is crafted by our everyday decisions. When we choose wisely time and time again, we develop it. It can best be demonstrated when there is no accolade to be gained at all. Malcolm S. Forbes, the publisher of Forbes magazine, once stated, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”
Character development is beneficial. Many consider being a person of character to be the highest compliment from others. Operating as a person of character improves the lives of those around you, like the Penn Station example. Further, a person’s ability to practice self-control or discipline has been correlated to future success. That was the conclusion of the famous Marshmallow Experiment of the 1960s and its subsequent follow-ups.
Interestingly, self-control is one of the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. Character development and its benefits are therefore integral to a faith relationship. Like a faith relationship, however, character’s development is intangible and harder to quantify than a GPA, paycheck, or award. As a result, it’s easy to overlook the cauldron of character in an effort thrust ahead.
A lack of character is especially troubling to Professor Catherine Sanderson. A freshman in her son’s dorm room died due to a drunken fall. No one called for help until it was too late—hours after the injury. In her book Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels, she warns about the dangers of inaction. Why do people choose inaction at key moments instead of action, especially when the latter could dramatically improve the situation or even save a life?
Sanderson’s goal is to transform people from inactive bystanders into moral rebels. Moral rebels are willing to buck the trend and stand out from the crowd to do what they think is right. They have a high level of empathy for others and a willingness to push through the discomfort and risk that their action requires. Interestingly, Sanderson found that the number one statistical driver that can equip people to become moral rebels is training and practice.
Character can be taught, but it’s also often hard-fought. Sanderson found that standing up can trigger the same receptors in the brain that pain does in the body. Scripture concurs that character is the fruit of a path that not’s always easy. Romans 5:3-5 reads, “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame.” In other words, character is worth sacrificing for—it’s intimately tied to the life and salvation of Jesus Christ.
Three Ways to Grow Character
Character formation is essential at any age. Theologian Johann Kasper Lavater said, “Actions, looks, words, and steps form the alphabet by which you may spell character.” In that vein, below are three practical tips for growing character in children to adults.
1.Utilize character-building resources. As Christians, we know that regular exposure to the Bible spiritually matters, but Sanderson’s finding proves that exposure psychologically matters too. As a pastor, I was encouraged by her emphasis on training and practice. The regularity with which we hear sermons, read scripture, and engage in Spirit-led discussions can form a powerful character-building arsenal.
Strong scripture-based resources matter for children too. For instance, I had the opportunity to interview Candace Cameron Bure recently, and she has written three books that are character-driven for children; each one is based upon a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Her newest one teaches faithfulness as the main character adopts a puppy and attempts to train it. Finding resources that are engaging and fun makes parental teaching easier!
2.Reinforce good behavior. Intentionally evaluate your work and/or home environment. Are there practical steps that you can take to come up higher? Galatians 6:9 reads, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Remember that our Heavenly Parent rewards faithfulness.
If you are a parent, teacher, or mentor, remember that children are impacted by what you model, encourage, and applaud. You can be the person who is looking now so that they will make the right decision when no one is looking down the road. Try catching the little things: the sharing you witness at a play date, the self-sacrifice you observe for a friend, or the unprompted concern you see demonstrated for a stranger.
3.Surround yourself with like-minded people. While I was impressed by the young man in Penn Station, his sacrifice was isolated and relatively small. Larger, riskier moral stands are easier to take when you have someone standing beside you. Interestingly, Sanderson found that as well. Finding a friend was the second-best tool for enabling action. When I interviewed Candace Cameron Bure, she found that being surrounded by her family, who are like-minded, enabled her to make wiser choices too.
This concept is equally important for children. Faith-based organizations and groups geared to youth are invaluable for their development. When children are younger, they help to cement parental teaching. When they’re older, they give children the peer support to make difficult decisions and stand upon that teaching.
Character counts, and fortunately, it’s possible to cultivate it with intentionality. No one benefits long-term when we as a culture keep climbing, oblivious to what’s going on around us. Yes, we can dream big dreams. Yes, we can work toward notable accomplishments. But the things that will one day make us the proudest might not be what we expect.
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Rev. Noelle Kirchner, M.Div., believes we don't have to live with full schedules and thin souls. A busy mom of three boys, she is a graduate of Northwestern University and Princeton Seminary and an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served in churches for over ten years. She has written for places like the TODAY Show Parenting Team, Huff Post Parents, Crosswalk, iBelieve, and (in)courage. Her faith and family cable television show, "Chaos to Calm," features parenting hot topics and has hosted four New York Times bestselling authors and two Emmy Award-winning journalists. Watch her episodes or sermons and sign up for her free devotional e-book by visiting her website, noellekirchner.com. You can connect with her on social media (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook) and also check out her book, How to Live Your Life Purpose: The Six-Step Journey to God's Best, that launched as a #1 New Release on Amazon and includes end-of-chapter Bible studies.