Everything we want in life is purchased with the currency of virtue.
There is no great family without the virtues of patience, kindness, and goodness. There is no great marriage without the virtues of transparency and integrity. There is no success at work without the virtue of perseverance. We know this. But as a Christian community we often think of virtues as only side effects of life with God; effects of a cause not ambitions to be achieved. But virtues are not by-products.
Virtue is not something we think about often. I get that. So if after one paragraph you are still reading let me suggest a revolutionary thought: the beloved passage Romans 8:28,29 is as much about virtue as it is providence. This passage teaches us that all things work together for good and we want to believe this means God blesses our plans. But this is not about our plans. It’s about God’s plan. God plans to work everything out for “good”. The question is what is “good”? “Good” is defined in v. 29 as that which makes me into the image of Christ. In sum, all things God allows can be used to make me like Christ.
Yet, what does that mean? Christ-likeness generally is simply another way of saying we are putting on specific virtues. Yet, unless we think of the macro goal of Christ-likeness in terms of the specific goals of becoming virtuous, then the goal of Christ-likeness can become so nebulous we never know if we achieved it. No athlete ever became great by having the goal of “becoming great.” The daily goal of each workout is to produce strength and endurance that contributes to the larger goal of greatness. Discipline leads to virtue, which leads to greatness. So we discipline ourselves for virtue that contributes to God’s larger goal of Christ-likeness. God’s plan is to make me into the image of Jesus. The global goal of God is worked out by us on the ground in the pursuit of Christ-like character; the pursuit of virtue.
This is why you can’t have a conversation with God without ultimately having a conversation about character. Jesus accepts you just as you were. To interact with Him is to immediately be changed by Him. He is that powerful. He makes us virtuous. Perhaps this is why Scripture says so much about it.
Texts on Virtue
The “virtue lists” in God’s Word at least include passages such as
2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.
II Pet. 1:5-9
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
There is a delicate balance here. In Gal 5:22,23 the virtues are the fruit of the spirit. We pursue the filling of the Spirit and we expect fruitfulness. Yet even still, why would they be listed if they were not desirable and therefore attainable? Scripture speaks of virtue as a work of grace that we obtain when we, as Peter says, “…make every effort to supplement our faith with virtue.” (I Peter 1:5). The implication is that we currently don’t possess them, and we won’t get them passively. It will not just happen. They have to be sought. Everything we want is purchased with the currency of virtue.
Virtue is not laying around to be picked up, it is only attained if it is pursued. It’s not obvious, and it’s not out in the open. The virtuous life can’t be wrought from passivity. It has to be planned. Virtue does not heel. It has to be hunted.
Passive sanctification is a myth. We can passively consume Christianity as a commodity, but not godliness, not holiness, and not virtue. We may think we can ease into virtue, but Paul tells us differently. In Romans 7:22,23 he says,
22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
This is the tension. Paul can see things. The scales are off his eyes and he sees another law. That is, an irrefutable principle that can’t be ignored. The other law, contrasted with a delighting in God’s law, tries to enslave us to sin. So three laws are mentioned in this text. The law of sin mounts up against the law of God in us through this third principle: the principle of the fight. The law of the scrap.
Salvation comes without works, but salvation works in the pursuit of virtue.
It would be an overstatement to say that every problem in our life comes from a lack of virtue. That thinking would lead us into bondage! After all God promises to prune us when we are growing (John 15:1-5). But a lot of my problems come from a lack of humility, a lack of discipline, a lack of patience, or a lack of courage. The tall weeds of sin, like the massive mutant ones we have in Texas, all have their roots in a lack of virtue.
My frustration with my words has its roots in pride and impatience. The weeds of gluttony and procrastination have their roots in discipline. It would make sense to pull the weeds at the root instead of picking off the top and hoping for the best.
In sum, virtue is God’s plan. And that plan is not realized without the pursuit.
One important thing about the pursuit, we need to distinguish between virtues we pursue and the means of pursuit, the spiritual disciplines.
A few years ago I was slated to teach a college course, Virtues of Godly Character, for the College at Southwestern. I began my research for the course by collecting resources recommended by friends. About 60 or so volumes later, I was struck by how few were actually about obtaining virtue. Most of my friends I talked to would recommend books on Spiritual Disciplines. Spiritual Disciplines are not virtues but they are the means to the virtues. Virtues are the craft and the disciplines are the tools. So when we think of virtues like patience, forgiveness, courage and perseverance we should not confuse them with the disciplines like prayer and fasting, etc. The disciplines are the very important means to the end of virtue. The disciplines express agreement with God’s plan. Disciplines are the necessary tools that craft virtue.
To make something great, you need great tools. And my grandfather had them. Wonderful, gloriously sharp and heavy tools. As a boy in his workshop, they were magical. He had a gift with his hands.
Around my house is a clock, a small book case, and a few other things he made. When I needed a changing table for our first-born, he supervised my work. Many in our family, excluding myself (!), have the gift of making things with their hands. The closest I’ve ever been to real craftsmanship is watching him create. As a kid, I was fascinated with his tools. They were just so intriguing.
While the tools were great, owning tools was not the goal, creating with them was the goal. The end of tools was not ownership; the end of tools was craftsmanship. Ultimately it was about the product, not the process. God’s immediate goal is to utilize the tools of spiritual disciplines that will produce the ultimate goal of the being conformed to the virtue of Christ. We discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness. Not the purpose of more discipline.
Over the next few weeks we will look at a select, perhaps somewhat arbitrary, list of virtues. These are penned with the prayer that as we think about the product of virtue we will find motivation to use the tools necessary for the process; that we embrace the pursuit of virtue.