One long line of gravestones in the cemetery at Princeton University is called “President’s Row.” It includes the graves of the school’s presidents and their families. One inscription reads: “Aaron Burr, Colonel in the Continental Army, and Vice President of the United States.” Near his grave are those of his father, the Rev. Aaron Burr, who was the second president of Princeton, and his famous grandfather, Jonathan Edwards.
Aaron Burr had all that heredity and religious training could give. His academic accomplishments were unsurpassed. He possessed a strong will and abundant personality. But what about his character?
Burr so distinguished himself in the early years of the Revolutionary War that he was placed on Gen. George Washington’s staff, but he soon transferred because of differences with his superior.
He saved a whole brigade from capture during their retreat from Long Island, but he defied orders to do so.
After the war, the people of New York recognized his legal brilliance and elected him to the state assembly. Later he was appointed attorney general and won election to the U.S. Senate. Burr became such a power among Republicans of the north that in 1800 he was nominated as vice president on the Jefferson ticket.
In fact, his personal canvassing and admirable organization were responsible for the party’s victory in New York, but he accomplished this success through his organization of the infamous Tammany Society, which illegally controlled New York politics.
Because of a blunder in the electoral process, Burr received as many electoral votes for president as Thomas Jefferson, which threw the final decision into the House of Representatives.
Then began the historic feud between Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton’s opposition to Burr led to Jefferson’s election, but rumors said Burr had connived to wrest the presidency from Jefferson. Jefferson never trusted him.
When Burr tried to retrieve his political fortunes by running for governor of New York in 1804, Hamilton again threw his influence against him, calling Burr a “dangerous” man. Embittered by his defeat, Burr challenged Hamilton to their famous duel.
Killing Hamilton made Burr an outcast from U.S. social and political life, and he disappeared to the Western frontier. Later he returned to the East with a plan to lead a colony of settlers to land he had purchased in Louisiana. He even talked about leading an expedition to Mexico, if the possible war with Spain materialized, so that he could win that country for the United States – or for himself. No one was sure.
Burr was accused of trying to create a new republic in the Southwest, and in 1807 he was tried for treason. Though he was exonerated, the public refused to recognize his innocence. He fled to Europe, where he lived in immorality on borrowed funds. He was evicted from England, and when he visited France, Napoleon scorned him.
Eventually, Burr disguised himself and returned to New York, where he resumed his law practice. But he had little success and died a lonely man 24 years later.
Burr was one of the brightest men who ever graduated from Princeton, but he never controlled the dark side of his character. His life was a continuous struggle between the good and evil within him, a war common to us all. Burr came so close to excellence, but ended up so far away from it. His defective character destroyed him. Without quality character, excellence is impossible.
Character has been defined as “the sum and total of a person’s choices.” Character can be either good or bad, and such is the dilemma of life. Who will we be? Character is the result of our everyday choices.
Unfortunately, people emphasize doing rather than being, action rather than character. Being must come first. We must know who we are before we can excel.
In high school, students have ambitions of winning golf championships, traveling the world, playing professional baseball, or achieving movie stardom. Ambitions of doing rather than being.
There is nothing wrong with action, but it is more important to decide what to be than what to do.
In the Old Testament, Joseph was called “a dreamer,” but his expansive dreams came true. Why? Joseph decided who he was before he decided what he would do, and he lived out his vision in everything he did and in all the choices he made. Joseph was a man of excellent character, a man of purity, honesty, humility, and faithfulness.
Joseph Was Pure
Joseph determined to be pure, and his faith in God guided his decisions. Character always follows faith and is the result of wanting to please God. Joseph proved his character in his daily choices. When Potiphar’s wife saw how handsome Joseph was, she invited him, “Lie with me.”
Joseph refused. He could have rationalized, I am the servant, and she is the employer. Instead he answered, “How can I sin against God?” Joseph’s desire to please God was more important than lust.
Potiphar’s wife would not be put off, however. One day she arranged for the servants to be away, and when Joseph came into the house, she grabbed his shirt, saying, “Lie with me.”
“But he left his garment in her hand, and fled and ran outside” (Gen. 39:12, NASB). The flesh is sometimes so powerful and deceitful that only running away will save us.
Paul told Timothy to “flee… youthful lusts” (2 Tim. 2:22). That’s what Joseph did. Today, some employers expect their employees to make moral compromises for them. If the temptation to give in can’t be resisted, the employee should quit rather than hang around, inviting trouble. God is more concerned with character than position in life.
