Three Tests of Character: Adversity, Temptation, and Power

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Throughout life, we are confronted with tests of character. Each one brings the task and opportunity to survive and become stronger. At these times, faith can help us toward becoming the person we want to be.

A while back, an editor familiar with my work approached me to write a book about faith and character. Even though a part of me had always wanted to write such a book, I was quite apprehensive because I had never written about matters of faith before, and because for some time now I have been struggling with some cognitive issues that precluded me from undertaking a major writing project. Fortunately, my years of experience as a therapist provided me with countless examples of individuals whose faith and character were challenged by the ultimate tests: adversity, temptation, and the acquisition of power. All I had to do was assemble and organize their stories (with minor alterations, and all identifying information removed). The publisher would then present them in a manner that could provide a testament to the fundamental role of faith in the task of saving ourselves from our baser instincts, and of developing the kind of character that holds up under testing. So, with lots of help from the editor, it now appears that a book about these issues (as yet untitled) will be published early next year.

The philosophy a person lives by, or the particular faith they might practice, can play a crucial role in guiding them safely through times of trial. Our most noble beliefs, if deeply rooted and held, can truly help us rise above our baser selves. But the nature and solidity of our faith, and the integrity of our character are not so much manifested by what we profess, but rather by how we evidence them through our actions. And the truest tests always come with great adversity, strong temptation, or the amassing of personal power.

Temptations are present everywhere. And the things that lure us always hold some promise of pleasure (usually immediate) or personal gain. Sometimes, we’re even aware of the price we might have to pay for succumbing, but we make the decision that the desirability of the situation outweighs the risk of negative consequence, and we sell ourselves out. That choice alone speaks volumes about the nature and strength of our character. Our character is most solid when we rebuff temptation, not so much because of the possible negative consequence of engaging in a behavior, but because of the moral incorrectness of the behavior itself and the affront it would be to our value system to exhibit it.

Life also brings us no short supply of adversity. And times of great trial can provide us with valuable information about the solidity of our character. It’s one thing to be generous, loving, compassionate, etc. when things are going well for us, but quite another to maintain noble attitudes when things are no longer going our way. Adversity, it seems, has the power to bring out the best or the worst in us.

Abraham Lincoln said that almost “any man can stand adversity, but if you really want to test his character, give him power.” He seemed to understand the real relationship between power and character. Many moralists of his time believed (as Lord Acton summarized years later in the now famous quotation) that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But as I pointed out in In Sheep’s Clothing, there is no more absolute power a person can have than the power of a parent over an infant child. Yet, most people of character approach that position with awe, trepidation, and a tremendous sense of responsibility. And, as I pointed out in my book Character Disturbance, there are certain personalities whose character is defined by the ravenous manner in which they seek power, and the penchant they have for abusing it whenever they get any measure of it. Mr. Lincoln would have his character tested many times and by some of the most trying circumstances of the age. Nonetheless, he evidenced the truth of his claim about power as well as the nature of his own character by the manner in which he used the power of the presidency to abolish the disgraceful practice of slavery, and to keep a deeply fractured country from splintering completely apart. Mr. Lincoln paid a dear price for being true to his convictions. But we who live with the results are forever in his debt.

I’m more than a bit nervous about the release of the upcoming book. I’ve yet to see its final form, and I pray that its eventual title adequately captures its intended message. I’ve had the good fortune to assist many folks in the process of strengthening their own characters and have witnessed the power of their faith to elevate their spirits and help transform them into the persons they so ardently desired to become. I sincerely hope their stories will inspire others and help them survive their own inevitable tests of character.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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