Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Shape of Character

Shape my character? How does that work exactly?
Have you ever tried to shape your character?

It’s not something I think about doing in those words exactly. Yes, I know: everybody’s character has a shape. You develop convictions about right and wrong over time. Then you either choose to act on them or you don’t. Character results, of one sort or another. It happens to everyone, including me.

But Immanuel Can dropped this gem on me in an email exchange the other day:
“The lack of any concept of male virtues leaves many young men at sea as they try to shape their characters and grow up well.”
and I thought, “Shape their characters? Who shapes his character?”

I don’t mean to suggest for a second that I’ve never cared how I behave, or that I pay no attention to what scripture teaches about how I ought to live. Not the case, I hope. But the idea of having an actual *plan* for it kind of boggled my mind. How exactly does one plan to “grow up well”?

I mean, I just grew up. Period. It was a constant struggle. I didn’t have any idea where I was headed or what I was trying to accomplish.

Primarily, I had a lot of negative opinions from which I deduced everything else:

I watched corporatized middle-agers (whom I referred to rather uncharitably as “business pigs”) and was confident that whatever life might hold for me, I didn’t want it to hold THAT. (Ironic, I suppose, since I ended up as one, but it was really the values I perceived as attaching to such a career that I despised, not the job itself.) To my mind that sort of life seemed about as pointless as can be conceived. How could you be all about buying houses, acquiring the second car, moving up at work and through the social strata? That, and planning your next vacation. To me, such things were transparently empty of worth.

I observed teenagers posing, dressing up in the latest fashions and partying: “mall rats”, my friends and I called them. Didn’t want that either. It looked like a life that was all about image and appearance, totally insubstantial. Anytime I dressed up and went to parties I was further confirmed in my conviction.

I contemplated the university track toward which most of my high school friends were headed and was extremely clear in my own mind that I didn’t want anything to do with that, much to the surprise of my teachers. Too pretentious and phony, I was positive. If you already know you’re not going to be a “business pig”, why would you want to start as a “pseud” (or pseudo-intellectual)?

So, lots of negatives, no real positive aspirations. Certainly no coherent plan.

It occurs to me, though, that recognizing what I did and didn’t want to do or to be in life necessarily involved developing a certain amount of conviction, even if it was merely based on knee-jerk distaste. I valued substance over fluff, reality over appearance, things that lasted over things that didn’t. I’m not that different today.

But the way my convictions form has changed. My beliefs at that time were shaped by my visceral reaction to the world around me rather than by any coherent strategy. The instinctual take on the world that gave rise to my earliest dogmatic assertions about life was part nature, part nurture, like almost everyone’s youthful opinions. And, again like most others at that age, it was all heart and no head.

When I began to walk with the Lord that changed. My brain began to be more consistently engaged to the purpose for which God intended it: to discern his will. Many of my convictions about what I observed remained almost exactly the same. The difference was that I now had the Holy Spirit and the self-control that is a consequence of his indwelling to concretize my convictions: to actually do some of the things I always thought seemed like good ideas but never managed to sustain in my own strength.

If I have since given evidence through my actions of any “male virtues”, as IC calls them, it is the Spirit of God to whom such changes are entirely attributable.

Convictions are great, but if they don’t result in actions pleasing to God, you would be hard pressed to refer to them as “good character” with any legitimacy.
Convictions + Actions = Character
You need both. Actions in the absence of real convictions may spring from any number of motives. Worry, panic, duty or blind obedience may produce actions that have nothing to do with good character. Convictions in the absence of action? Well, we know what scripture says about them. The two things go together.

Anyway, while I may have occasionally given evidence of male virtue and hopefully there is good character in here somewhere, I haven’t done a whole lot intelligently and intentionally to give that character shape. There never has been, perhaps to my shame, any plan.

*   *   *   *   *

We can formulate it another way. “How can a young man keep his way pure?” asks the psalmist. Purity is most certainly a male virtue, if an often-neglected one.

The answer has two components: “By guarding it” [that’s the action] ... “according to your word” [the mechanism by which conviction is established].

If I have managed adequately to date without any coherent plan to shape my character, the reason is a particular personal habit: the daily reading of the word of God. Its importance was drilled into me from childhood. To be honest, while for many years it has been a daily habit, there have been periods when my reading of scripture has been less consistent. Unsurprisingly, the times that I have been reasonably successful in avoiding major character disasters correspond almost exactly with those periods in which I read and contemplated scripture most frequently and intensively.

Makes sense: if you don’t work at establishing some convictions about what you ought to be doing (or not doing), you’re unlikely to do much of anything useful. Also, if you don’t know your Master, you won’t love him much (and if it’s the Word of God that informs real male virtue, it’s only love that effectively inspires it).

*   *   *   *   *

I waste your time telling you this because it’s my observation that many young Christian men are in exactly the same position I was: careening along without any plan to develop their character. Oh, they have plans for their future, plans for school, plans for marriage and kids, perhaps. Some are even working on plans for retirement already.

But for shaping their characters? Not so much.

So what are male virtues? What is a “good man” these days? What does he do? How does he act? What values does he represent? What does he live and die for?

These sorts of questions underlie all others, I think.

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