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Behind the Mask: The Importance of Character

January 17, 2017

In my early twenties I sometimes acted as the emcee for fun nights. That meant being a stand-up comic who cracked jokes and introduced various short acts, most of which were comedy routines. I’d vetted all of these prior to the evening. I will never forget the time when one of the acts deeply offended the overall organiser of the event. He didn’t wait till after it was all over to let me know how he felt. He called me back-stage while the act was still in progress and vented his anger on me. Inside I was churning with emotion. The last thing in the world I wanted to do at that time was go back on to the stage and continue to smile and crack jokes as if nothing had happened. But that is precisely what I did, while inside I was suppressing a maelstrom of negative emotion.

 

Appearance and reality. People have always known that these often don’t overlap. But throughout most of history we’ve accepted that while we need to distinguish between appearance and reality we must not drive a wedge between them. That’s precisely the colossal mistake Descartes made when he said, “I think, therefore I am.” He said this after treating the whole world of appearance as though it could not tell him anything about what really is, not even about ourselves. Immanuel Kant built on this dualism by maintaining that we only know that which is accessible to our sense experience, the phenomenal, the world as it appears to us. He argued that there is a realm of things that lie outside our sense experience, what he called the noumenal. But we cannot know anything in and of itself that lies beyond our sense experience. Kant was most certainly not an atheist but you can see how this hard and fast division encourages secular humanists to believe, quite erroneously, that the only reality we can know is that which can be demonstrated and ‘proved’ through scientific methods.

 

Go back to my opening example. Doesn’t that illustrate that appearance and reality are two entirely different things? No, it doesn’t. When I continued to smile and crack jokes I was in fact giving expression to something that was deep inside me, something that ran even deeper than those conflicting emotions. Quite apart from any natural concern about what others might think about me, I had a deep sense of obligation to all those who had come that night to have fun and my behaviour reflected this.

 

Yes, we do need to distinguish between appearance and reality. But never ever think that these belong to separate spheres.

 

Still, there was a real sense in which I was wearing a mask as I smiled and cracked jokes. It was certainly not how I felt. And talking of masks, we live in a world in which people are more concerned about having an impressive personality than they are about having a good character. People talk about someone having a personality that is fascinating or stunning or attractive or magnetic or glowing or masterful or creative or dominant or forceful. None of these words describe a person’s character. As David Wells observes, “Character is not stunning, fascinating, or creative.”

 

But we constantly confuse personality and character. There’s a good reason for this. We instinctively want to believe the best about those people we find ourselves liking. The truth is that it is more likely that you will believe a person to be honest, trustworthy and good-hearted if he or she has good people skills, self-confidence and is fun to be with.

 

We tell ourselves, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” But we do it all the time. Many people don’t do any serious reading. They consider it to be too much trouble. As a consequence they never get to appreciate the immense value of truly wonderful writings. There are people who cross our paths who are not impressive on the outside but who are gold on the inside. But we miss out on benefiting from such people because we have never taken the time and trouble to get to know them.  Of course, the Person of Supreme Character is none other than Jesus himself and it is a very small percentage of people who are serious about getting to know him.

 

But think now about our everyday encounters with people. The reality is that a person of good character may or may not have an attractive, forceful or magnetic personality. Indeed, a person can have an attractive, forceful or magnetic personality and be a very evil person. We are living in a dangerous world when we allow others to lead us because of the impact of their personalities upon us. You know this is true. You only have to think of the charm with which many paedophiles succeed in grooming the parents of the children they are targeting and setting their minds at rest. It is also a sad fact that Australian politics has degenerated over time so that increasingly people vote for parties not because of their policies but because of the public image of their leaders and the impact this has on the image of the party itself.

 

Our modern culture is very different from the culture of the ancient Greco-Roman world in which Paul and the Christians of his time lived. But human nature has not changed. In 1 Samuel 16 God sends Samuel to anoint the next king from among the sons of Jesse. Samuel is very impressed with Eliab. But God says to him, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (v7). We are dealing here with something you will find in every culture. Sin is deeply engrained in your heart and mine. We are all tarred with the same brush. We all tend to be more concerned with what we and others look like on the outside, rather than with what we are truly like on the inside.

 

In the early first century AD Pharisees were popular religious leaders, widely respected for their piety. Of course, the personalities of these Pharisees would have varied considerably, but there is a parallel with what we have been saying. For, in a way that would have startled his contemporaries, Jesus lampooned the Pharisees, calling them hypocrites, that is, actors or “mask-wearers.” For in those days drama was performed differently from the way we do it today. A limited number of actors played many roles distinguishing between them by the wearing of different masks. Jesus told his disciples that the Israelite religious leaders were performers: “Everything they do is done for men to see” (Matthew 23:5). Jesus blasted the religious leaders of his day, saying, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28).

 

More than anything else the individual in Greco-Roman society sought praise, acclamation. People yearned to be honoured by others. They longed to hear others assuring them of their importance. In their quest for such praise and glory rich people would give large amounts of money to fund projects that benefited the community. It was common for working people to become members of clubs and guilds, hoping that this too would enable them to win the esteem of others.

 

It will be immediately apparent that times have not changed that much. Tragically, even the church can function like those ancient clubs and guilds. Like those in that church we read about in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, there are those today who treat the church like any other social context, an arena within which they can impress others and win recognition. The striving for praise within the Corinthian church was creating jealousy and strife in the church and was tearing the church apart. Corinthian Christians, unlike us, did not have a supermarket-like choice of churches they could opt to go to. So today, the same problems might not destroy the church. Instead they may just leave it with a veneer of unity and harmony based on external niceness rather than grounded in true godliness of character.

 

Research indicates that heredity has much to do with the formation of our personality traits. Our personalities tend to be largely fixed from birth to death. Character traits, unlike personality traits, are an expression of what a person believes. For example, you may believe that it is of immense importance to tell the truth and treat others well. A person of bad character, a liar who mistreats others or the person who exploits others’ weaknesses, has different, disturbing beliefs, e.g. that this is a dog-eat-dog world. Growth and improvement of our character is challenging because it presupposes changing those beliefs that feed bad character traits and this is very difficult for us to bring about by ourselves. That’s why we need other people and ultimately authoritative revelation from God himself to help us to see the world and reality differently from the way we otherwise do. But, as Christians know from their reading of the Bible, the only sound measure of truly positive character development is whether we are becoming more and more like the Lord Jesus Christ. From Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church Christians also know that it only by the power of God’s indwelling Spirit that we are transformed into the likeness of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

 

Jesus told his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13, 14). Many fail to see that what Jesus is doing here is summarising the beatitudes which he has just voiced (Matthew 5:1-12). Look at the beatitudes. They are all about character: poverty in spirit, mourning over all that is at odds with God’s rule (“the kingdom of heaven”), meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being a merciful person, purity of heart, being a peacemaker, willingness to accept persecution and insults and slander because of a fundamental commitment to righteousness and being loyal to Jesus. It is as those character attributes are displayed in the lives of God’s people that they realise their identity as the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

 

What the world desperately needs is not extrovert Christians with great PR skills but exposure to a community of disciples of sterling Christlike character.

 

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