Character Formation and Change

Rocks & Water

Water wears on stones – Job 

It is good news indeed that this world is filled with an abundance of demonstrations that the things of life are essentially malleable. Even amidst the testimony of so many objects in nature that give all appearances that things are permanent and fixed, there is a slow current moving in the underbelly of life that churns and presses out new combinations through the various matrixes of existence. Although for many change can be disheartening and provoke anxiety, it none the less will happen, and we can have hope that it will. That is the essential condition of this world, the material world; material items do not remain the same, but are under constant movement from one state to another. Whether it is something coming into existence, or going out; whether something is altered, increased, or decreased, or simply changing locations, everything in this world is changing.

Perhaps condition is the operative word. Everything in this life is an effect of some previous event. And so we are all conditioned, and built up into the things that we are. Now as it relates to people, the thing that is built up and has this stable quality is what we call character. Our character can be thought of as the sum total of all our formed patterns of thinking, feeling, willing, and acting. This intricate network made from the actions of all our faculties forms a stable structure whereby the world, as well as ourselves, is able to recognize us. We develop consistent ways of being, and with all being, there are variations in the degrees to which one’s qualities get expressed.

Most adults, God willing, will come to realize that their character falls far short from perfection. Perfection is not just something we strive for, but it is something that our natures demands. Now there are many ways to define perfection, but the definition used here is in the sense of something being in a state in which it exists in the full flower of its being, that it lives in a state where all its members, qualities, and faculties are all expressed in unhindered realization; according to the nature that was bestowed upon it. By nature, each individual is what it is according to the class of species the individual belongs to. The species dictates to the individual what certain qualities are to be born on the individual, and perfection comes when these qualities are expressed to the fullness that its nature allows. The rose bush in full flower, with not a petal wilted or blemished, with all its colors and aromas in full radiance and splendor would be in perfection. We too as people have certain parts of our natures that need to be in full flower in order to have this perfection ourselves.  And each part has its corresponding needs that help facilitate this state of perfection.  One part is our organic bodily nature, and it has needs for things such as food, drink, shelter, warmth, health, etc. Another is the part we share with other animals, with the corresponding needs for things as companionship, reproduction, and care for the young. The last part relates to our spiritual natures, and here we have such needs as truth, beauty, goodness, society, and God.

Now, to complete our definition of perfection, we have to integrate these various aspects into a harmonious whole, into a unity; as a house divided cannot stand. So, we need some organizing principle that will provide the unifying activity. In metaphysics, one would call this the form, or perhaps the formal act when referring to our actions. It is the form that is the determining element, and the material refers to that which is indeterminate. So as we extend our thinking toward ourselves, most notably our volitional acts, we can say that the mind is the determining element, and our acts the indeterminate, that which is undetermined until the mind determines it. Much like water and ice cube trays; the water is the material, undetermined component and the trays are the formal, determining part. The tray gives shape and identity to the frozen water.

Now our minds, which are spirit, determine our lower faculties (not that our minds determine the nature of the faculties themselves, but only how they are used). As our mind, which is to say, our spiritual nature, is the organizing power, it is to the spiritual that we grant higher status, or priority if you will. In other words, we do not give priority to the body and its powers.  We only have to consider the struggle that parents have with their children to attest that we wish not to give priority to our lower faculties or powers.  Much of the struggle between the child and parent is over this issue – we teach our children self-control by having them inhibit certain impulses with the goal of having them better integrate into their social surroundings. In the same manner, it is our mind that provides this integration of our own powers or faculties. This is integrity. This is what separates humans from the rest of the world. Since the mind has for its proper object the truth, the mind needs to ensure that it conforms, or patterns our faculties (thinking, willing, feeling, and acting) according to the truth which is inherent in our very natures. We have already said that the spiritual, that is the mind, as the vehicle of truth (truth here is to include revealed truth), is the organizing principle. Therefore, as one lives a life that is not directed by their minds, meaning not in conformity to the truth of the nature bestowed on us by our creator, then one’s life gets disjointed. This is Sin. As we continue to live our lives without this unity, the effects of this disjointedness trickle down into our other powers. Soon our other powers or faculties are corrupted; corrupted in the sense that our members war against each other and no longer operate in the full vigor of their unification. This disintegration leads us ultimately down a path of disorder, confusion, waywardness, unrestraint, intemperate, lawlessness, disorganization, weakness, and insanity.   

This corruption cures-up if you will; it sets-up and solidifies. That is to say it gets embedded in our very characters, and more importantly, becomes part of our character formation. In other words, our character is the antecedent cause of further character formation. Many Christians have talked about the aptitude of sin to solidify, and become as armor if you will. I believe it was Luther who said he could see where one’s sins became petrified in one’s body. As our faculties get corrupted, or disorganized, they no longer act under the power of our control, since our mind and will lack unity. We will things we do not wish we willed. We feel things that we do not wish to feel such as envy, hatred, and jealousy. We do things we do not wish we did. So we no longer have control over the instruments of our bodies. All our faculties, yea, our very lives have become habituated in a sea of ruin, decay, or sin. We are stuck; we do not have the power to bind this all back together. Not only that, but our foolish minds are darkened. Even if we could put it all back together, we do not have the wisdom to know how it would go back together. This the Christian story has all too well attested to.

But thanks be to God, waters wear on stones. As it is said, “Not by power, nor by might, but by the spirit of the Lord”. And again, “we have this power in earthen vessels”. As have been witnessed in the past, and are witnessing again today, God is bringing life to the barren and wastelands in Israel. Pools and streams are forming in the desert areas. The Spirit is the power, the organizing principle, and the dessert supplies the material. Just like the gentle, balmy, buoyant and refreshing qualities of water can, over time, act as a chisel to chip, form, shape, buff, and polish a hardened rock, so too can this power in us start to thaw and soften our hardened flesh. The theological word for this is regeneration. We are being made over again, but this time God is putting things back together. God, using His means (some natural, some supernatural; some pleasant, and some agonizing) is shaping, buffing, and polishing us, as living stones. God is the conductor in our soul; he is bringing the music from all our faculties together into a melodic unity to restore man to the original design. But our soul has to be keyed to God or this unity will not occur. And unless we have this unity in our members, our characters will limp along in disjointed incongruity. And if living in disjointed incongruity, we are not living according to the nature God has bestowed upon us. And if we are not living according to our intended nature, then we are not being built up in perfection. And if we are not being built-up in perfection, then our joys will be stunted. And stunted joys is the cause of much of the turmoil that exists within ourselves and among our relations with others. 


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