The formation of character is always an area of struggle within education. It is much easier to teach skills and knowledge. But it is another story to teach character. Because having character is not merely knowing the items in character or storing in memory good things to be done and bad things to be avoided. Character formation cannot be completed by exams on paper, whether by multiple choice or fill in the blanks or true or false or even essay writing. Character formation must involve real life experience. It must involve meaningful experience for the learners to draw meaning and value from. This meaningful experience serves as the capital for the process of internalization so needed in the character formation. Without the meaningful experience learners may draw from no character formation may occur. The kind of experience learners undergo will also contribute to the depth of the character aimed to be formed.
The next contributing factor is the kind of instruction that goes along with the experience. First of all, instruction must exist to accompany the process of internalization. Usually there is a process educators always employ in order to achieve internalization, which is reflection. Reflection is to be done carefully in this matter for the appropriate result to be attained. Reflection can be shallow too if not careful. Reflection can be faked as well if the instruction is not proper. If the instructor is not wise, this process will be a waste of time. Worse than wasting time is that poor instruction may lead to character deformation. All educators agree that it is imperative to avoid character deformation at all cost.
Now, these two are the most important ingredients for character formation. We will focus on these two in this article. To begin with we will discuss Paul’s statement in Romans 5:3-5. There Paul provides the chain of experiences that leads to the formation of character. It begins with suffering, which leads to endurance, and then character is formed afterwards. The end result, according to Paul, is hope. Hope is given birth by character. The start with suffering is stunning for modern people. It is quite contrary to the tendency of the spirit of the age. What modern people want is comfort. They desire convenience. It is within their blood to avoid suffering at all cost. Therefore, the wisdom of God spoken through Paul here is not popular among modern people with modern value. Modern education is all about the gradual elimination of inconvenience and suffering. Everything is to be done as painless as possible. While the support for painless education certainly has its place, it should not dominate the entire education process. It is true that, according to the brain study, when there is a threat that may result in pain our brain commonly would resort to two responses: 1) fight or 2) flight. The less painful option is obviously flight. Flight is the avoidance of the conflict. Flight is the most chosen option in our modern day and age. Fight is chosen less because of the potential pain, even greater pain, that might occur. Combine this with the establishment of formal education, which focuses less and less on character formation and conveniently aims more and more on skills and knowledge, the entire generation is then greatly encouraged to always choose flight. Always opting for flight is in line with our sinful tendency to always avoid pain. And so education becomes the most successful vehicle to change people’s paradigm to put comfort as the goal of life. The most obvious evidence can be found in the development of technology. For example in medical sector the use of painkiller is growing so fast in treating patients. The use of morphine and other kinds of painkiller dominate medical care. And even the hottest debate in the medical sector in the past five years is about the proposal to legalize marijuana (medical marijuana) for use in the medical care. The debate is even in the area of whether to legalize marijuana for over the counter purchase. The modern people grow up surrounded by this whole atmosphere of comfort, of flight response rather than fight, of killing pain instantly. With technology life has become much more convenient and comfortable. After tasting much comfort it is hard to let go. All this makes character formation much more difficult in this era.
The danger of too much comfort like what we have in our era, especially in the education sector, is that it leads to character deformation or impairment. The most observable behavior as the manifestation of this character deformation can be found in what we often call as entitlement. Modern people who have tasted so much comfort have somehow internalized entitlement within their disposition. So when there is inconvenience they would protest as if they are entitled to convenience. For example, there is a quite wealthy family. The children of the family have lived in comfort. And since all is provided for them, they lack the ability to work hard. And then comes a big crisis. The family riches are quickly depleted. But amid this crisis, the children could not restraint themselves from their spending habit. Their tendency is that they are entitled to comfort. A discomfort like cutting their spending budget is difficult to comprehend for them. So they refuse to cut their spending budget. This proves their character impairment. And this kind of impairment is dangerous for the society. If the entire generation is impaired in this way, nobody would be wise enough to show restraint when crisis is lurking. Such disposition could devastate the entire nation.
