Teachings of Presidents
Chapter 23: Developing a Christlike Character

“Chapter 23: Developing a Christlike Character,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay (2011), 214–23

“Chapter 23,” Teachings: David O. McKay, 214–23

Chapter 23

Developing a Christlike Character

Man’s chief concern in life should not be the acquiring of gold, or of fame, or of material possessions. It should not be the development of physical prowess, nor of intellectual strength, but his aim, the highest in life, should be the development of a Christ-like character.1


President David O. McKay understood the importance of developing a righteous character patterned after that of the Savior. This was evident in both his public and his private life. His son Robert once said of him, “In all of my years of close association in the home, on the farm, in business, in the Church, there has never been shown to me one action nor one word, even while training a self-willed horse, which would throw any doubt in my mind that he should be and finally did become the representative and prophet of our Heavenly Father.”2

President McKay taught that the building of a Christlike character is an ongoing, daily process for which each of us must take responsibility. To illustrate this principle for the youth, he described an occasion when he visited a sculptor’s yard in Florence, Italy: “Scattered about were unbroken, irregular pieces of granite from which a sculptor was preparing to cut out a vision which he saw in his mind. …

“If you had stood in that yard, and a man had placed in your hands a chisel and a hammer, would you have dared to take one of the shapeless blocks of stone and carve a human image out of it? You could not do it. Or if someone had placed before you a canvas and given you paints and put in your hands a brush, would you have undertaken to paint on that canvas the picture of an ideal soul? You probably would have said to the first, ‘I am not a sculptor,’ and to the second, ‘I am not a painter. I cannot do it.’

“Nevertheless, each of us is carving a soul this very minute—our own. Is it going to be a deformed one, or is it going to be something admirable and beautiful?

“Yours is the responsibility. Nobody else can carve it for you. Parents may guide, and teachers may help with suggestions, but each young man and young woman has the responsibility to carve his own character.”

President McKay went on to describe the results of carving an upright character: “If you keep your character above reproach, no matter what others may think or what charges they make, you can hold your head erect, keep your heart light, and face the world undauntedly because you, yourself, know that you have kept your soul untarnished.”3

Teachings of David O. McKay

We should strive to follow the Savior’s supreme example.

There has been but one perfect character in this world—the peerless personality of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. No man can do better than to accept Christ as the great Exemplar and the safest Guide.4

If we desire to learn the ideal life to lead among our fellowmen, we can find a perfect example in the life of Jesus. Whatsoever our noble desires, our lofty aspirations, our ideals in any phase of life, we can look to Christ and find perfection. …

The virtues that combined to make this perfect character are truth, justice, wisdom, benevolence, and self-control. His every thought, word, and deed were in harmony with divine law and, therefore, true. The channel of communication between him and the Father was constantly open, so that truth, which rests upon revelation, was always known to him.

christ with children

“There has been but one perfect character in this world—the peerless personality of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. No man can do better than to accept Christ as the great Exemplar and the safest Guide.”

His ideal of justice is summed up in the admonition: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” (See Matt. 7:12.) His wisdom was so broad and deep that it comprehended the ways of men and the purposes of God. … Every act that is recorded of his short, though eventful, life was one of benevolence that comprehends charity and love. His self-control, whether exemplified in his power over his appetites and passions or his dignity and poise when before his persecutors, was perfect—it was divine.5

There are [certain] pictures upon which I always love to look. The first of these is the picture of Christ before Pilate when that Roman official said to the angry mob, “Behold the man!” (John 19:5.) As he said it, he pointed to Jesus, crowned with thorns, bearing upon his shoulders the purple robe. He pointed to one at whom the angry mob sneered, condemned as a felon and blasphemer, and yet when he said, “Behold the man!” he described one who was perfect in character, who was conqueror over weaknesses and temptations, and who could say, as he did to his fellow workers, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace … be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33.) He is our pattern.6

As individuals we should emulate Jesus Christ because of His divine character. … Christians do not honor Him, even with the honor they give Him, because He was a great poet, because He was a great scientist, because He was a great discoverer, a great inventor or great statesman or a great general. They honor Him because He was a great man. In the realm of character He was supreme.7

Maintaining righteous thoughts is critical to the development of a righteous character.

