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Do your children forget to make their beds or put their dishes away? Do they slam doors and dump their shoes and jackets in the back hallway?

As a parent, I am always reading advice on how to deal with such problems. One day I heard this suggestion: for every door slammed, the slammer must close the door quietly 10 times. If a dirty dish is left on the counter, the one who left it there (not always a child!) must put the dish in the dishwasher 10 times. Is there a coat dumped on the floor or draped over a doorknob? Hang it up 10 times.

This sounded much more intriguing to me than, say, yelling my head off. So we tried it. It worked pretty well. Even better, it was hilarious. How many families can keep a straight face watching the offending family member put a dirty plate in the dishwasher, sheepishly bring it back to the table, put it back in the dishwasher, and then repeat the process nine more times? Trust me, 10 times is usually enough to make the point!

As a philosopher who teaches the history of ethics, I had other reasons to think this parenting advice had potential. All the ancient philosophers agreed that we need practice to become certain sorts of people. They called this process “habituation.” The idea is that if you practice eating healthy foods and managing your portion sizes, it gradually becomes a habit to eat temperately. Or if you practice giving gifts or money to others on a regular basis, it will eventually feel more natural to you to be generous. Some habits are harder to build; some are easier to break.

But the point is that your habits cumulatively build into a psychological profile. Moral habits in particular say something about what goals and goods are important to you; together, they speak volumes about who you are as a person. We call this “character.” Philosophers describe character in terms of virtues—good traits of character—and vices—bad character traits. Most of us are a pretty mixed bag.

Virtues and Vices
Despite the ancient pedigree of building good habits as a crucial part of our character formation, it’s common nowadays in both churches and workplaces to talk about morality mostly in terms of rules and codes of conduct. What actions are permitted or prohibited? Did I do something wrong?

It’s common in economic circles to evaluate what’s good in terms of cost-benefit analyses or consequences. What are the trade-offs we need to make to achieve a desired outcome? What policies or distribution of resources produce the best results?

It’s less common, however, to use the language of character. Sometimes we need to establish a person’s character in the courtroom to know whether that person is a credible witness. Other times, we use “character talk” to sum up the lives of those we love at their funerals. “He was gentle and patient,” we say, and then we tell a story to illustrate a time when his gentleness blessed us personally. Or we describe someone as “a faithful wife and devoted mother.” At a funeral, we are trying to think about a person’s life as a whole. That means paying attention to the patterns and priorities that emerged through the way a person thought and showed emotion and behaved over a long period of time. Unfortunately, at your funeral it’s too late to make changes in your character.

Throughout history, Christian thinkers have used organic metaphors to describe the cumulative power of habit formation, both good and bad. They have pictured the virtues and vices as trees. For example, the tree of vices had its roots in pride, while the tree of virtues was rooted in love or humility.

What we learn from these pictures is that our greatest loves will shape the rest of our life—our thoughts and feelings, our actions, our friendships, the images we find appealing, and our daily priorities in both work and play. Our character may develop too slowly for us to notice, but it does not stay hidden underground. It grows, it branches out, it bears fruit.

It’s one thing to be occasionally tempted by a fleeting lustful thought or a twinge of envy. It’s another thing to let greed become so deeply anchored that we don’t even realize that we have become more hard-hearted or restless or manipulative—all “offshoot vices” that have been linked to a heart sold out to greed. And while a few random acts of kindness when we are in a cheerful mood are certainly worth doing, if kindness is not our default mode of reacting to others, we don’t yet have this virtue as a stable feature of our character.

In After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, N.T. Wright argues that Christian discipleship includes caring about our habit formation and intentionally cultivating Christ-like character. In doing so, he’s following the example of many others before him. Passages in Scripture such as Colossians 3 and Ephesians 4 instruct us to take off our old sinful practices and to put on the new self, created to be like Christ Jesus. Paul summarizes this Christ-like character using a list of virtues: “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience,” unified by love (Col. 3:12-14). Early Christians called this task “spiritual formation,” “soul care,” and “the imitation of Christ.”

The desert fathers used a list of capital vices (now known as the seven deadly sins) to describe their struggles against the most typical recurrent temptations and disordered desires in sinful human nature. Augustine adapted the four cardinal virtues—practical wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance from Greek and Roman philosophy (and echoed in Wisdom 8)—and added three more theological virtues—faith, hope, and love (from 1 Cor. 13). Benedict gave monks step-by-step practice of the virtue of humility in his Rule. Aquinas organized his entire theological ethics in the Summa theologiae around the virtues, with Jesus Christ as the model of perfected human character.

The Heidelberg Catechism also uses virtue language. It describes the commandments as prohibiting not only outward behavior like murder but also its “roots” in inner dispositions and attitudes such as “envy” and “hatred.” It goes on to commend being “patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly” as a way to show love to our neighbors.

