Spirit in the Material World: Character, Context, and Grace

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcom Gladwell describes an experiment where seminarians had thirty minutes to prepare a sermon on the parable of The Good Samaritan. The experimenters told half the group that they were running late and had to rush to another building. They told the other half that they had plenty of time, but that they might as well make their way to the other building now. On their way, both groups passed a man lying on the ground. He was moaning in pain, in obvious distress . . . not unlike the man who’d been robbed and beaten in the parable of The Good Samaritan.

Less than ten percent of the group in a hurry stopped to help the man. Some of the aspiring preachers even stepped over him. Of the group that had extra time, over sixty percent stopped to help. All of the subjects were given tests of personality and morality beforehand. These traits made no difference in helping behavior. The only significant variable was how much time each subject had.

Social psychology experiments have replicated these results many times in many settings. Internal factors – such as values and character traits – matter a whole lot less than external variables when it comes to our behavior. For example, most people ignore someone in distress if everyone around them does the same. Most people will remain in a building that seems to be on fire if a person in authority tells them they’re safe. Most of us cheat on tests if we know we won’t get caught and we see other people doing it. Situation trumps morality most of the time.

Cool your jets – I said, most of the time. These experiments also demonstrate that a small percentage of people always go out of their way to do the right thing. You’re one of these exceptional people - I know, because I’ve seen you at the meetings. Nevertheless, Christians have a hard time with the fact that context is more powerful than character. We tend to go to extremes with this information. Those on the far left and right prefer pontification about the importance of values. If you don’t go green/abstain from sex or help the poor/abstain from sex or support free trade/abstain from sex regardless of the situation, you’re a moral weakling. Folks in the middle often over-emphasize context, making Christianity so user-friendly that religion starts to look like marketing. If someone can’t get their grande nonfat mocha enema in the church lobby, after all, they might not bother to come.

Another option is developing more empathy and grace. Instead of attributing mistakes and failures to someone’s “character,” we can try to understand their circumstances. Most of us are guilty of what psychologists call “the fundamental attribution error.” We attribute someone’s behavior to a single character trait instead an interaction of cultural, social, relational, biological, and psychological factors. For example, it’s easier to see Ted Haggard as a hypocrite than a man trying, and sometimes failing, to manage conflicting demands and desires from without and within.

I’m not suggesting that we don’t hold people responsible for their actions; I’m suggesting that we do no more. Maybe we can learn to hold others accountable for specific behaviors, but skip the sweeping character judgments. Maybe we should give more people a second chance. And maybe we should honor everyday kindness and integrity as extraordinary and heroic.


  1. Can't say that I agree with the conclusions here. The morality quiz that the seminarians took doesn't prove character; it proves their ideals and beliefs about what's right and wrong. The true test of anyone's character is not so easily quantified.
    Those with the strongest character (and I am by no means claiming to be in this bunch), would disregard context and circumstances, or at least rank them lower.

    I do agree with your comments about how we focus on values more than than we should, to the detriment of showing mercy and understanding the reasons why someone has sinned.

    (by the way, this reminds me: it drives me nuts when people refer to sins as "mistakes"; if you cheated on your wife, or posed for pictures you now regret, or embezzled money, or used a racial slur, you didn't make a mistake. A mistake is when you misspell a word, or when you say "Jerry Lewis" when you meant to say "Jerry lee Lewis". A sin is a sin, not a mistake. I should know. I've sinned a lot. Calling it a mistake is a way of minimizing it.)

  2. Another way of wording my first paragraph above is this: A person with strong character will actually live up to his values, morality and beliefs.

  3. i'm surprised more of them didn't stop to use it as an example for their sermon.
    and i happen to believe that mixing up jerry lewis and jerry lee lewis IS a sin.

  4. Errr...good point, Aaron. You have changed my mind and my heart completely. ;)

    Seriously, when Kenny Rogers (the pitcher, not the singer) delivered his "apology" a few years ago for assaulting a camera man, it was a perfect example of what I am talking about. He went up to a camera man who was minding his own business (not in Rogers face or anything) on the baseball field, threw him and the camera to the ground, injuring the man's neck so he couldn't work for months. Then a couple days later, he read a prepared statement in which he used the word "mistake". Or there's Kobe Bryant who apologized for the "mistake of adultery".

    As a Christian, this drives me nuts, because I hear other Christians do it (not sure if Rogers or Kobe are believers). We should know better. Nowhere in Scripture does God allow anyone to refer to sin as a goof-up, as an accident. But it's human nature to do so. I am a dad, so I hear it all the time. "What happened, Jacob? Why is your brother crying?" "Well, dad, I accidentally hit him."


