On the Difference Between Personality and Character
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. David Wells, the author of several excellent books like “God in the Wasteland” and “No Place for Truth”, at the Twin Lakes Church Planting Conference. Dr. Wells was speaking on the subject of reaching the unbelieving with the Gospel in our own age, and as he was doing that he unpacked some of the differences between our culture today and the culture of bygone years. It was a fascinating lecture, and one of the things that he noted that particularly struck me was that as a culture we have made a transition from wanting people who have character, to wanting people who have personality.
Now what does that mean? Well in years gone by the societal ideal that people were supposed to strive for was to be a man or woman of genuine character; a person of virtue, integrity, and faithfulness. So the kind of people society exalted were people who really were honest or courageous or pure of heart. What you were essentially looking for was people whose essential character was an embodiment of that which really was good.
That isn’t the case today. Today, the emphasis is on personality. Personality isn’t so much about who you really are inside, but how you project. Rather than wanting to be thought of as faithful, we want to be thought of as dynamic, magnetic, funny, exciting. So for instance, in a singles ad very few people say they are looking for someone courageous and pure of heart – instead they have “must be upbeat and fun with good sense of humor.” The kind of qualities we are looking for might be summarized as the kind of qualities that make for a successful social media personality rather than a long marriage.
Unfortunately this is also the case with modern politics and having lived in Washington I’ve seen this on both sides of the aisle. For instance, in many senses Bill Clinton was the triumph of personality over character. Here you had a man, who almost everyone found charming, witty, captivating, and funny, but in terms of genuine character, it just wasn’t there. It was all image, but in a day and an age when image is everything, that works. In his speech, Well’s quoted newsman Daniel Schorr on that point, “in our business you have to be sincere, and if you can fake it, you’ve got it made.”
The same kind of points could be made in reference to Donald Trump, who also represented the triumph of image over personal integrity but you don’t have to look to politics to see that principle in action, even in the church, far too often personality ‘trumps’ character. I remember a few years ago being involved in a very sad case where a Pastor had obviously been guilty of multiple cases of infidelity, and yet a large part of the congregation did not want us to do anything about it. They kept pleading with us saying things like “you don’t understand how effective he is, how he attracts people.”
The long term effects of preferring personality to character are disastrous in every area. But its particularly worth noting that the bible consistently points out that the people of God are supposed to be men and women of character, and often it does that by the final success of men and women of character like David, Daniel, and Esther, and the bad ends of personalities like Absalom, Herod, and Jezebel. The Bible consistently reinforces the critical importance of believers having genuine, steadfast, biblical character. And remember the place where character is tested and proved, isn’t in times of ease – image will suffice there. Its in trial and adversity that the genuineness of a Christian is tested. If To borrow the imagery from Christ’s example in Matthew 7:24-27, anyone can build a house that looks good on the outside, but the test of its substance, and whether it is built on the sand of personality or whether it is built on the solid rock of true Christian character comes when the flood breaks against it.
Simply put, it is in the test of adversity that personality fails while character endures. Therefore, choose character!