Virtue

Preaching and Worship Resources about Virtue

A virtue is a disposition to think, feel, speak, or act in a way that pleases God. Pleasing God isn't an arbitrary goal. Scripture reveals concrete ways to do it. While cultivating virtue may be a basic human responsibility, actually doing it may tempt us to self-justification. So it helps to remember that virtues are sown in us by the Spirit of God and that they arise from faith (itself a gift). Worth noting also is that virtues bind us to other Christians and exhibit the image of God.

In Scripture

"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:9 - 10).

"You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall render just decisions for the people. You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you" (Deut. 16:18 - 20).

"Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (Isa. 1:17).

"Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:23 - 24).

"Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. . . . You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16, 43 - 45).

"`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Matt. 22:37 - 39)

"Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. . . . Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are" (Rom. 12:9, 14 - 16).

"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things" (Gal. 5:22 - 23).

"Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you" (Phil. 4:8 - 9).

"Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. . . . As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful" (Col. 3:9 - 10, 12 - 15).

Points to Ponder

A virtue is a disposition -- that is, a tendency, an inclination. We might add that it is a relatively settled inclination — not a hit-or-miss, off-again-on-again inclination. A virtuous person is consistently bent toward pleasing God. It's her habit. It's her nature. It's who she is.

Not an abstract goal: In her thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds, the virtuous person strives to please God. Here it's important to see that pleasing God isn't an abstract or arbitrary goal. Scripture reveals concretely what pleases God: being generous to immigrants, for example, and being kind to widows, orphans, and the oppressed — but never as a substitute for seeking justice for them. Justice is the foundation of our outlook toward others, and especially others who are troubled. Kindness and compassion toward them sit on top of justice for them. The virtuous person weeps with those who weep, and, more impressively, rejoices with those who rejoice. (Rejoicing with those who rejoice is impressive because it crucifies envy.) The virtuous person displays not only compassion and a hunger for justice, but also kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and gratitude. She keeps her promises. She rings true wherever you tap her. She embodies faith, hope, and love.

Confession: When, inevitably, she lapses in her virtues, the virtuous person confesses the lapses and strives again for wholeness, aware that even her failures may be used by God to instill a sense of her sheer dependence on God.

Virtues as gifts: The virtuous person sometimes looks at his virtues as gifts, the fruit of the Spirit. In fact, some human beings appear to be born with a kind heart, or to be gifted with one at an early age. But other times, the virtuous person will accept that virtues are his calling. According to Colossians 3, we are to "clothe ourselves" with compassion, kindness, humility. Now we're talking about sheer obedience practiced till it becomes habit, and then character, and then our destiny. C. S. Lewis says somewhere that it's a lot easier to pray for a boring person than to visit him. The virtuous person will strive to do both, aware — with a kind of self-irony — that parts of his own personality aren't actually so fascinating either.

But should a Christian actually strive for virtue? Isn't such striving dangerous? What if focusing our attention upon Christian virtues should lead us away from faith in Jesus Christ and into an obsession with our own spiritual hygiene? What if we lose interest in the fruit of the Holy Spirit and get fascinated with fluffing up our little virtues and tucking in our little vices? What if we end up trying to graft a Ben Franklin program of self-improvement onto a confession of the grace of Jesus Christ?

Not our possession: In this connection a Christian might easily fear what Emil Brunner feared when he wrote The Divine Imperative: if we talk a lot about virtues, we may begin to think of them as our possession. We may begin to think of them as merit badges. It's then only a step or two into the heresy of self-justification. The point is that justification by grace can begin to look remote when we are huffing and puffing to be good.

So how might we think of virtues in union with Christ so as to remove any misunderstandings of them as self-improvement projects and encourage a healthy sense of virtuous living as a form of covenant faithfulness?

First, let's acknowledge that a Christian's virtues derive from the sanctifying Spirit, whose secret work bears fruit within (and without) the church. Love, generosity, peace, and the patient ability to put up with people who drive us nuts — these are gifts deserving quiet gratitude, which is itself one of the choicest of divine gifts and one of the most powerful generators of joy, which is another fruit of the Spirit. For the whole run of life — beginning, growth, flowering, dying in peace — a Christian depends on the gracious imagination, energy, impetus, nudging, wooing, chastening, and modeling of God. All human virtue is born and grows up in the cradle of God's grace.

Still, we may cultivate virtues. That's what obedience is all about. But we do not sow them. Sowing is a work of God's Spirit. Similarly, we may mortify our old vices ("crucify" our old self), but the following resurrection of our new self with its virtues is a work of God's grace.

Second, let's say that the object of a Christian's faith is Jesus Christ "clothed with the gospel." What follows is that the Christian person's virtues arise in the context of this same faith that binds him to Jesus Christ. For example, his gratitude — his blended sense of blessedness and non-entitlement — arises from faithful recognition of God's benevolence to him. A grateful Christian cannot repay God for redemption. But like good children of good parents who want to pass on healthy home life to their children, a grateful Christian can direct the energy from his gratitude out toward others.

An additional point to ponder: in such contexts as Colossians 3, Ephesians 4, and Romans 12, Paul exhorts those who are "one body in Christ" to adopt virtues appropriate to building their communal unity. Union with Christ is ipso facto union with others, and a more perfect union with them will take a lot of virtue on the part of the members. Thus Paul counsels humility not particularly because the humble person will then find others more interesting and human life more engaging than one who is curved in on himself, but because Christians need to respect each other's dignity and each other's complementary gifts in order to function as a healthy body. Paul exhorts forgivingness not particularly because the person who drops her (justifiable) anger against an offender will then be able to get a night's sleep (though true enough and worth noting), but because we can't have a reconciling community unless those who have been forgiven by God believe, and act on their belief, that it would be superbly fitting for them to forgive each other.

Finally, to practice virtues in union with Christ is to represent the image of God. Compassion, patience, humility, and the rest of the virtues compose not the ambition of spiritual entrepreneurs, but the vocation of godliness by people elected to follow it. Perhaps there are a number of ways to image God. One of them is to live in communal love. So, in the "renewal of the image" passages in Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3, Paul writes to churches that are divided or in danger of division and calls them to renew the image of God by such means as telling the truth, working hard so as to have something to give to the poor, and adopting a tenderhearted attitude toward sinners. The idea is that to do these things is to be like God. To act like this is to act like God. For an ordinary Christian in an ordinary Christian community it should be an awesome thing to consider that every time she acts kindly toward a truly obnoxious person, she is imaging God. And she is both expressing and strengthening her union with Christ.

Part of the gospel: Considerations of this kind help us to see the virtue sections of Scripture in the same way we see the church, namely, as a part of the gospel and not a mere addendum to it. The reason is that these sections present us with the counsels of grace by the God of grace who knows how life flourishes in union with Christ and wishes to share the recipe. God's commands orient us to covenant living and tell us how to make it sing. It's part of Karl Barth's enduring spiritual genius to have seen this truth and to have insisted upon it. God's command is "the form of the gospel" that invites "joyful participation" in good life with God and each other. God's call to compassion is itself compassionate. When we refuse God's commands, it's grace we are refusing. It's freedom we are refusing. We think we are refusing a bad death — the death of our autonomy — but we are actually refusing a good death — the death of our sinful self. This is the only death that leads to resurrection and life.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.