What Works: Character Defects

They block us from our full potential -- are you willing to let go of yours?


In my recent interview about the spirituality of being on time, I talked about the fact that the spiritual answer is not just to behave, but to change oneself interiorly. Of course, that’s beyond the scope of this column, but I want to talk in this column about one aspect of what needs to change: character defects.

In twelve-step recovery programs, there’s an inventory process, where the person identifies those recurring patterns or tendencies that have caused them trouble — things like dishonesty, self-seeking, and envy. (Opinions vary as to the benefits of listing specific versus broad defects.) The Sixth Step then says, “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” Right away, you’ll notice something interesting about the phrasing. It says, “ready to have God remove.” This is not a self-help exercise, giving a checklist of things to “work on.” We are not running the show. God removes the defect. If you are doing this work, your job is to surrender it to God, to be “entirely” willing.

Not only do we not remove the character defects ourselves, we also don’t choose which ones are removed and when — or even if one is ever to be removed. And the wording challenges us to be willing that God remove every one — even those near and dear to our hearts, and those that this world rewards.

A prayer associated with this part of twelve-step work says in part: “I pray that you now remove from me every single defect of character which stands in the way of my usefulness to you and my fellows.” Some character defects may be irrelevant, and some may even help us serve others. (For example, many who have done great things to serve God and make the world a better place have been driven in part by self-will and pride.)

The point is to be willing that God do with our character defects whatever is most useful. In most cases, however, it’s straightforward — they block us from becoming our true selves, and it is in being our true selves — fully alive, awake — that we can be most useful, to God and to others.

For example, if you are envious of your friend’s house and resentful that they had a lucky break in getting it, something you think you deserved, all this does is stunt your own ability to be loving toward them and close you off to opportunities to improve your own situation. You are stuck. Letting go of the character defect feels like a weight is lifted. Your friendship is no longer burdened by this festering resentment, and your perception of your own home is no longer clouded by jealousy. That may give you renewed gratitude for your situation, or it may make the need for change clearer, but either way, your view will be based more on reality and less on emotion.

Missing the mark

Behind most defects is self-centered fear. And beneath that fear is the idea that if we don’t get or have or protect whatever it is, we are somehow threatened. And ultimately, this fear is the absence of trust in God, of conscious contact with the Divine. Or to put it even more basically: Fear is the result of turning away from trust in God. It is losing touch with the fact that reality is OK just the way it is, and that we are part of it, one with it. So fear is delusion. It’s not real.

And reality is going to be as it is whether we like it or not. So these defects lead us to react in ways that don’t correspond to reality; and this causes conflict — conflict with others, conflict with the world around us, and conflict with our higher selves — willful harmful behavior, self-destructive behavior, resentment, sin, suffering.

The New Testament Greek word amartia, which is often translated as “sin” and in the Lord’s Prayer rendered as “trespasses,” is actually a colloquialism from Greek philosophy; it’s an archery term and its literal meaning is “missing the target.” The bull’s-eye is being fully alive and awake and living true to ourselves — the way God wants us to be. This word describes veering off or falling short of that ideal, not hitting it dead on. It’s interesting to imagine that line from the Lord’s Prayer as, “Forgive us our shortcomings, as we forgive the shortcomings of others.” That feels so much more relevant.

So, if character defects block us so we fall short of our potential, why wouldn’t we want to be rid of them? Because they’re familiar and comfortable, and they can feel safer than facing reality. In order to start really changing interiorly, you have to reach a point where you are able to look at your patterns of behavior, your tried-and-true solutions to perceived threats, and know that they’re not working. And you have to be willing to trust again.

Once you begin, you will gradually come to want even closer union, even truer conduct — to be rid of your character defects even when they are comfortable, because you will come to trust that you will be happier and more useful if you get closer to your true self. This is the spiritual journey. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it really is that simple.

In the sidebar on the right, I offer a few suggestions and tools to look at character defects. But this is really a much bigger task. My hope with this column is to get you thinking. What is your experience with working on or struggling with character defects? Anything I said rub you the wrong way or strike a chord? Let me hear from you in comments below.

Originally published April 26, 2010.