Former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan has written several fine books. One has a title that stands out above the rest. It is the one she wrote about our fortieth president, Ronald Reagan: “When Character Was King.” In the book, she writes, “The one thing a man must bring into the White House, if he is to succeed, is a character that people come to recognize as high, sturdy, and reliable.”
I fully agree. It’s the absence of “high, sturdy, and reliable” character that troubles me the most about our current culture. Today, character has lost its crown; it is conspicuous by its absence.
We live our lives in a day when moral purity and ethical strength are rare even though they are invaluable in every career, trade, and calling. The presence of character is needed as much among educators as it is among journalists, physicians, plumbers, carpenters, attorneys, coaches, referees, and athletes for that matter.
Professors, as well as pastors, corporate leaders, and those who engage in sales, need character. It is needed by those who serve as judges as well as those who occupy a seat on the jury. Character belongs in our military, for those taking orders as well as those giving the orders. While I’m at it, I’m going to add the obvious—parents need it too because character starts with a mother and a father who take the time to sit with their children and explain what it means to have a reliable, high, and sturdy character.
A child is not born knowing what that means or how having character is cultivated. Children learn it from their parents, and later they model it. If it doesn’t come from the home, they deal with its absence later in life. They will face the lack of it in marriage or when they live on their own.
Let’s remember it doesn’t get much better than spending time with our kids—and, over time, with grandchildren—especially those moments of teaching, addressing, and modeling great character. It will not happen on its own. Ideally, it is first crowned in the home.
But I write to more than parents—godly character needs to be crowned in all of God’s children. When one deals with character one goes deep into the roots of life. Character lives in the heart and it starts in the mind—where we come to terms with life’s issues. One of the ways the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines character is “moral excellence.” In a word, integrity.
Though many lists exist in the Scriptures, Philippians 4:8 mentions six important traits for godly living. It’s the only account that links together this particular group of virtues. Rare, but ideal, this list describes a well-rounded life of godly character.
Concerned for his friends in Philippi, Paul addresses what goes on in their minds because it all starts there. People are what they are, and then do what they do, because of what is in their mind. Let’s work our way through this excellent list.
Whatever is True
Truth opposes anything deceptive, phony, unreal, and unreliable, so Paul starts here. He aims at the heart because a life breaks down when people begin to tell themselves lies. If facing a choice, go with what’s true. Regardless of any feelings, let truth guide, not the majority opinion. Be quick to speak the truth. Truth-tellers stand out (and often, alone).
Even among good friends, truth has to fight for its existence. I love James Russell Lowell’s words, “Truth forever on the scaffold. Wrong forever on the throne.” See the struggle in those words? Forever on the scaffold—forever fighting for its existence.
Truth, by the way, is a mark of maturity. Mature people value honesty more than anything. Paul illustrates this beautifully in Ephesians. “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him who is the head, that is, Christ” (4:14–15).
Don’t miss the mixture of truth and love. Keep them together; otherwise, the risk of bludgeoning people with the truth can cause divisiveness and conflict. Blazing through life as a truth-teller is not the ultimate goal. Soften that with love, blend it with grace, while clinging to the truth. Keep the critical ingredient of love. A child who learns to tell the truth must know he or she is loved. It’s out of love that parents teach and enforce the importance of truth.
Whatever is Noble
One expositor writes, “Noble [or honorable] is a word that has the dignity of holiness in it.” I like the analogy in that statement. Want to live a life of holiness? Start with honesty. It includes having proper motives, proper manners, and proper morals. The opposite overflows in our culture. Cheap, coarse, flippant, shallow, and shameful things surround us all.
Statements with double meanings lead the mind into the gutter, but this character trait pleads for higher ground. Everything is good about a sense of humor. Everything is wonderful about a moment of fun. Unless, of course, it requires trafficking in the sewer to make others laugh. An honorable individual will not go there.
This word honorable has to do with remaining worthy of another individual’s respect. That worthiness directly connects with honesty. Respect usually follows honesty.
The Oxford English Dictionary explains the word integrity as, “Coming from the Latin integritas,” which means wholeness, completeness. Warren Wiersbe writes in his book The Integrity Crisis, “Integrity is to personal or corporate character what health is to the body and 20/20 vision is to the eyes. A person with integrity is not divided.” That’s duplicity, explains Wiersbe. A person with integrity is not pretending. That’s hypocrisy. “He or she is ‘whole’; life is ‘put together,’ and things are working together harmoniously. People with integrity have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. Their lives are open books.”
People who have integrity live integrated lives—their convictions and lifestyles match. An honorable person models consistency, remaining honest to the core.