It is then critical to resort to this ancient but eternal wisdom that God speaks through Paul. For attaining character, one must begin with suffering. The word suffering that Paul uses is “θλῖψις,” which may also mean persecution, affliction, anguish, trial, trouble, hardship, or distress. Louw-Nida, in the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains, point out that the kind of suffering this word conveys is direct suffering (Louw-Nida 22:2, Volume 1 p. 242). The word “θλῖψις” appears 45 times in the New Testament, and five times in Romans. The same word appears in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) 133 times, with a heavy concentration in the book of Psalms – 35 times. The meaning of if, which appears 178 times in the Bible – with Greek OT, consistently expresses the state of distress or affliction. However, the kind of suffering that is mentioned in Paul’s letters and particularly in Romans 3:3-5 is the kind of suffering that does not result from our own mistakes.
We indeed can suffer as the consequence of our mistakes. For example, we may feel distressed because we lie to our best friend. Then when our best friend finds out about our lie, he is mad to us. Thus we suffer his anger. What Paul is referring to here is not that kind of suffering. What Paul is focusing here is the kind of suffering that we experience because of our obedience to God. This is the kind of suffering that befalls us due to our doing good things. These two kinds of suffering aim the sufferer toward two different directions. The kind of suffering caused by our own mistakes would lead to character deformation. Whereas the kind of suffering caused by our doing good things would lead to character formation. The first kind of suffering, rarely, might lead to character formation. But a special action is needed to turn around the deformation process. The action is called repentance. Repentance is the only action that triggers the turning point from deformation toward formation. The case of the adultery of King David and Bathsheba for example leads to a serious character deformation. If David chose to ignore the warning brought by the Prophet Nathan, he would seriously deform his character. But instead he chose the only way that could turn his destiny around toward character formation. He chose repentance. And thus he received forgiveness. And from there he rose from the ashes. His character was formed in the Lord. There is a psychological consequence through this path, however, even if the way of repentance is chosen. That is the guilty feeling, the regret, usually haunts the person for quite a long time. Such is the negative residue of the damage done as a consequence of the mistake committed. This residue is not only left by the damage done, but also by the accusation of our conscience. This conscience is built-in within our construct. Reformed theologians put conscience under the category of common grace. One of the importance of conscience as God’s common grace is to prevent people from being as evil as they can be. When conscience accuses the person’s own action, it afflicts the person severely.
But the second kind of suffering is different. This is the kind of suffering Paul is speaking about. The kind of suffering that does not leave a negative residue. First, there is naturally no damage caused by our good actions. So, no external negative residue for sure. And secondly, in the natural order, our conscience does not afflict us when we do good things. The lack of negative residue makes a huge different in one’s soul and thus in one’s character. We must be cautious here however. The second kind of suffering may also potentially damage one’s soul. Every person who experiences suffering is entering into a disequilibrium state, a disorientation of one’s center, or a dissonance of the soul. Human is built for the state of equilibrium. When one enters into a disequilibrium state, his built-in coping mechanism dictates him to quickly search for the new equilibrium. This is what commonly is understood as adaptation. And there are two ways of adaptation. Jean Piaget explained the two ways: 1) Accommodation, and 2) Assimilation. The negotiation between accommodation and assimilation naturally takes place within a person in the state of disequilibrium.
Assimilation occurs when the change is done externally. In assimilation process, the person does not wish to change, and so he defends his old equilibrium and attempts to change the external things to fit his equilibrium. Thus it is actually more like all the others must adjust to him. For example, we desire to eat watermelon. But the problem is watermelon is big. If we are to swallow watermelon whole, we would have to change our construct so that we can take watermelon in one gulp. But to do so would be impossible. Instead of changing our construct, we change the watermelon. We cut it into smaller pieces. The watermelon must adjust to us. We can’t and won’t change, so the watermelon must change. Thus the disequilibrium is solved by keeping the old equilibrium and manipulating the external things to fit our equilibrium.
