Today is a national holiday in the United States honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although King was born on January 15, we celebrate his legacy on the third Monday in January.
While M. L. King is known for his tireless work in the area of civil rights, the peaceful marches, and his fiery speeches, perhaps he’s best known for his great “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963. In that 17 minute speech, Dr. King challenged us with these words
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Our word of the week, “character,” is something King often spoke about.
Regarding the value of a proper education, he once said, “Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education.”
On another occasion, he correctly observed, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and conveniences, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
In The Testament of Hope, Dr. King wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Speaking to the issue of conscience and ethics, he said, “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
Martin Luther King encouraged others to serve, to work, and to use whatever talent, ability or opportunity one possessed. He said, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”
All of these quotes speak to the content of one’s character. Of moral qualities. Ethical standards. Honor and integrity.
Although the English word “character” is not always used, the quality of character is an important virtue found throughout the Bible. Ruth, in the Old Testament, is called a woman of “noble character” (Ruth 3:11). Paul wrote that “endurance develops strength of character” (Rom. 5:4). And Timothy is spoken of as a young man with “proven character” (Phil 2:2).
The Bible warns us against things that can undermine Christian character. Paul writes that “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Cor. 15:3) The Hebrew writer admonishes, “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have (Heb. 13:5). And the Preacher warns against dishonesty because it will “ruin your character” (Eccl. 7:7).
The wise man wrote, “A good name is rather to be chosen than riches, and loving favor than silver and gold.” (Prov 22:1). This speaks to the character of a person.
Character is the foundation of all other qualities. Goodness. Virtue. Honesty. Courage. Purity. All of these and more are the fruit produced from the root of character. They are the handiwork of thoughts, influences, and relationships. Indeed, “As he thinks in his heart so is he” (Prov 23:7).
Character is doing the right thing for the right reason. It is based on deep convictions. It is monitored by conscience and personal accountability. And it is maintained by self-discipline. Dee Bowman was right when he wrote: “To conquer yourself is likely the greatest and most important challenge in life because until you truly own yourself, you can’t give yourself to Christ.” That’s character.
As we work to develop a Christ-like character, this means to treats others with respect, kindness, and courtesy. Let us not judge others by their race, ethnicity or skin color. Neither let us label others based on their social status, economic condition, or political affiliation.
So today, examine yourself. What is the content of your character? Do you need a course correction? Do your thoughts, attitudes, words, actions, and habits pass the “character test”?
As Dr. King once said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
–Ken Weliever, The Preacherman