Lesson 1 - How is Character Formed?

Introduction

Our Character Crisis

This immaturity epidemic is impacting every dimension of our common life: young men are having difficulty moving out of their parents’ house, the military had to lower the bar for boot camp requirements, youth groups are churning out underdeveloped Christians who lose their faith by middle school, and even streetgangs are lamenting that adolescence is dragging on just a bit too long. When gangs are concerned with a lack of integrity, we know we’ve got a problem. 

The Character Formation Project was founded as a response to this cultural crisis because, as Matt tells us, Christian educators are “not creating widgets,” they’re in the business of forming whole people

Reflect:

  • Think about your experience as an educator. Where have you seen evidence of the “character crisis” in our culture? Where have you seen it specifically in our educational institutions?  

  • What, in your view, are the root causes of this character crisis? What, if anything, are our educational institutions doing to remedy it?

The Role of Teachers

Next to parents and grandmothers, teachers are the most important influencers of the character of young men and women. After all, many students spend more time with their teachers than they do with their families, at least during the school year. 

As Matt puts, aside from parents, “teachers are the most important character-growers in our nation.” This is an exceptionally high calling, in part because it demands that teachers be paragons of character. If our actions are not consistent with our instruction, students will simply dismiss us as hypocrites. As any teacher will tell you, students have a sixth sense for detecting phoniness in adults. 

Reflect:

  • As an educator, how would you characterize your role in a student’s life. Put another way, what do you owe to a student? What should a student expect from you?  

  • Teachers are responsible for covering testable curriculum, but they are also responsible for shaping the character of their students, whether this part of the job is made explicit or not. In what specific ways do you teach character to your students? How do you model character to them?

Pain, Struggle, Sacrifice

So, how is character formed? There are lots of ingredients, but as Matt reminds us here, we almost never grow in character without pain, struggle, and sacrifice. This is something that the first Christians knew from experience. The Apostle Peter, for example, encouraged Christians in Asia Minor to endure their various trials by reminding them that only faith which has been tested by fire is “more precious than gold” (1 Peter 1:6–7). But perhaps nobody put it better than the Apostle Paul:

. . . We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Romans 5:3–5

Of course, “rejoicing in sufferings” is a tough sell in our culture of quitting. We tend to think of suffering as something to be avoided, rather than as a tool in the formation of our character. 

Reflect:

  • Where have you seen the “culture of quitting” at work in your experience as an educator? What are the sources of this culture?  

  • What are some practical ways you can encourage students to see their struggles as a valuable chapter in the story of their character formation? 

Purpose and Practice

Character-building requires pain and sacrifice, but purpose and practice are also key ingredients. However, as Matt argues here, we need to distinguish carefully between purpose and motivation. As he illustrates with Eddie Murphy’s obsessive quest for $1,000,000, something you do for yourself is motivation, but it isn’t purpose. To live a life of purpose is to devote yourself to something bigger than yourself. 

Needless to say, this doesn’t come naturally, much like exercise doesn’t come naturally to most of us. And that’s why it takes lots and lots of small decisions made over a long time to cultivate a fully formed character. In the words of biblical scholar N.T. Wright: 

Character strengths don’t happen all in a rush. You have to work at them. Character is a slowly forming thing. You can no more force character on someone than you can force a tree to produce fruit when it isn’t ready to do so. The person has to choose, again and again, to develop the moral muscles and skills which will shape and form the fully flourishing character.

N.T. Wright, After You Believe

Reflect:

  • How do you distinguish between motivation and purpose? If you were to ask an average student about the purpose behind their day-to-day decisions, what do you think they’d say? How can you instill a sense of purpose in your classroom or afterschool program?  

  • As an educator, how can you create opportunities for students to practice the habits that build “moral muscles”? 

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