Accommodation is the exact opposite of assimilation. In accommodation we are the one changing as disequilibrium strikes us. This happens when we can’t change what is outside of us. And so in order to satisfy the inevitable search for new equilibrium, we must change. For example, when winter comes, we can’t manipulate the climate to suit our temperature desire. Winter season comes unchallenged by us. It comes and stays. If we can’t stand winter, we could opt to move out of the area and find a place where there is no winter. But if we must stay, something else must be done to ourselves. The cold weather creates discomfort to our body. Our body has its limit in terms of withstanding temperatures. As the temperature continues to plummet in the winter, we are disequilibrated if we persist on our old equilibrium. We risk death if we don’t change. We must do something to ourselves to cope with the disequilibrium. We must find a new equilibrium. The most common option is to wear more layers. Though uncomfortable we must do it in order to solve the disequilibrium. As more layers are put on, we are finding our equilibrium. When the new equilibrium is achieved, we found ourselves changed.
Now, if after doing good, bad things happen to us, pressures mounting up on us, we surely become disequilibrated. In that state, we are forced to move, or in Piaget’s term “to transform.” Naturally we seek a new form. This is a crucial moment. New equilibrium is to be established. The sooner the better. If disequilibrium takes too long, the soul could be damaged for good. But taking the wrong path of re-equilibrium can also damage the soul for good. For example, the person under pressure begins questioning whether what he did was worth it after all. Then he begins to doubt the value of his principles. As the pain becomes unbearable for him, he gradually chooses to let go of his principles in order to avoid the pain. This is not the path toward character formation, but rather this is the path toward character deformation. The process of accommodation prompts him to change himself in such a way as to give up the valuable principles he is standing on for the sake of fleeing from suffering. The bargain is costly for him. But often he gets what he wants, avoidance of direct suffering. This happens to Peter. Peter disowns his Master at the accusations brought by servant girls. He reacts out of fear. Fear of direct suffering overwhelms him. So three times he solves his disequilibrium by way of changing his identity through lies and betrayal. He becomes a changed man. Devastated, Peter left and wailed. He escapes direct suffering, but gains internal suffering. He goes back to his old life as a fisherman. It is his hiding space. He is hiding from himself. He is on the path of rejecting his new identity that Jesus gives him, a fisher of man. If he is not quickly restored, he would die in depression. But Jesus has a grand plan for him. To restore him, Jesus has to work the most excellent counseling. This is recorded in John 21:15-17.
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
I am not going to discuss about the detail of this wonderful counsel and reinstatement of Peter that Jesus does. I have treated it elsewhere. But suffice to say that Peter’s devastating disequilibrium meets the healing counsel of our Lord. Then Peter’s life is re-equilibrated. The purpose is to bring Peter to the proper equilibrium. Jesus is truly the Wonderful Counselor (cf. Isaiah 9:6). Jesus reorders Peter’s life. Peter then re-embraces his true identity, a fisher of man. This event is the reference point for the importance of proper counsel for those who are in the disequilibrium state.
When Paul refers to suffering as the starting point for character formation here, he says that he rejoices in suffering. Very rarely people rejoice in suffering. Actually, almost nobody would rejoice in suffering. Normally people dislike suffering. They hate suffering. They will be depressed if they have to go through suffering. But this time Paul says that he rejoices in his suffering. This is a contradiction to the common response. There is a secret hidden here that Paul is opening. The secret is that suffering leads to endurance. “θλῖψις” leads to “ὑπομονή.” In BDAG (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, “ὑπομονή” means “the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulty, patience, endurance, fortitude, steadfastness, perseverance.” Suffering has the potential to produce this wonderful trait. This trait can’t be produced apart from suffering. Suffering is the only door to the formation of this honorable trait. And again, I have to remind all of us that this suffering is not the suffering as the consequence of our own mistakes. No, this is the kind of suffering that is inflicted upon us as we do good things.
