By Rich DuBose
John Wooden, former basketball coach and leadership author, once wrote: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
Someone else said, “Character is what you do when no one else is watching.” Such times reveal what a person is really like. When we strip away all of the pretense and the veneer that we put on our public faces, that is who we really are. And the less disparity there is between who we say we are and who we actually are, the more authentic and powerful our influence becomes.
The word character doesn’t just describe individuals. It can also be used to define a school, church, company, community, or nation.
America has a character, which at times has been viewed with both praise and disdain. The overall character of a country may be defined by the level of civility its citizens display toward each other, especially when they don’t agree. Its character can also be reflected in how it spends its money and in the laws it writes and enforces.
Ellen White states, “Love must be the principle of action. Love is the underlying principle of God’s government in heaven and earth, and it must be the foundation of the Christian’s character” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 49).
As Adventists, we spend a lot of time, money, and effort trying to shape the characters of our children and youth. Ideally, we see it as a combined effort on the part of parents, schools, and churches to help nurture children in compassionate ways. In practice, the responsibility is not as neatly shared, and we are challenged to make a positive impact in the midst of our brokenness.
As a PK (preacher’s kid), I went through the Adventist educational system through the eighth grade, and then I quit school in the ninth grade. I had a turbulent experience in my teens, and I manifested some qualities of character that made life difficult for my parents.
I even spent a few days in Juvie Hall because my parents didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
As I look back now, I think a lot of it had to do with our educational system’s approach to learning at that time. I needed to be challenged with some alternative learning opportunities, but our system was not able to provide it. They kept trying to squeeze me into a standardized mold, and it didn’t work.
So, I lived at home and worked a full-time job. When you’re 16 or 17, you don’t typically find jobs you would want to make a career of. I ended up washing dishes at a restaurant and working for a carpet store.
By the time I reached 18, I realized I needed an education, and I wanted to go to college. I didn’t want to be stuck with menial jobs the rest of my life, so I enrolled in a night class at a nearby high school that was designed to help students pass the GED test and finish high school.
The man teaching the class was the principal of the school, and I’ll never forget his kindness. I still remember his name: Mr. Ammons. From time to time, he gave me his full attention as I struggled with a math problem or a question about some other topic.
One evening, I remember Mr. Ammons saying, “Rich, everything that’s taught in high school can be learned in one year. The primary reason the learning experience is drawn over four years is to allow time for kids to grow up.”
I don’t know if that can still be said today, but it made an impression on me because I needed to grow up. I needed to mature so I could become the person God wanted me to be. I knew I needed to grow up emotionally, physically, and spiritually—which is really what character development is all about.
I was impressed that Mr. Ammons, who spent his days running a large public high school, took time in the evenings, when he could have been home, to tutor a group of teens and adults who had fallen through the cracks. He instilled within me a sense of possibility—that I could do the impossible and that my future was up to me. After I passed the GED exam, I regret that I didn’t let Mr. Ammons know I had passed it. I missed the opportunity to thank the one who helped me achieve my goal.
In his book, Everybody, Always, Bob Goff says, “Don’t tell people what they want; tell them who they are.”
He tells the story about meeting a limo driver in Orlando years ago. He had been asked to speak at a Christian Broadcaster’s Convention and was told that someone would pick him up at the airport.
After picking up his luggage, he headed to the taxi area and noticed a guy holding a sign with the word “Bob” on it. He walked over and, in his most robust voice, said, “Hi, I’m Bob!”
The guy looked him up and down for a few seconds, and then said, “Yeah, but who are you?”
The car turned out to be a long, sleek limo. Bob was amazed. Because he sat in the back, it was somewhat challenging to talk with the driver, but he leaned toward the sliding window that separates the front from the back, and the two shared small talk about their lives as they glided along.
At one point, Bob said, “I’ve never been in a limo before, and I’ve never been to Orlando. But If someone were to ask me what I think of the people in Orlando, I would tell them that the people there are really friendly and nice.”
Bob said that based upon his experience with the driver. We tend to associate places with people. If the driver had been a jerk, it would have affected Bob’s impression of the people of Orlando.
That’s how important it is for us as professed Christians to be the kind of people that make God and heaven look good.
As they continued their journey, the driver told Bob that he had driven limos for 25 years and that he was going to miss it when he retired, which was in just a few days.
Bob sat there for a few minutes watching the palm trees go by; then he had a bright idea. Bob leaned forward and said, “Hey buddy, have you ever ridden in the back of one of these limos? I bet you’d love it. They’re terrific!”
The driver laughed and said, “Of course not. I’d get fired.” Bob said, “Hey, you’re retiring anyway. Pull over!” The driver pulled over and got out. Bob took the driver’s hat, put it on his own head, and they swapped seats.
Imagine what it must have been like for that driver—after 25 years of chauffeuring other people around, he finally got the celebrity treatment.
When they arrived, Bob slid out of the driver’s seat and opened the door—just as any respectable driver would. But Bob wasn’t done yet. He carries a few medals around with him wherever he goes, in case he needs to give someone an award. They don’t say anything on them, but Bob explains, “Hey, I’m an attorney, so the medals mean whatever I say they mean.” Bob faced the driver, pinned a medal on his chest, and said, “You’re brave. You’re courageous. You’re foolhardy,” (after all, he let Bob drive). After these words of affirmation, Bob gave him a smile, patted his chest, and walked away.
Bob Goff felt certain that when the driver went home that evening, he didn’t tell his wife that he’d met a Christian that day who had told him what he should believe. Instead, the driver no doubt told her that he’d met a man who told him who he was.*
Our view of character—particularly as it relates to others, needs to be prophetic. It’s not enough to see people for who they are at the moment; we need to relate to them as “becomers,” as people who, with care and compassion, will reach their full potential through the power of God’s grace.
*Bob Goff, Everybody, Always: Becoming Love in a World Full of Setbacks and Difficult People, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2018).
Rich DuBose is director of Church Support Services for the Pacific Union Conference.