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Characterthe word is seldom used in the Bible, and we don't see it very often in newspapers or hear it on television. Yet we know what it means, and we immediately recognize its absence.
People who never use the word character look around them at junior-high promiscuity, busy abortion clinics and the current epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, and they mourn the passing of morality. They see elected officials taking bribes, business leaders demanding kickbacks and investors parlaying inside information into untold wealth, and they lament the demise of integrity. Or they read about battered wives, jobless husbands and abused children, and they wonder what is happening to caring.
Character, a wise person once said, is what we do when no one is looking. It is not the same as reputationwhat other people think of us. It is not the same as success or achievement. Character is not what we have done, but who we are. And although we often hear of tragic lapses of character, describing its absence does not tell the whole story.
Endangered Character Qualities
People give evidence of strong character in hundreds of ways every day:
 A woman confronts her terror of public speaking so she can tell her church congregation about her miraculous answer to prayer. That's courage.
 A man vows to get up twenty minutes early every morning to jog around the block, and he keeps his vow.That's discipline.
 A high-school teacher patiently draws out an inattentive student and discovers she is a gifted writer. That's vision.
 A college student, overwhelmed by tests and term papers, considers dropping out, but decides to stay and study instead. That's endurance.
These four traits are all on my "endangered character quality" list. They aren't glamorous, and they aren't easy. Therefore a lot of people try to get along without them. But strangely enough, the most endangered quality of all is the one that we all think we wantlove.
Unfortunately, when we say we want the character quality of love, most of us mean only that we want to be loved. We hope people will admire us and treat us affectionately, and we will try to do the same for them. But people of character go beyond the warm fuzzies to the hard work of loving. They do this in many different ways, often without realizing that they are showing strength of character:
 A woman refuses to make any more excuses for her husband when he misses work because of a hangover. That's tough love.
 A man notices his daughter's tear-stained face, and so he sits down and encourages her to tell him what's on her heart. That tenderhearted love.
 A parent gives up an attractive job promotion so the family can stay in the town where they have made friends and put down roots. That's sacrificial love.
 A young widow offers forgiveness to the drunken driver who hit and killed her husband. That's radical love.
Love, says the apostle Paul, is the most important Christian character trait (1 Cor 13:13), and it is probably the least understood. That is why I have devoted the second half of this book to it. But it is extremely difficult to learn to love unless we also have other character traits: the courage to do what needs doing; the discipline to make decisions and carry them out; the vision to see far into the future and deep into people's hearts; and the endurance to keep going in spite of ridicule, discomfort or simple boredom. That is why I have given the first half of the book to these foundational character qualities.
Developing a Strong Character
Some people reading the table of contents might be tempted to draw up a chart. "Let's see," they would say, "I'm weak on courage, and so I'll give myself two months to work on that one. Six weeks will probably cover discipline, and I'm sure I can handle vision in two weeks at most. I'll just skip endurance, and that will give me two months on each kind of love. If I follow this plan, in one year I'll have a strong character."
Benjamin Franklin reports in his Autobiography that he tried that approach, and it didn't work. As soon as he mastered one good trait and went on to the next, the first one started slipping out of his grasp. Character cannot be developed through good resolutions and checklists. It usually requires a lot of hard work, a little pain and years of faithfulness before any of the virtues are consistently noticeable in us.
Developing character, however, does not have to be a grim task. There are secrets to developing each of the character qualities, and I have shared them in each chapter. More important, Jesus Christthe only person who has ever consistently excelled in every virtue we could nameoffers to develop his character in us as we follow him. This is an offer we can hardly refuse!
Salvation Is Free
Please keep one very important fact in mind as you read this book: No matter how wonderful your character is, it will never be wonderful enough to earn God's approval. This is not a book about how to get God to sit up and notice you or how to improve your heavenly credit rating. As important as character is, it is not a way to earn salvation. That is because salvation cannot be earnednot even by courage, discipline, vision, endurance and love.
Salvation is a gift from the heavenly Father to us. It cost him everythingthe death of his beloved only Son. It costs us nothing. Hard work cannot earn it; neither can good behavior or sterling character. The only way we can enjoy a relationship with God is by coming to Jesus Christ, our hands outstretched and empty, and saying, "Lord, I want to follow you. Please take me into your family, scrub me, give me new clothes and make me like you." And Jesus will do exactly that. He will take us as we are and assure us that we are his forever. Thenslowly at first, but surelyhe will mold us and shape us until we resemble him.
This book is for two kinds of people. First, it is for you who, whether Christian or not, admire character strength and see the urgent need for it in our society and in yourself. I hope to show you how to get where you want to go. Second, it is for you who, having given your life to Christ, yearn for spectacular transformations and dazzling displays of virtue. I hope to show you that you are already well on the way to character strength, even if the path is humbler than you expected.
Character is our world's most pressing need. If all five billion of us had strong characters, there would be no wars, no hunger, no family breakups, no crime, no poverty. We will not live in such a perfect world until Christ returns and the earth is made new, but, in the meantime, we should not despair. To the extent that our own characters grow stronger, the world will be a better place.
So take couragea very good place to start.
Excerpted from Who You Are When No One's Looking by Bill Hybels. Copyright © 1987 by Bill Hybels. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.