The Academy Award winning motion picture musical, My Fair Lady, with actors Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn, has entertained millions of people over the decades. The imaginary story involves phonetics professor Henry Higgins’ wager to his friend, Colonel Pickering, that he could transform Eliza Doolittle, an untidy, unsophisticated flower vendor, into a lovely woman of character and elegance. How would he accomplish this? By simply training her in proper speech, dress and basic social etiquette.
Imagine if it was that easy to dramatically renovate one’s inner nature! Genuine character development cannot occur by merely altering a person’s outward actions and appearance. Rather, lasting change must begin on the inside and then be reflected on the outside. While it is certainly admirable to give proper attention to one’s clothing, grooming and manners, doing so doesn’t necessarily reflect what an individual is really like inside his or her mind and heart (2 Corinthians 10:7). So, the question is: do we put as much emphasis on building our inner person as we do in ensuring we look physically presentable each day?
What is character and how can it be acquired?
Character could be defined as the inner strength of purpose to conduct oneself by specific moral standards despite temptation or pressure to abandon those standards. Beyond this description, let’s pose a more basic query. From where does character originate and what is its foundation? For this we must go to our Creator for His revealed knowledge, which is made plain in the Holy Bible. This is where we discover vital teachings about character revealed through God’s laws of righteous living and expressed in qualities such as humility, kindness, honesty, modesty, loyalty, generosity, hospitality and moral purity (Deuteronomy 5:1-33; Galatians 5:22-23).
Whether people realize it or not, God’s laws function in our lives and relationships similar to how the natural, physical laws of the universe, such as gravity, operate. If we break the laws He has set in motion, the result is distress, suffering and heartache. But if we diligently respect and comply with His laws we benefit enormously (Psalm 119:2; John 14:21).
But some might ask: If character is so crucial, why doesn’t God just create it in human beings? Believe it or not, virtuous character is something even God Himself cannot produce by decree! But why? Because character demands that each of us make individual choices about how we will live (Deuteronomy 30:19). If we didn’t have the ability to choose, we would be like preprogrammed robots or as animals with instinctive responses. God wants us to willingly choose to follow Him just as a humble child readily trusts and obeys his or her parents (Matthew 18:3).
But, building and maintaining godly character takes concerted effort. It requires that we remain faithful and strong in doing what’s right when facing pressures to capitulate to erroneous ways. Righteous character simply can’t be put on like clothing or as make-up on one’s face. Rather, it must spring from inside a person’s heart and mind. To acquire righteous character, we must repent of going in our own direction in life and seek God’s help to faithfully follow the pathway He has laid out (Deuteronomy 28:9).
In contrast to what human beings often consider important, it is not a person’s outward appearance that interests God as much as what is in his or her inner being. “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, emphasis added throughout).
Character development is a lifelong mission
So, what is in your heart? Is integrity, honor and uprightness shining brightly from deep inside of you (2 Peter 1:5-8)? In evaluating our motivations, actions and attitudes, we should consider what Jesus told the self-important religious leaders of His day. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).
Couldn’t this statement also apply to our modern culture, with its emphasis on outward appearance rather than on inward purity and uprightness? Indeed, how does God view society today? What He sees is a cavernous character deficit. He observes profound internal moral corruption covered by a thin veneer of physical and intellectual attractiveness (Galatians 6:8).
Unlike in the fictional story, My Fair Lady, good speech, nice clothing and personal grooming do not make the person. Rather it is the core and depth of one’s inner being about which God is most concerned. For example, speaking to women about virtuous character the apostle Peter wrote, “Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel. Rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:3-4). The underlying principle of true character described here applies equally to men.
Character development is a lifelong mission of choosing to do what is right while rejecting what is wrong. But how is it possible to always pursue the way of godly integrity? The fact is, God is eager to help us in this critical effort through the strength of His Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul wrote, “I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being” (Ephesians 3:16, New International Version).
Standing up for godly values
The Bible provides illustrations of men and women who boldly stood up for godly principles and values in the face of intense pressure to capitulate to corrupt and sinful ways. The most obvious and compelling model is that of our Savior Jesus Christ who never wavered in repudiating falsehood (Matthew 4:1-10). We can also point to the example of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who refused the king of Babylon’s command to bow before a great image of gold he had constructed (Daniel 3:16-18). Although these young men were thrown into the fiery furnace as punishment by the king, God chose to miraculously save their lives. He did it in this case and in other biblical instances as a testimony, not only of His great power, but as inspiration to those who love Him and perform righteously (James 5:10-11). Considering these and other scriptural examples of godly character (Hebrews 11:1-39), are you prepared to obey God’s laws even as society descends further into corruption, immorality and lawlessness? Make no mistake, a time is coming when standing up for virtue and morality will become increasingly difficult (2 Timothy 3:1-4).
Therefore, those who are determined to do what is right must ready themselves to face extreme societal pressure to relinquish true values and convictions (Ephesians 6:12). Although facing these troubles will be stressful and even perilous, we can be fully confident that God will provide the strength we will need to persevere (1 Peter 1:6-9). The apostle Paul offered these words of encouragement, “Therefore we do not give up; even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16, Holman New Testament). For those who are willing to resist any coercion to compromise their moral integrity, Jesus Christ extends the magnificent reward of eternal life and awesome responsibility in His coming Kingdom (Revelation 5:10; Revelation 22:12).
Righteous character is absolutely critical
Beyond the physical and material issues of life, we need to understand that righteous character is vitally important to God. When our clothing and possessions have long been forgotten and completely disintegrated, genuine character will be our wonderful legacy which will last for all eternity.
Finally, in My Fair Lady, in preparation for her lessons, the unwashed, flower vendor Eliza Doolittle, was led by Professor Higgins’ housekeeper Mrs. Pearce, into an elegant bedroom. As a maid ran water in a bathtub in the adjoining bathroom, Mrs. Pearce said to Eliza, “You know, you can’t be a nice girl inside if you’re dirty outside.” For our purpose, this phrase could be slightly modified to state, “You know, you can’t be a nice person outside if you’re dirty inside.”
Seeing how God has plainly revealed in Scripture that righteous character is absolutely important, is your emphasis focused clearly on building your inner person?