In his book How Then Should We Work: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work, Hugh Whelchel writes,
The separation of faith and calling by Christians through the loss of the biblical doctrine of work had a devastating effect on the landscape of American culture during the twentieth century.
What were some of these “devastating effects?”
- An increase in corruption and greed in the marketplace, as Whelchel points out in a past post.
- A business mindset that trains executives “To look for gray areas in legal and accounting standards and push their companies to the colorable limit,” as Jeff Van Duzer and Tim Dearborn forewarned in an article from Christianity Today.
These effects amount to a loss of character in our culture today. What is character, and how can we cultivate it amongst ourselves and those around us, that we might be salt and light in the communities in which God calls us to participate?
What Is Character?
Faith and work were never meant to be separated. We have divorced our internal beliefs from our external actions. Character assumes that our beliefs and actions are not isolated from each other.
Character is a pattern of choices flowing out of a person – a pattern of virtues or vices. Character assumes consistency, integrity, and dependability in our actions. Stanley Hauerwas writes in his ground-breaking work, Character in the Christian Life:
For to stress the significance of the idea of character is to be normatively committed to the idea that it is better for men to shape rather than be shaped by their circumstance.
Character, or lack of it, is cyclical in nature. Our actions are spurred by us – our past choices – and those actions then shape us and impact our future choices, and so on. Each individual action either reinforces a previous pattern or not. Each new action shapes the self in an accustomed fashion or sets a new path.
Perhaps this is why Jesus talks not just of individual actions, but a way of life. Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus uses “either/or” categorizations. There are two ways, and only two:
- Two ways/gates: In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus declares there are only two ways and two gates: broad and wide, leading to destruction, and small and narrow, leading to life.
- Two kinds of character: In Matthew 7:17-20, Jesus illustrates character with the two-trees metaphor: good trees bear good fruit, and bad trees bear rotten fruit. The character of the tree determines the fruit produced.
- Two foundations: Jesus uses the illustration of men building their houses on foundations of rock and sand. Repeated obedience builds the foundation of the rock. Repeated disobedience sets up a person’s life to be blown away when the storms of life come.
Our actions create the kind of foundation that will or will not withstand a storm. Our actions (our fruits) come out of our character (the good tree or the bad tree), and shape our future (the foundation of rock or sand).
The Importance of Cultivating Character
Character is won or lost in the little things. There is a classic saying that defines this process:
Sow a thought, reap an act. Sow an act, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.
Our thoughts influence our actions. Our actions tend to form entrenched patterns, habits, virtues, and vices. The sum total of these habits is our character.
When thoughts and actions are omitted, it has a devastating impact on our character, and our future. For a number of years, I was an instructor for Prison Fellowship. One inmate I met with was a pharmacist. He started by selling a drug without a prescription to someone who wanted it. That led over time to numerous sales and a pattern of drug dealing. He told me that he never imagined that he would end up in prison when he made that first decision to sell drugs illegally.
The effects of failing to cultivate character are more than just personal. As detailed above, effects are corporate, too. And yet there is hope. If Christians reclaim the biblical doctrine of work, we can bring character and flourishing back to our culture.
Whelchel ends How Then Should We Work by saying,
We must realize that through the Christian doctrine of work, God changes the culture. If Christians live in major cultural centers in great numbers and simply do their work in an excellent but distinctive manner, it will naturally produce a different kind of culture than the one in which we now live.
If you’re concerned about our culture, first renew your character.