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Building Character

Johann Christoph Arnold

Available languages: Deutsch, español, 한국어


Since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. – 1 Thessalonians 5:8

We live in a time when almost everything that our parents and grandparents taught us about God is scorned. This is seen most of all in public schools, where teachers increasingly fear teaching students what they really believe, and where faith has taken second seat to the modern gods of tolerance and neutrality.

Whereas teachers and pastors of past decades could openly champion the ideals of decency, hard work, and faith, those of us who promote the same values today risk being labeled as bigots – or charged with hate crimes. And the lengths to which fearful school boards and parents now go borders on the ridiculous: a teacher in California was recently censored for responding to a sneeze with the age-old "God bless you," and a high school in Rhode Island has been forced to cover over a gymnasium-wall prayer that exhorts students to honor their teachers and push their minds and hearts as well as their bodies.

As a speaker and writer who has worked in the field of conflict resolution for many years, I have addressed countless students at schools and high schools across New York City and its surroundings. I recently experienced this backlash myself at a suburban middle school, when I was asked to leave – midway through a morning assembly— because I brought God into the equation.

But how can we teach children anything sensible when we are told to leave God out? How can we ever teach values if we question the superiority of right over wrong, the brightness of light over darkness, or the warmth of love over hate?

There is a widespread feeling that if we stand up too strongly for our beliefs, we may hurt someone who does not share them. Certainly I do not espouse intolerance of other people's convictions or believe in forcing my own beliefs on others by buttonholing them. At the same time, I am sure that because so few of us have ever had to stand up for what we believe, we have become spineless. Not only our children, but we ourselves, lack the courage and conviction that comes from being tested.

How can parents raise children with moral backbone – children who are able, as they grow up, to hold on to their convictions? First and foremost, we must instill in children a sense of moral courage, which is an attitude of confidence, determination, and perseverance. In his book Freedom from Sinful Thoughts, my father writes how a person's attitude to the difficulties he meets in life determines his emotional well-being. This is just as true for children. They must learn to adopt an aggressive attitude to cold, heat, and fatigue, and to apathy and indulgence, if they are ever to deal with fears, hurts, and disappointments.

Children need to learn to be plucky; they cannot dissolve in tears at every taunt or jeer. They must learn to withstand peer pressure and the humiliation of being despised for simply holding an unpopular idea. And they must realize that humility is no less vital to building character than the ability to think for oneself. It may take courage to hold an opposing viewpoint in a crowd, but it takes just as much courage, if not more, to own up to a mistake or to admit defeat when one is wrong.

Clearly, the formation of character only begins in childhood, and must continue as a lifelong process. Yet if parents lay a firm foundation for their children at home, they will not be disappointed. Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster, a German writer and educator, says, "A child is educated not by having lengthy talks about 'big' things, but by patiently teaching him to carry out the smallest and most ordinary tasks properly. Character is formed through training in the smallest, mundane things – in the living room, and not in the stream of the world."

A child's strength of character (or lack of it) will have a bearing on his readiness to suffer for the sake of conviction. Given the measure of religious freedom we enjoy at present, some readers may find it strange to even raise this issue. Yet as someone who experienced the McCarthy era himself, I know that things can change quickly. Throughout history and right down to the present day, followers of almost every religion and ideology have had to endure opposition.

The sooner our children realize that discipleship means suffering and hardship, the better equipped they will be. I still remember a true story my parents told me as a child about the teenage son of a 16th century Austrian miller, who was executed because he refused to recant his "heretical" beliefs.

We should take care not to burden children with worrying about the future. At the same time it cannot hurt to make them think, even now, of how they might one day have to stand up for their beliefs.

Christoph Blumhardt wrote that his father spared no words when talking to his children about what this might mean:

He gathered us regularly for prayer and Bible reading and spoke of the possible persecution that might be in store for those who confess the name of Jesus. I felt a thrill run through my whole body when at the end he exclaimed, with lively gestures, "Children, rather let your heads be cut off than deny Jesus!" Such an education awakened the good within me at an early age.

Jesus did not promise his followers good times. The greater our faith, the greater the opposition we may face because of it.

From Why Children Matter by Johann Christoph Arnold.

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Contributed By Johann Christoph Arnold Johann Christoph Arnold

A noted speaker and writer on marriage, parenting, education, and end-of-life issues, Arnold is a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, a movement of Christian communities.

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