Virtue is a word we rarely hear used these days and that is indeed unfortunate since there appears to be a great deal of evidence that having more virtue would be good medicine for what ails society at present.
Virtue is derived from the Latin word “virtus” (the personification of which was the deity Virtus), and had the connotations of “manliness,” “honour”, worthiness of deferential respect, and civic duty as both a citizen and a soldier. The word was popular in the early 1800’s and then began to decline in use up to the present time. Perhaps that decline was propelled by more focus on self-actualization and individualism and a disappointment in its absence in the lives of those who were to model it as well as losing track of our heart’s condition.
We wanted so many things and we wanted them to diminish the longings in our hearts that had been ravaged by disease, war, economic collapses, and the breakdown of the family unit. We wanted anesthesia for our hearts, and we found many ways to accomplish that whether through work, play, or chasing after some perceived sense of what “the good life” should be. And we paid little attention to how such an anesthetized heart would lose track of God (much like Israel) and began to search for our desires by means of “less wild lovers” as John Eldredge would say.
Some of these paths resulted in greater loss than we could have imagined and discovery that these other loves had chained us to addictions over which we had less and less control.
In The Sacred Romance by Brent Curtis and John Eldredge they describe what happens through the power of addiction of any kind:
“Whatever the object of addiction is, it attaches itself to our intense desire for eternal and intimate communion with God and each other in the midst of Paradise – the desire that Jesus himself placed in us before the beginning of the world. Nothing less than this kind of unfallen communion will ever satisfy our desire or allow it to drink freely without it imprisoning it and us. Once we allow our heart to drink water from these less-than-eternal wells with the goal of finding the life we were made for, it overpowers our will and becomes as Jonathan Edwards said, “like a viper, hissing and spitting at God” and us if we try to restrain it.”
Our heart is the battleground.
When we have anesthetized our hearts, we are desperately in need of the only One who can and did offer an escape – Jesus on the cross. And we need a steady supply of virtue that causes us to look upward and out to others rather than to that nagging wanting that has driven us to the dead-end path we can find ourselves on.
If we are (as James K.A. Smith says) what we love, then what we love and practicing seeking after determines a great deal of how the battle for our hearts will go.
Smith makes a great case for what virtues are and what they accomplish in the battle for our heart:
“Virtues, quite simply, are good moral habits. (Bad moral habits, as you might guess, are called “vices.”) Good moral habits are like internal dispositions to the good – they are character traits that become woven into the who you are so that you are the kind of person who is inclined to be compassionate, forgiving, and so forth. Virtues thus are different from moral laws or rules, which are external stipulations of the good.”
Maybe we have missed this crucial understanding as we have passed more and more laws as the answer to helping us all to be better as individuals, citizens, states, and nations. They are all external and we have a plethora of them already that have not accomplished the internal character and virtue we desperately need.
Our pastor recently preached a sermon that reflected that noting that the problems swirling around us today (in whatever part of the world we live or find ourselves) cannot be resolved by any means unless we each and all address the condition of our hearts. And that is something we have left unattended for far too long so that we are sometimes caught up in calling evil good and good evil.
So, if we need more virtue, how does one acquire it in this postmodern era we live in?
Smith’s book that I have referenced says it comes from two key things: imitation and practice. Could it be that as believers we are imitating more of what the world around us is saying and doing than the virtues we ascribe to?
Smith describes the two things we must do as follows:
“First, we learn our virtues through imitation. More specifically, we learn to be virtuous by imitating exemplars of justice, compassion, kindness, and love.
Secondly, acquiring virtue takes practice. Such moral, kingdom-reflecting dispositions are inscribed into your character through rhythms and routines and rituals, enacted over and over again, that implant in you a disposition to an end (telos) that become a character trait – a sort of learned, second- nature default orientation that you tend toward “without thinking about it.” It’s important to recognize that such dispositions are not “natural.” We’re not talking about hardwiring or natural instincts. Virtues are learned and acquired, through imitation and practice. It’s like we have moral muscles that are trained in the same way our biological muscles are trained when we practice a golf swing or piano scales.”
James K.A. Smith in You Are What You Love
It may be that we need more time in the spiritual gym to develop those moral muscles to accomplish what we need. To do that we will need to set aside other “less wild lovers” that we tend toward and be more aware of what we are feeding in ourselves by what we watch or read and who we imitate.
I think Peter understood that when he penned this verse:
“But you are God’s chosen treasure—priests who are kings, a spiritual “nation” set apart as God’s devoted ones. He called you out of darkness to experience his marvelous light, and now he claims you as his very own. He did this so that you would broadcast his glorious wonders throughout the world.”
1 Peter 2:9 (TPT)