How our understanding of character has shifted

I had a conversation last week in which I realised how much the way we understand ‘character’ has shifted in our culture and how at odds it now is with a biblical understanding.

In a biblical worldview character is the habit of acting and reacting in a godly way. It is the product of walking with God over a period of time and repeatedly responding in godly ways. It is often the product of suffering.’We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’ (Romans 5:3-4)

In our culture, by contrast, character has come to be virtually synonymous with personality. My character is the combination of idiosyncrasies that mark me out as different from other people. We used to say ‘He is a man of good character’ meaning he is a man of integrity and generosity. Now we say ‘He is a character’ meaning he is an eccentric, a bit different.

The contrast becomes even more stark when we realize that modern character is achieved through self-expression and expressed in self-fulfilment while biblical character is achieved through self-denial and expressed in self-sacrifice.

10 thoughts on “How our understanding of character has shifted

  1. I am just reading Dallas Willards ‘Renovation’ on the whole issue of character dev and in his own verbose way he says some very insightful stuff focused in the truth of dying to self as the only way to life and godly character. While it’s familiar it’s always challenging because I never seem to fully die… I just ‘get sick’ of myself!

  2. Thanks, Tim, for the insightful post. : )

    My pursuits of “godly character” have often derailed into idolatrous, self-love affairs. Result: “Character God” – moralistic deism in exquisite form – lacking power! God’s character (4Gs) is transfused into me as I abide in the Vine. All of the “character talk” in the bible assumes the reader’s understanding of the gospel. Today’s church is “Gospel stupid.” (Jared Wilson) We can’t assume anything.

  3. A few responses …

    I love Hamo’s phrase ‘I just get “sick” of myself’ – I think that well describes where many people are and most of us are sometimes. I shall be using that phrase myself!

    I also think ‘gospel stupid’ is a good phrase. But I doubt I shall be using it much – I’m too much of a polite Englishman!

    I’ve never read anything by Brian McLaren (sorry – perhaps because I’m not cool enough!?). So, Neil, I’m not sure how to interpret your comment ‘definitely reading too much Brian McLaren’. Is that directed at me or ‘the culture’?

  4. That’s REALLY helpful.
    As I young Christian I was really confused about how God was sanctifying all Christians, changing their characters to be more like him. I thought this would mean we’d all have the same personality and be like a really weird cult with all the same clothes, manerisms and same earnestness and sense of humour!

    This all came from a wrong understanding of the word – character. Character is changable by God. Personality is God-given and may change, but it’s not that that God wants to change.

    Eli x

  5. The etymology of conversation and conversion are inextricably tied… which is an important fact for community & mission, as well as reassuring you that your mixing them is not such a problem afterall!

  6. I agree. And I think maybe the change has come about because society tends to consider ‘personality’ more important than ‘virtue’. Perhaps that’s something to do with the fact that we hero-worship celebrities, who are interesting if they have a bit of ‘character’ – in the modern sense of the term. I think also maybe there’s an emphasis on personality because that’s something that helps people sell products. Buy a phone or a car to match your personality. You can sell products so easily when you’re appealing to a person’s virtue.

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