All sin starts in the mind. Resist lust by turning off provocative television programs or refusing to read questionable magazines (or websites, added by editor). Christians have the mind and the power of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16; Phil. 4:13) and don’t have to yield to temptation.
But people aren’t saying no to temptation anymore. Married men and women lust after those who seem younger or more talented or more attractive. Others give in to violent tempers, perhaps leading to child or spouse abuse. Christians rarely admit to the darker sides of their characters.
Sin begins like an innocent, enchanting breeze – a few too many glances at an attractive person, the opportunity to see that person a few too many times. But the compromises escalate, and sin destroys character.
Our wills are so weak, and overcoming temptation is so hard. Knowing we are bound by our humanity, Jesus urged us to watch and pray. He challenged us to a constant vision of who we are and a constant vigil to maintain that vision.
Joseph Was Honest
Integrity is vital to excellent character. “His word is his bond” is a first-rate compliment. It is dishonest not to keep our word.
Proverbs 11:3 reads: “The integrity of the upright will guide them, but the perversity of the unfaithful will destroy them.” Honesty builds, but dishonesty destroys.
Madison Sarratt, a mathematics professor at Vanderbilt University, would tell his students: “Today I am giving two examinations, one in trigonometry and the other in honesty. I hope you will pass them both. If you must fail one, fail trigonometry. There are many good people in the world who can’t pass trigonometry, but there are no good people who cannot pass the examination of honesty.”
As food administrator for the Allies during World War I, Herbert Hoover handled gigantic sums of money. Franklin Lane, Hoover’s biographer, wrote, “The money [$12 million a month] was simply sent to him, Herbert Hoover. Those hundreds of millions passing constantly through his personal bank account were guarded by nothing but his own integrity, which to all the governments of Europe was a security as sound as a government bond.”
Such integrity may seem impossible in a world of Watergates, Iran Gates, and Pearly Gates. But it’s not. Excellent character begins with the little choices. It begins with giving back the excess change the salesclerk handed out by mistake and with not cheating on income taxes. Each small decision, each time the truth is bent, establishes a pattern – a pattern that is difficult to change.
Joseph Was Humble
Joseph was content wherever he was. He never tried to manipulate his way into a better position and did his best at every job he had. During his life, Joseph served Jacob, Potiphar, the keeper of the prison, and Pharaoh, but most of all he served God. The key to Joseph’s character was his humility. God alone elevated Joseph.
We must learn to be servants in our homes, in our relationships with others, and in our jobs. No task should be too low for us. The quality of our work should reveal our true character, and we should be willing to devote the same time and energy to menial jobs as we give to our greater responsibilities.
Jesus is our example. He knew that He was God, that He was supreme, and that He was the ultimate leader. Yet He rose from the Passover supper, washed His disciples’ feet, and wiped them with a towel. The God-man served humbly, and He calls us all to the same “order of the towel.”
Joseph Was Faithful
Joseph’s reward for fleeing the advances of Potiphar’s wife was prison. Some men might have abandoned God, thinking, Following God’s ways doesn’t work. What have I gained by doing what’s right? Yet Joseph remained faithful to God.
We, too, must remain faithful to who we are as Christ’s sons and daughters. “No magnificent building ever grew up by a miracle,” J.R. Miller wrote in The Building of Character. “Stone by stone it rose, each block laid in its place by toil and effort. ‘You cannot dream yourself into character, you must hammer and forge yourself one.’” Faithfulness is essential to an upright character.
Bitterness and unforgiveness are barriers to faithfulness, obstructing our communion with God. When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt, pleading for food, he could have vengefully allowed them to starve to death, but he forgave them instead. There might be many good reasons to be bitter, but we must leave vengeance with the Lord.
Joseph’s level of success may be unattainable for most of us, but the quality of his character is not. The secret of his godly character was that he knew who he was as a child of God. Because of his overwhelming desire to please God, to serve only Him, Joseph determined to be God’s man: pure, honest, humble, and faithful.
Our daily decisions reveal our true character. To achieve excellence, our love for God must be great enough to deny our natural tendencies. Do our own lives read like Joseph’s? If they do, we are well on the road to biblical excellence.
George Sweeting, MOODY, NOVEMBER 1987, pp. 16, 17.