In 2 Peter 1:3-10, we read that since God has given us power to participate in the nature of God and escape the corruption of the world, we should “make every effort to add to our faith” goodness and knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. “If you possess these qualities in increasing measure,” Peter writes, “they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Cultivating Christian Character
How do we go about possessing these virtuous qualities in increasing measure? How should we think about cultivating Christian character?

It’s clear from Scripture that this is not another self-help program, this time with a Christian label slapped on it. We can’t just follow the advice of the ancient philosophers and invest more human effort in moral education. If we grow, we grow in grace. Our growth in godliness is a result of God’s “divine power” working within us (2 Pet. 1:3). Only if we remain in Christ, the true Vine, will we bear much fruit, showing ourselves to be his disciples (John 15). What does this look like in practice?

Many of us are already good at intentionally developing Christian character; we just don’t use these terms to describe it. For example, we might regularly join Bible study groups at church to grow in our knowledge of and love for God’s Word. We have daily habits of prayer and devotion to cultivate intimacy in our relationship with God. We attend church weekly to worship with the people of faith.

What if we extended these rhythmic heart-shaping and habit-forming practices to the rest of our lives? What other virtues and formational activities can we also be intentional about? Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, for example, invites us to make truth telling, rest, creation care, detachment (both from the opinions of others and from possessions), gratitude, solitude, fasting, and hospitality habitual Christian practices that mark our lives and character. How is our use of technology habitual? Does our use of Facebook and cellphones and television help us grow in virtue or tempt us toward certain vices? How do unplugging or taking a spiritual retreat or keeping Sabbath help guide us toward better habits in this area?

Likewise, are our eating habits forming us to become people who steward creation with compassion and honor our bodies as temples in which God dwells? Many of us need some discipline here, as well as in our patterns of work and rest, sharing and silence, submission and leadership. The point of such practices is to bring every aspect of our lives under the lordship of Jesus Christ, and to become like him through and through.

“Discipleship” and “discipline” are based on the same word. Both involve daily practices of penitence and patterns of regeneration. Put another way, they describe ways of being in the world that form us in virtue. If we are rooted in Christ, the true Vine, we can expect our character to be changed. If we sink our roots deep into his love and power, we can expect to grow. If we give the Holy Spirit a loud, grateful yes, we will find ourselves bearing new fruit.

Two words of caution here. First, you should not only expect to grow—you should expect the unexpected. These are graced disciplines, not merely valiant human efforts to be better. Fasting is not a spiritual diet plan fueled by your willpower and by high fiber, low-calorie snacks. Fasting is really a way of saying to God, “Something as everyday as my eating is part of a life of discipleship too. I want to open my desires and habits of consumption to your transforming power. This discipline is my way of saying that my desires are damaging and deformed in ways I probably don’t even understand, but I want you to be at work helping me grow more like you in this area of my life.”

Second, the disciplines are just that—disciplines. They are daily practices, habit-building exercises, “doing the drill.” It’s not always exciting. You might wonder along the way what the big deal is and why these apparently little things, however boring or difficult they are in the moment, are supposed to be so wonderfully transformative. But as days turn into weeks, and weeks turn into months, you may well find yourself turning too—turning into someone new. You might find that it takes years of faithfulness in a practice before you “get” what’s already happened to you, and what’s still happening in you.

I’m using the passive voice on purpose. Initially the spiritual disciplines often feel like something we’re doing. “I’m fasting”; “I’m keeping Sabbath”; “I’m practicing silence.” But this is only how things look on the surface. Jesus says, “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain on the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

Naming the virtues we want to put on (and the vices we long to cast off) is a way of being aware, intentional, and discerning about the cultivation of our character. A desert father once described the lists of virtues and vices as a mirror that gives us a clearer look at ourselves—both our individual qualities and the whole picture they make in combination. What sort of character portrait do we see? What sort of portrait does God want to show the world through us?

N.T. Wright notes that God has saved us by grace for a purpose—to participate in Jesus’ mission to inaugurate the kingdom and show the world a glimpse of what shalom looks like. Not only our deeds and accomplishments, but our very person and character matter for this task. If we are to be salt and light, we will need to grow—and keep growing—in grace.

Digging Deeper
After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N.T. Wright (HarperOne, 2010)
Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life by Michael Austin and R. Douglas Geivett (Eerdmans 2012)
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster (HarperOne, 1998)
Glittering Vices by Rebecca DeYoung (Brazos 2009)
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (Vintage Spiritual Classics 1998)
Inner Compass interview with Rebecca DeYoung on the seven capital vices and spiritual formation 


Web Questions:

  1. Our characters can be described in terms of virtues (good traits) and vices (bad traits), says De Young, and she adds, “Most of us are a pretty mixed bag.” What can we do to strengthen and develop “the virtues”?
  2. Think of a person whose character you admire. What traits come to mind? What traits would you like to develop in your own life? How would you go about doing so?
  3. Scripture tells us to “put on the new self, created to be like Christ Jesus.” How does our practice of discipleship over a lifetime influence our character?
  4. What sort of fruit can we expect to bear in our families, in our neighborhood, and in the world as our character becomes more deeply rooted in Christ?

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