The kind of life you live, your disposition, your very nature, will be determined by your thoughts, of which your acts are but the outward expression. Thought is the seed of action.8

Character springs from the depths of the soul. You tell me what you think about when you do not have to think, and I’ll tell you what you are.9

Thoughts make us what we are. As definitely and surely as the weaver shapes his flowers and figures out of the warp and woof of his loom so every moment the shuttle of thought moves back and forth forming character and even shaping the lineaments of our features. Thoughts lift your soul heavenward, or drag you toward hell.10

No principle of life was more constantly emphasized by the Great Teacher than the necessity of right thinking. To Him, the man was not what he appeared to be outwardly, nor what he professed to be by his words: what the man thought determined in all cases what the man was. No teacher emphasized more strongly than He the truth that “as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” [see Prov. 23:7]. …

His teachings regarding man’s duty to himself, as well as man’s duty to his neighbor, are pervaded with the truth that thought in all cases determines the man’s right to happiness or his condemnation for sin. …

Whether found out or not, all who commit sin pay the penalty of sin and of indiscretion. The intent that precedes the act leaves its indelible impression upon the character. And though the culprit might offer a balm to his conscience by saying … that he will not count “this one,” yet, deep down in the nerve tissue, it is counted just the same, and the marks in his character will stand against him in the day of judgment. No one can hide from his thoughts, nor escape from their inevitable consequences.11

The Savior knew that if the mind could be directed rightly; if the evil thought and tendency could be resisted, the evil act would be minimized. Jesus does not lessen the seriousness of these acts, nor say that we should not punish them; but he emphasizes the greater need of keeping the thought clean, the mind pure. An evil tree will bring forth evil fruit; a good tree will bring forth good fruit. Keep the tree pure, the thoughts pure, and the fruit will be pure and the life pure.12

An upright character is the result only of continued effort and right thinking, the effect of long-cherished associations with Godlike thoughts. He approaches nearest the Christ spirit who makes God the center of his thoughts; and he who can say in his heart, “Not my will, but thine be done” [see Luke 22:42], approaches most nearly the Christ ideal.13

Over time, the “little things” in our lives shape our character.

As straws tell which way the wind blows, so little things indicate the direction of a person’s feelings and thoughts.14

Little things are but parts of the great. The grass does not spring up full grown by eruption. It rises up and increases as noiselessly and gently as not to disturb an angel’s ear, perhaps is invisible to an angel’s eye. The rain does not fall in masses but in drops; the planets do not leap in their orbits, but inch by inch and line by line they circle the orbits. Intellect, feeling, habit, character, all become what they are through the influence of little things, and in morals and religion, it is by little things, by little actions, that every one of us is going—not by leaps, yet surely by inches—either to life or death eternal.

The great lesson to be learned in the world today is to apply in the little acts and duties of life the glorious principles of the Gospel. Let us not think that, because some of the things may seem small and trivial, they are unimportant. Life, after all, is made up of little things. Our life, our being, physically, is made up of little heart beats. Let that little heart stop beating, and life in this world ceases. The great sun is a mighty force in the universe, but we receive the blessings of his rays because they come to us as little beams, which, taken in the aggregate, fill the whole world with sunlight. The dark night is made pleasant by the glimmer of what seem to be little stars; and so the true Christian life is made up of little Christ-like acts performed this hour, this minute—in the home, in the quorum, in the organization, in the town, wherever our life and acts may be cast.15

What a man is today will largely determine what he will be tomorrow. What he has been during the past year to a great extent marks his course throughout the year before him. Day by day, hour by hour, man builds the character that will determine his place and standing among his associates throughout the ages.16

We develop a Christlike character through obedience and self-control.

Character is built by adherence to principles. Character grows from within just as a tree grows, just as every living thing grows. There is no outward thing to be put on to make yourself beautiful; [products from] the drug store [help], it is true, but it is only superficial and temporary. Real beauty, as character, comes from within, and that which contributes to strength of character is in compliance with those principles enunciated by the Prophet Joseph, and by the Savior Himself: virtue, uprightness, holiness—keeping the commandments of God [see History of the Church, 5:134–35].17

In the building of character as in the transforming of a landscape, the laws of peace and of happiness are ever operative. Effort, self-denial, and purposeful action are the stepping-stones of progress. Indulgence and sin are vandals and destroyers of character. Only regret and remorse follow in their wake.18

