Action by action, we build our character.Whether in public, or in private, what we do is both a revelation and a construction of who we are.In a media-rich world, there seems to be a feeling that we can hide behind the illusion of anonymity, and be different people in different places and times. Our actions are without consequence. Here I’m a ruthless business tycoon; there I am a gentle lover. Here I hack into your private information, but there I would never ask you to tell me something that is none of my business. I can do some calculating things, but I am a good person at the end of the day.
The notion of a world free of responsibility, free of consequences doesn’t square with the best of human reasoning, let alone with a Christian understanding of ethics. In one Aesop fable, the birds are warned by the swallow to eat the hemp seeds before the seeds grow up into plants that are woven into nets that will be used to catch them: Destroy the seeds of destruction or they will destroy you. Oscar Wilde, at the end of his life, noted his experience of this reality: “I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetops.” I hope none of those caught up in current events are genuinely surprised when their actions come back to haunt them.
Even business leaders over recent years have been calling for more ethical teaching in MBA programmes because graduates were failing not to exhibit appropriate business skills, but failed to grasp the importance of honesty and integrity. Yet it takes more than knowledge of ethics to make an ethical person. It takes the tough discipline of subjecting every action to a standard that is higher than yourself. It takes more than a decision, though certainly not less; it takes the very formation of a person. In the words of Winston Churchill, 'Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.'
And so we really do reap what we sow. Maybe that is why the apostle Paul encouraged the Galatians not to grow weary in doing what is right. Perhaps he knew how frustrated people might become when they constantly finish last because the more ruthless players fix the rules to their own advantage. Perhaps he knew the temptation to give in, just once or twice, just a little.
But instead, he challenges us to forget about self-interest, and persist in helping everyone as we have opportunity. Because in time, perhaps after a long, long time, and well out of sight, we will reap a good, enduring harvest. This is the potential of a good character, well formed. The longterm reward comes from doing the right thing in secret as well as in the open, rather than using your power and influence for personal or professional gain: Now that’s a number worth hacking into. Sadly, the temptations of power are usually too great. Number by number, call by call, character is corrupted. And everyone loses.