The Road to Self-Mastery
Throughout life, we’re confronted with many tests of character. And each test provides us an opportunity to become better and stronger. We learn to govern our appetites by cultivating tolerance for the pain involved in delaying and moderating gratification of those appetites. And to solidify that tolerance we simply have to tested. Facing temptation and adversity are two of the three crucial tests of character.
Our faith and the core values we hold can help us become the person we strive to be. The philosophy we live by, or the particular faith we might practice, can guide us through times of trial. And our most noble beliefs, if deeply rooted and held, can truly help us rise above our baser selves. But as I attempt to illustrate in The Judas Syndrome, the true nature and solidity of our faith is not manifested in what we profess. Rather, it’s evidenced by our actions. The same is true for the integrity of our character. It’s not so much about who we say we are but rather about the kind of person our actions reveal us to be.
Three Tests of Character: Adversity, Temptation, and Power
The truest tests of character always come with great adversity, strong temptation, or the amassing of personal power. Temptations are everywhere. And the things that lure us always hold some promise of pleasure (usually immediate) or personal gain. Many times, we’re even aware of the price we might have to pay for succumbing. But we still sometimes decide that the desirability of the situation outweighs the risk of negative consequence. That’s when we sell ourselves out. It’s also when we proclaim the true nature and strength of our character.
Real solidity of character is not about rebuffing temptation to engage in a behavior out of fear of the possible negative consequences. Rather, we display real integrity when we rebuff the behavior because of it’s inherent moral incorrectness and the affront it would be to our value system. We also display solidity of character when we deal patiently and mindfully with adversity. Suffering always tests our core. And we unfortunately live in a time when all too many folks see no value whatsoever in suffering. Ours is an age not only of instant gratification but also of instant relief. And sometimes we unfortunately seek relief from the “instructive” pain that can actually build and strengthen our character.
Power: The Greatest Test of Character
Lord Dalhlberg-Acton said: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But if he were correct, no newborn child would have a chance of surviving. For you see, the power one has over such a helpless and totally dependent life is, without question, absolute. Fortunately, most of us approach such power with awe and trepidation. Most of us also approach it with empathy and a deep regard for the preciousness of life. But not all of us approach power in this way. And that’s what speaks volumes about a person’s character.
Lincoln said: “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” He had it right, whereas Dalhberg-Acton, I believe, had it wrong. Power itself doesn’t corrupt. Rather it’s the already corrupt character who lacks the desire and will to relate to power in a conscientious way. That’s why power is the truest of all the tests of character.
Character-disturbed individuals tend to be rabid power-seekers who often pursue power for it’s own sake. And when they acquire power, they inevitably abuse it. That’s because they have an unholy relationship with it in the first place. Disturbed characters often like to lord power over others to aggrandize themselves. And they love wielding it to get their way. It’s always about them and never about improving things or advancing the cause of life. And it’s the way they relate to power that best bespeaks the shortcomings of their character.
Summary Thoughts on the “Fifth Commandment”
We become the master of our appetites and aversions when we face and pass crucial tests of character. And the most crucial tests come with temptation, adversity, and power. These tests come early on and often throughout life. We build strength of character by facing and passing the smaller of these tests in our early years. This prepares us to face the inevitable bigger tests later on. The disturbed characters among us failed to adequately learn the most important lessons. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn. Still, they have to be of the right heart and motivation to do it. And they have to access the right kind of intervention. That’s why I wrote Character Disturbance and my other books. It’s also why I’ve posted several articles on the blog about this very topic.
Our next series will discuss the “sixth commandment” of sound character development. It’s another preview of my upcoming book with co-author Dr. Kathy Armistead: The Ten Commandments of Character: How to Lead a Significant Life.
Character Matters will be a live broadcast at 7 pm EDT this coming Sunday, Sept 11 and the two Sundays following, so I can take your calls. A rebroadcast of an earlier program is scheduled for September 25. No calls can be taken on that date.