    I have a lot more respect for someone who says they sinned. I've done it a few times (after spending over 30 years playing the "mistake" game). It is actually much more fulfilling to just say you sinned, and ask for forgiveness, than it does to minimize your sin.

    And that's not a derailment, because owning up to one's sin is most definitely a character issue more than a morals issue.

  5. Great article Steve, I really enjoyed it and was convicted of my own hypocricy.

    Reminded me how we as Christians can often be so consumed with things like preparing messages or pointing out tiny insubstantial theological nuances on Christianish blogs that we forget to actually get out there and minister to those who need it. I don't think Mother Theresa would have spent any time at all going back and forth on the internet over the latest Derek Webb song. She'd be taking care of the needy.

    Of course I'm speaking hypothetically ;-)

  6. Perhaps a better model than Mother Teresa would be Jesus. He most definitely fed the needy and gave people what they needed. But He also told them to sin no more (contrary to popular belief, He didn't only correct the behavior or "religious people".

    To let someone remain in their sin without at least speaking the truth to them is a very unloving thing to do. The unbalance comes in when that's all we do. Jesus was very understanding of the context, the cause of someone's sin, such as the woman shacking up with a guy. And He met needs. But He also pointed out sin and told them, for their own good, that the sin needs to stop.

    It's very easy to get unbalanced one way or the other on this.

  7. ah James. The ying to my yang, the white to my black, the Focus on the Family to my Tony Campolo. How did I know you'd be the first to respond to my statement. Sure, you are right, what about Jesus, WWJD, of course.

    I guess I didn't see how we opened up ANOTHER discussion about pointing out sin in others/grace. I certainly didn't want to open up that can of theological worms. My bad.

    And what do you have against Mother Theresa? That woman should definitley be admired.

  8. I like how it's summed up in the last paragraph - "hold others accountable for specific behaviors, but skip the sweeping character judgments" and "honor everyday kindness and integrity as extraordinary and heroic"

    I think that covers being kind and responsible pretty well. I'm not sure the people who passed over the hurt dude were sinning, but the ones who stopped did something kind. Maybe the ones who didn't stop weren't self-absorbed jerks, they were just absorbed in their task and focused on being on time.

    James - as to your "sins" vs "mistakes," I've always kind of had the opposite reaction. To me, a mistake sounds like a bad choice of action, whereas a sin sounds like something between you and God that has not-so-much to do with other people. That's not to say the people you mentioned were being genuine, just that maybe it's not everyone's connotation of the words.

    I don't think a focus on treating people kindly is going to push us over the edge into not holding each other accountable.

  9. Emily, I don't have anything against Mother Theresa (or is it Teresa?). She followed God's command for her life and yielded amazing fruit, much more than I ever will. Never meant otherwise.

    And I am absolutely not a fan of Focus on the Family. I've railed against them for years when they talk politics, although I haven't taken a stance either way regarding their stuff about raising kids.

    So I'm not sure where you got the idea that led to either one of those statements.

    At any rate, my point was: yes, this blog post is correct in that we need to understand the context of a person's sin. But we also must not use that to dismiss or minimize it. That would be the least loving thing we could do.

  10. I certainly wasn't trying to minimize sin or our need for repentance. My point was more that "character" is more fluid than we like to believe, and the Church needs to deal with that. Is a person with "strong moral character" that way due to strength of will or because circumstances make it easier for him or her to live out their beliefs? I don't know about you, but my moral character is much stronger when I'm rested, well-fed, and relaxed. I'm not trying to take a position so much as pose a question about how we integrate scientific data into our theology.

  11. Nice post, Steve.

    Now behavior does stem from character. So perhaps the answer is to discuss the behavior and gentle ask the person to explain where it's coming from.

    I encountered the phrase "fundamental attribution error" in the middle of a church conflict that threatened to engulf us several years ago. During conflict we tend to adopt polarizing language to justify our positions and to dismiss those who narrative differently that we do.

    Great post.

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  13. Steve, my apologies if I sounded like I was saying you were suggesting we minimize sin. The only thing I disagreed with was the idea that because the seminarians stated they had similar beliefs, that that was somehow a demonstration of their character. I think moral beliefs and character are two different things.

    I made the statement about minimizing sins in response to a trend I see these days in the church in general to not take sin as seriously as it should, and to cast those who do so as unloving.

    Larry is right: it's a great post, and I think the scenario you describe in the opening about everyone stepping over the guy on their way to class is classic. I really appreciate your sharing it.

    July 17, 2009 7:43 AM