Whatever is Right
Right or just has to do with conforming to God’s standard. What a great goal in life! It means seeking what’s fair and square in dealing with others. It’s treating people with respect, kindness, and thoughtfulness, regardless of their ethnicity, race, gender, and philosophies of life. Perhaps the word great-hearted would be a good synonym. It comes to the surface in how we treat other people.
Years ago, Cynthia and I, along with Dr. and Mrs. Howard Hendricks, accepted an invitation offered to us by Mr. William Johnson, the owner of the Ritz-Carlton, to go to one of their great hotels on the island of Maui. After praying about it for one-third of a second, both couples agreed! This would be a great way to spend a few days together, so we went as his guests.
What a wonderful time we had as we talked with Bill about the hotel and what they believed. While explaining, he shared the motto of the Ritz-Carlton hotels with us, reducing it to nine words. “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.”
Why do they teach that specifically? Because he was convinced that they were, in fact, ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen . . . because they care about respecting others. The church would not have a problem reaching out to a neighborhood if God’s people focused more on what’s honorable in dealing with men and women. How important it is for us to do what’s just and what’s right for others!
Whatever is Pure
This fourth word is oh-so-valuable in one’s life. The word means morally uncompromising and undefiled. It means maintaining a mind that stays scrubbed clean and sustaining a life that is free of secret escapades—disciplined enough to resist even the thought of sensual promiscuity, even in the imaginary. When it comes to having character, purity is a nonnegotiable.
Several years ago I came across an article in Leadership Journal entitled, “The Consequences of a Moral Tumble” by Randy Alcorn. In it, Alcorn spells out the consequences if he fell morally. Alcorn writes quite openly:
Whenever I feel particularly vulnerable to sexual temptation, I find it helpful to review what effects my action could have: grieving the Lord who redeemed me; dragging his sacred name through the mud; one day having to look at Jesus, the righteous judge in the face, and give an account of my actions; following the footsteps of people whose immorality forfeited their ministries and caused me to shudder; losing my wife’s respect and trust; hurting my daughters; destroying my example and credibility with my children; causing shame to my family; losing self-respect; forming memories and flashbacks that could plague future intimacy with my wife; wasting years of ministry training; undermining the faithful example and hard work of other Christians in our community; and on and on.
Don’t think that because “everybody’s doing it,” it’s now okay. Always remember the subtlety of the enemy. I love Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great little book entitled Temptation. In it, he writes, “When we’re tempted we’re not filled with thoughts of hating God. The enemy fills us with thoughts of simply forgetting God.”
That’s what David did with Bathsheba at the zenith of his great career. As lust took over, he simply “forgot God.” Always keep in mind the value of purity. If you’ve gotten soft on purity, now is a good time to stop! It is never too late to start doing what is right.
Whatever is Lovely
I so appreciate that Paul included loveliness in his list. Lovely sounds almost feminine in today’s culture. Around other parts of the world, such as Australia, people freely describe each other as “lovely.” What do they mean by lovely?
It means to be pleasing, to be winsome. It’s the absence of offensiveness. Staying agreeable and amiable, causing pleasure and delight to others. Talk about a characteristic needed among Christians today!
Loveliness is a quality found among peacemakers. Those with this virtue can step into a hostile and highly charged setting and because of that winsome graciousness they soon end the fight and resolve the conflict. It’s beautiful to have people around who are lovely. By the way, modeling grace is all about demonstrating loveliness.
I came across a statement made by Reinhold Niebuhr years ago that I’ve appreciated (and quoted) ever since: “You may be able to compel people to maintain certain minimum standards by stressing duty, but the highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push, but a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness.” Isn’t it delightful to be around a charming person? The adjective charming—it’s a synonym for magnetic . . . contagious.
People will not be able to stay away from someone who “charms them into righteousness.” There isn’t a neighbor who is turned off by grace. When others find themselves around a captivating individual, they want to know why. It’s a part of the lovely quality that depends on a pull and never on a push
Whatever is Admirable
The original word for admirable means fair-speaking. It is a word that carries with it appealing and attractive qualities. A person who is admirable makes a good impression the first time. Such individuals stay positive, not negative. They give constructive, not destructive, feedback.
I remember admirable people with gratitude. I can recall many admirable teachers I had in school. And I discovered while in the class of that teacher, I felt better about life because of the attractive appeal of that person’s life.
Regardless of our difficulties, sufferings, and disappointments, focusing our minds on things that build our character will quench the flames of anxiety that otherwise fuel stress and disunity. When the Philippians needed encouragement, they looked at Paul’s example. He provided them a course to follow—one focused on the person and work of Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Though we don’t have Paul around us today, God always places in our lives observable models of those who have made godly character king in their lives. Their example spurs us on to growth and helps us to cultivate similar qualities and experience the peace of God as our minds are fixed on Christ alone (Phil 4:9).