I’ll likely be writing about character frequently in the coming posts, so I should try to say (briefly!) what I mean by the word.
By character, all I’m referring to is that collection of qualities which enable us to carry out what we decide to do. For example, every Christian knows he should be unselfish, and desires at some level to be that way. However, there is much work to be done at many levels before we become an unselfish person, namely one who naturally behaves unselfishly as the situation calls for it. The things that need to be fixed are matters of character, at least as I’m using the word.
The same goes for every Christian virtue—we begin by knowing what we should do, and desiring at some level to do it, and yet there is much remaining in us that renders us incapable of behaving as we would wish. The process of eliminating the habits of thought and action which inhibit us from virtuous behavior, and cultivating the thoughts and habits that make virtuous behavior second nature, is character work.
Although I think Dallas Willard uses the word from time to time, more frequently he talks about “self” or “soul”. I picked “character” because those other words have some baggage I wanted to avoid—but I’d forgotten that the word “character” carries baggage of its own. Other views of life—Stoicism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Victorianism (?), even I suppose Nietzsche-ism in its own way—focus on character development. (But not all views, e.g. the prosperity gospel, nihilism, easy-believism ….)
The important difference, though, is the sort of will which is enabled by the character being developed. Character work devoted to enabling anything besides a Christian will is wasted work, and quite possibly counterproductive work. My focus on character work is not for the sake of the work itself, or the character it produces, but for the sake of enabling my will, allowing me to bring my life into proper balance, into alignment with the grain of the universe—to become a smoothly functioning cog in God’s machine.