Patience is a difficult virtue to attain, as well as endurance, fortitude, steadfastness, and perseverance. In the Reformed theology we learn about the Perseverance of the Saints as part of the famous TULIP acronym. TULIP is the summary of the theological standpoint that is distinctive of the Calvinistic branch of the Reformed church. TULIP acronym is actually taken from the synod meeting of the Reformed church in Holland in 1618-1619 held in the Dordrecht city in the Netherlands. The synod meeting produced a document that is called “The Canons of Dort.” This document is one of the confessional standards of many Reformed churches that are descended from the Hervormerde Kirk in Holland. Canons of Dort is one of the so called “three forms of unity” acknowledged in many reformed churches. Now, the original Canons of Dort document was designed to refute the five doctrines coined by Jacob Armenius of the University of Leiden. TULIP is not the original ordering of the Canons of Dort. But the acronym helps a lot of reformed people to remember the crucial doctrine of election contained in it. T stands for Total Depravity. U stands for Unconditional Election. L stands for Limited Atonement. I stands for Irresistible Grace. And P stands for Perseverance of the Saints. T is the condition of man after the Fall. ULI is 100% divine work. P is the work of the Holy Spirit prompting the sanctification process in which man is actively working alongside the Holy Spirit.
Perseverance surely must have patience. Perseverance surely must have endurance, and fortitude, and steadfastness. When someone perseveres, he must be patient, he also must be able to endure, and be fortitude (or be courageous in difficulties), and also to stand steadfastly (or unwavering – constant). The sanctification process takes time to produce the desired qualities. It is often tiring for the person going through it. This is caused by the constant temptations through the flesh as the result of the Fall. The training of the body and soul of the redeemed requires a great deal of consistency, endurance, restraint, and strength. This is not the kind of the strength of the muscle of our physical body. But this is the kind of strength that flows in our soul as expressed in the will. The will must be strong enough to desire the success of the training. Obedience is the goal to be achieved in the training. Sinful nature by default opposes obedience to God. Instead, sinful nature spells disobedience to God. It wants autonomy. It desires to govern the self apart from God. It wishes to be God himself. And so the will of the redeemed must be in tune with God so as to desire what God desires as well. As sinful people we have acquired learning of the sinful habits. The first order of business in this training is the unlearning of the sinful habits. And it takes unwavering will to shed the sinful habits. A habit, once acquired and internalized, is not easy to let go. A habit is sweet. It is comfortable for the body and soul of the person. Sinful habit corresponds perfectly with the sinful nature. The sinful nature does not want to let go of the sinful habits. A battle must be done in order to get rid of the sinful habits. A battle within. This is the gist of the struggle that Paul goes through that he explains in Romans 7. He says it in Romans 7:15-20:
15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
This constant battle within drains our spirit. On our own we cannot sustain it. Left to ourselves we can’t win this battle. But Paul proclaims it in Romans 8:1-4:
1There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
We have won in Christ Jesus. With this assurance we may endure the ongoing battle. Because the end result has been determined that we won’t be condemned. Jesus has won the battle for us. Our struggle is ongoing for we love God more than anything. Our desire to be like Christ overcomes our weaknesses. So our will to obey the Lord is pleasing in the sight of God. Our sanctified will prompts us to endure the pain and suffering caused by the temptations and sinful nature at work in our mortal flesh. This ordeal produces endurance.
Like a marathon runner perseveres in the training to run 5k marathon. This kind of training is not achieved in a day. It takes years and patience. The pain is at times excruciating. But the marathon runner keeps going. He endures the pain as his eyes are focused toward the goal – to win the race. The more he bears the pain, the more his endurance is enlarged. His capacity to endure gets bigger. And this is how the pain is overcome by the great will of the person undergoing the training.
