Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. --Psalm 86:11

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Virtue: The Character of Spiritual Renewal

We learn a lot from our parents. In countless situations when my mother was flustered, frustrated or waiting, I’ve seen her sigh deeply and utter the words, “Patience is a virtue.” Though in many ways, my mom is one of the most patient people I know, life – especially the life of a parent – is full of situations that test our patience. Thus my mom’s need to remind herself that it was a virtue worth cultivating.

My mom’s saying taught me that virtue had something to do with character qualities we should strive to attain. But that was the extent of my understanding until recently, when I read N. T. Wright’s excellent book, After You Believe: Why Christian CharacterMatters. Since then, I’ve grown excited about the concept of virtue and about how its recovery by American evangelicals could revolutionize our efforts in discipleship.

This post is the last in a series about the process of spiritual renewal. To recap: spiritual renewal happens when our will and action join up with God’s will and action to renovate our hearts so that our bodily life becomes the true expression of the spiritual life God gives us. We participate with the indwelling Holy Spirit, who generates this change. Our role is to engage in disciplined training of mind and body, so that our habits change and our life is marked by Christlikeness through and through.

The purpose of disciplined training is to produce virtue. Broadly understood, virtue simply means moral excellence or noble character. More specifically, virtue is good character forged and formed by determined practice. A virtue is strength of character that we are not born with, but which, when cultivated, becomes an ingrained part of who we are.

N. T. Wright explains:

Virtue. . .is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration to do something which is good and right, but which doesn’t “come naturally”—and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find they do what’s required “automatically”. . . Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices become “second nature.”[1]

In the rest of his book, Wright argues – and this is a crucial point for Christian discussions of virtue ethics – that virtues allow humans to do what God designed and created us for: to worship and serve God aright and to love others authentically. The kind of life produced by virtue, therefore, fulfills our deepest human longings and leads to a joyful, focused, flourishing life. It leads to true “happiness,” not in the anemic modern sense of pleasurable satisfaction but in the deep sense in which ancient philosophers spoke of happiness: a life well-lived, characterized by goodness, contentment and peace.[2]

Because the transformation from vice to virtue aligns us with our God-given purpose, we begin to find pleasure in doing God’s will, which once seemed burdensome at best and senseless at worst. Like the psalmist, we learn to delight in God’s Law because we become the kind of people who want to follow it.[3] We also delight in discipleship, since Jesus’ teaching sums up both Law and Prophets[4] and obeying him means doing God’s will and entering God’s Kingdom.[5] Following Jesus becomes joyful, because we realize that the way of self-denial and self-giving love is really, paradoxically, the secret to satisfaction,[6] despite the world’s pressure to assert our power, pursue our “rights,” and do whatever we want.

So if spiritual renewal aims at virtue, which makes us flourish as servants of our God and King, then the logical question to ask is: Which virtues should we strive for? Which character qualities should our disciplined apprenticeship to Jesus aim to produce?

Aristotle, whose Nichomachean Ethics is the seminal work on virtue, believed that a truly happy life hangs on four “hinge”[7] virtues: courage, justice, prudence and temperance. The Apostle Paul entered the discourse on virtue by commending nine kinds of “fruit,” which the Spirit produces in believers who are being transformed. Paul’s list is quite comprehensive: love – the paramount Christian virtue – joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.[8] The apostle James, too, defines the qualities God’s heavenly wisdom, which we can embody. It is “first pure, then peaceful, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”[9] The overlap of these qualities with Jesus’ beatitudes is striking. Jesus follows lead of Israel’s great prophets by highlighting virtues that are foundational to faithful obedience under the reign of God. Chief among these are righteousness and justice,[10] simplicity,[11] and humility.[12] All the virtues are rooted in humility, because it is the heart orientation that makes them all possible.

These virtues are the stuff of Godliness. They are God’s own character traits that we are called to embody in our relationships with God and others.

They are, of course, not natural,[13] but, through discipleship to Jesus, they can become “second nature.” That is why Paul urges Timothy, “Train yourself in godliness.”[14] Our training joins with and makes way for the powerful work of God’s Spirit, who renews our minds, renovates our hearts and reactivates our bodies. The goal is character transformation. God makes us mature and complete, so we can see him as he is, worship him as we ought, and reflect his glory as he made us to do.

[1] N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 20-21.
[2] On which, see J. P. Moreland and Klaus Issler, TheLost Virtue of Happiness: Discovering the Disciplines of the Good Life. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2006.
[3] Psalm 1:2; 119:69-70
[4] Matthew 7:12; 22:35-40
[5] Matthew 7:14, 21, 24
[6] See, e.g., Luke 9:24-25
[7] We know them as “Cardinal Virtues,” from the Latin cardo, which means “hinge.”
[8] Galatians 5:22-23
[9] James 3:17
[10] E.g., Matthew 5:6, 10, 20; 6:33
[11] E.g., Matthew 5:8; 6:19-24, 33; 13:44-46; Luke 6:43-45
[12] E.g., Matthew 5:5; 18:4; Mark 9:35; Luke 18:9-14
[13] In fact, John Dickson argues in his recent book, Humilitas, that Jesus was the first moral teacher to make humility a positive virtue. But that same virtue is at the heart of our salvation, for Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be clung to, but made himself nothing, became a servant, humbled himself, and obeyed God even to the point of death (Phil 2:5-8)!
[14] 1 Timothy 4:8

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