Why Character Curriculum Won't Produce What We Hope It Will

This post may be about to make us unpopular. We've spent the last 17 years around Christian homeschoolers, and Christian homeschoolers hold tightly to the tools we think will craft excellent Christians out of our children. We don't like people messing with our ideology, and we're often not kind about it, either. 

I'll just say it outright: character curriculum won't produce what we hope it will.

Oh believe me, I've written this post and then let it sit and then decided to publish it and then let it slide back into the drafts. We're not purposely aiming to offend here on HomeschoolingIRL, unless it's the glorious offense of the gospel that gets in our business and shakes us awake and pours us full of mercy.

So here's the thing: character is made, not taught.

Don't believe us? Let's let the Bible do the heavy lifting:

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
— Romans 5:3-5

Here's a key:  ". . . because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."

Our character is God's work, because He loves us. He loves our children, too, and He who began a good work in them will be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6) He who began the good work . . .

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
— Galatians 5:22-23

This one eluded me for years. I was raised in a Christian home by parents who passionately love and follow Jesus. When I say "years", I mean, specifically, all 44 years of my life. I've heard about and studied the fruit of the Spirit so many times, but because it reads like a list, I think my mind created a checklist instead.

That plays out practically from day to day when I would find myself commanding things like, "Love your sister!", "You need to be joyful!", and "When are you going to exhibit some self-control?"

One day I was sitting in our school room staring at a poster on the wall which illustrated each of the fruits of the Spirit. Like the force of snow pack violently released from a cracking tree branch, it suddenly dawned on me: these character attributes are fruit of the Spirit, not something we can muster up in our own strength, no matter how hard we try. Cue the "duh". 

While it's never bad to talk about character traits or try to gain an understanding of them, the truth is, we don't get them without them being given.

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.
— Colossians 3:12-15

"Here it is!", you say. Proof that we must do the work. After all, Paul says, "Put on then . . ." Yes, put it on! Take what Jesus has given and pour it all over yourself. Just remember that you didn't manufacture it and you can't create it in your kids, either, no matter how many books you read about the Miller and Moody families.

I mean, you can read those books. Yes, you should read them. Just don't expect them to affect any life-changing work because that is the job of the Holy Spirit, alone. Discuss the stories, talk about the issues the kids struggle with, show your kids great examples of lives driven by a love for God and all He's done for us. But remember that God will grow good fruit in the lives of our kids whether we taught them about character or forgot to get to that lesson at all.

Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
— 1 John 4:8

What difference does it make that we know God and love others? The difference is this: God's love for us is relentless and driven and tenacious and perfect. He is love. When we grasp that truth and understand that there's nothing we can do to lose His love, it changes everything. We no longer need to feel less than someone else, so we can love them more. We no longer need to lie to cover our sin or present ourselves as something we're not because we're trying to gain someone's approval. When we know we're ensconced in the perfect, unending love of Jesus, we don't need to seek approval elsewhere! 

And suddenly we find ourselves loving, patient, kind, faithful, joyful . . . all as a response to the glorious love of God! We love Him because He first loved us. 

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
— Romans 13:14

Oh yes! Put Him on and remember Whose you are and what He's done for you! Whisper that in the ear of your naughty two-year-old and text it in the middle of a hard day to your struggling 15-year-old. We all need to be reminded, every day, of what He's done for us and that He will never give up. He will work and work and work to build beautiful character in each one of us. 

What do we get to do, then? Rest. Let Him do His thing.

The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.
— Matthew 12:35

The one who sees His need met by God rests and allows Him to bring forth good, and the one who looks instead for his purpose, value, and worth in the world will reap the fruit of that empty path. 

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.
— 2 Peter 1:5-7

"Make every effort" of verse 5 cannot be divorced from what came right before it in this passage (verses 1-4): 

1  Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours: 2 Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

3 His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

There, again, so boldly and triumphantly: through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ, through the knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord . . . His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness . . . there!

Do we think character curriculum is bad? Of course not. But as with anything our feeble gospel-forgetting souls latch onto, it can become the thing to which we shift our hope and then wonder why, when our teen is characterized by lying or a lack of punctuality or gentleness, we have failed. No, my weary friend, you have not failed. God is doing His work in His time. Rest there and let Him do it. Buy the character books and read them, but as you do, remind your children that all character worked in us is His work, not ours. That's soul-strengthening freedom!