With the proper counselor, the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ Himself, Christians going through suffering will indeed produce endurance. No complaints. No anger toward God. For they know that their sinful nature must be put to death. And it is impossible to do so in practicality except through the kind of suffering that God has permitted His people to go through. To remind us, the kind of suffering here is the suffering for doing good. The suffering that is the result of desiring good. The suffering that we experience for desiring to obey the Lord. The endurance that is produced then is the endurance to continue in doing good, in desiring what is good, in desiring to obey the Lord despite the pain inflicted upon us. For our eyes are focused on God Himself, who has saved us in His love and sacrifice. As we are trained through the painful experience set for us, we are formed to become like His Son. Through it we develop a great capacity of endurance. As the endurance is getting mature, it in the end produces character.
When the good habits have been trained in us, battling with the sinful habits, uprooting the sinful habits, unlearning the sinful habits, we internalize the good habits. The disequilibrium that shakes our comfort zone has now been replaced by re-equilibrium that leads to the right equilibrium through the counsel of the Holy Spirit. And the right equilibrium is when we become like Jesus Christ. The practicality of it is when the character of Christ is formed and produced in us. For sure, the one character that is coveted by God from eternity is the character of obedience. His own Son obeys the Father completely even to the point of death on the cross.
Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2: 5b-8)
This is the character that God wants to be formed in the heart and life of every child of God. This is the manifestation of faith. Faith is unseen. It is too easy for people to fake faith. When life is good, many professing Christians easily proclaim that they have faith in God. But when difficult times come, faith demands to be manifested through obedience. Obedience is the action or the work of faith. The two can’t be separated. That is why James speaks of faith without work is like body without spirit, which is dead. James gives two examples of faith being manifested through work. One example is Abraham. The other is Rahab. Both of them exhibited obedience as the manifestation of their faith. James 2:21-26 records:
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
Brothers and sisters, this is the center of character formation. No character can be produced without suffering. No character can be formed without endurance through suffering. This is the only path toward character formation. Character is not produced through memorizing facts or knowledge of the characteristics of good characters, virtues, and all. Character is shaped through the real experience of suffering that produces endurance. Christian character can only be shaped through having faith in God amid suffering. The counsel of Jesus and the Holy Spirit are at our disposal provided for us free of charge. In the midst of suffering we enter into the disequilibrium state. It is easy in that state for us to give up, to exhibit bad behaviors, to acquire bad habits. But the counsel of God will re-center us toward the right equilibrium. The trait we need to exhibit through it is endurance. Enduring the pain as we believe in God that He is a good God who will make everything good. Paul summarizes in Romans 8:28: “28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Even though it doesn’t seem like it from our limited view. Just like Abraham obeying God by going to the mountain to sacrifice Isaac. Obedience is then formed. Christian character is then produced. Once the proper character is formed, we have arrived at the equilibrium state.
Now, we are not God. So we ought not devise any plan for our children or students to experience suffering, even with the purpose to form character. Our primary duty is to provide counsel, especially when our children and students are going through suffering. Being counselors we must completely follow Christ, the Wonderful Counselor, and the Holy Spirit, who is the Another Counselor. Meaning, we can’t use any other principles beside that is written in the Scripture. Our counsel must point to Christ. The goal of the Christian education is to disciple everyone called. And the discipling process is to form obedience in their hearts. Important to be said here is that as mentor we need to model the kind of obedience to God through our life. Our disciples will see our character and imitate. As counselor we can’t just rely on logic, or systematic lecture, or story-telling, but most importantly is through modeling the desired characters themselves for the disciples to see and experience. Such is the most effective counseling.
Second, we may design a plan that provides opportunities for our children or students to do good works. This will form in the hearts of the disciples the tendency to do good things. Every now and then, inevitably, suffering may tag along when we do good things. When that opportunity comes, we provide counsel for them so they may be mentored carefully as they go through the dreaded disequilibrium state. This will prompt them to enter into the re-equilibrium state. And never forget to continue to pray and submit to God Himself, for He is the true counselor. It is our duty as counselors to teach our disciples to pray and submit to God. For we are limited in our capacity to mentor and help. But God is able to do much more the things that we can’t do. In the end, He will lead them into the perfect equilibrium state that He has designed for them.
As we provide these two things, in any setting, be it informal, non-formal, or formal education, we have then worked properly in the area of character formation.
 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1039.