Self-control means the government and regulation of all our natural appetites, desires, passions, and affections; and there is nothing that gives a man such strength of character as the sense of self-conquest, the realization that he can make his appetites and passions serve him and that he is not a servant to them. This virtue includes temperance, abstinence, bravery, fortitude, hopefulness, sobriety, chastity, independence, tolerance, patience, submission, continence, purity.19

What is the crowning glory of man in this earth so far as his individual achievement is concerned? It is character—character developed through obedience to the laws of life as revealed through the gospel of Jesus Christ, who came that we might have life and have it more abundantly [see John 10:10]. Man’s chief concern in life should not be the acquiring of gold, or of fame, or of material possessions. It should not be the development of physical prowess, nor of intellectual strength, but his aim, the highest in life, should be the development of a Christ-like character.20

Through our influence and teaching, we can help children and youth build a Christlike character.

Children at birth are the most dependent and helpless of all creatures, yet they are the sweetest and greatest of all things in the world. … Their souls are as stainless white paper on which are to be written the aspirations or achievements of a lifetime.21

As a child grows physically by eating regularly at intervals, by breathing fresh air constantly, by resting at stated intervals, so character is built by little things, by daily contacts, by an influence here, a fact or truth there.22

Fundamentally, our characters are formed in the home. The family is a divine organization. Man’s greatest duty in that family is to rear boys and girls possessing health of body, vigor of mind, and higher even than these, a Christ-like character. Home is the factory where these products are made.23

Of what infinite value to the community are teachers and trainers of youth who carve and shape the moral atmosphere in which the people live. Flowers shed beauty and fragrance for a brief time, then fade and die and are gone forever; but children who, through instruction from noble teachers, become imbued with eternal principles of truth, radiate an influence for good which, like their own souls, will live forever.24

Suggestions for Study and Discussion

  • What are the hallmarks of the Savior’s character? (See pages 216–17.) How can we incorporate these traits into our own lives?

  • Why are noble thoughts the foundation for building a Christlike character? (See pages 217–18.) How would you explain President McKay’s statement, “You tell me what you think about when you do not have to think, and I’ll tell you what you are”? What can we do to develop pure thoughts?

  • What are some of the “little things” in your life that have helped shape your character? What can you do every day to become more Christlike? (See also D&C 64:33.)

  • In what ways is obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ a critical factor in developing strength of character? (See page 220.) How do self-control and service contribute to this development? (See page 220.)

  • What can we as parents and teachers do to help young people build a Christlike character? (See pages 221–22.)

Related Scriptures: Philippians 4:8; Mosiah 4:30; 3 Nephi 27:27; D&C 64:33; 93:11–14


  1. In Conference Report, Oct. 1926, 111.

  2. In Conference Report, Apr. 1967, 84.

  3. Secrets of a Happy Life, comp. Llewelyn R. McKay (1960), 145–46, 147.

  4. In Conference Report, Oct. 1945, 132.

  5. In Conference Report, Apr. 1968, 7.

  6. Gospel Ideals (1953), 355.

  7. True to the Faith: From the Sermons and Discourses of David O. McKay, comp. Llewelyn R. McKay (1966), 133.

  8. Treasures of Life, comp. Clare Middlemiss (1962), 200.

  9. Pathways to Happiness, comp. Llewelyn R. McKay (1957), 257.

  10. Secrets of a Happy Life, 160.

  11. “‘As a Man Thinketh … ,’” Instructor, Sept. 1958, 257–58.

  12. Man May Know for Himself: Teachings of President David O. McKay, comp. Clare Middlemiss (1967), 8–9.

  13. In Conference Report, Oct. 1953, 10.

  14. True to the Faith, 270.

  15. True to the Faith, 153.

  16. “Man’s Soul Is as Endless as Time,” Instructor, Jan. 1960, 1.

  17. True to the Faith, 95–96.

  18. True to the Faith, 29.

  19. In Conference Report, Apr. 1968, 8.

  20. In Conference Report, Oct. 1926, 111.

  21. “The Sunday School Looks Forward,” Improvement Era, Dec. 1949, 804.

  22. “The Home and the Church as Factors in Character Building,” Instructor, Apr. 1946, 161.

  23. True to the Faith, 107.

  24. True to the Faith, 248.