Archives For Self-Examination

On the Nature of Virtue

November 3, 2020 — 12 Comments

Are you virtuous? If you have high moral standards, there’s a fair chance you are. If you fall short of that mark, moral excellence is a goal which few completely attain in this life.

If you’d like to learn more about virtue, there is a free book I would like to recommend to you. In just a moment.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses virtue in a straight-forward manner. Virtue is not simply doing the right thing. As Lewis writes, “right actions done for the wrong reasons do not help to build the internal quality or character called a ‘virtue,’ and it is this quality that really matters.”

He’s right. To do something “good” simply to receive a reward or avoid a punishment, is not virtuous. It is good. True. But when a person’s thoughts and actions are motivated without regard to consequences, they reflect their actual character. And, accordingly, genuine virtue is a rare commodity.

Lewis put it this way: “We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort.”

Christians just celebrated All Saints Day on the first of November. Some ecclesiastical organizations have relegated the title “saint” to those who were exemplary disciples of Jesus Christ. In actuality, these are better referred to as “canonized” saints.

The biblical usage of the word saint includes all Christians. For example, the Apostle Paul describes his days of persecuting the church as persecuting saints.

I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them (Acts 26:10, ESV).

So, are all Christians—all saints—virtuous? Hardly. However, when we examine our own lives and confess our sins, God eagerly forgives them. And we can strive anew to live a life that brings honor to our Lord.

You see, no one is born with a virtuous character. But virtue is built, by drawing close to God. And virtue is not the domain solely of Christians. Anyone, be they theistic, agnostic or Pagan, can become virtuous. As C.S. Lewis noted, nurturing virtue is a noble process. “Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.” Good people, we who are proto-virtuous, prefer to live in the light, rather than beneath the clouds.

And What about that Book?

I haven’t forgotten. I want to share with you an offer from an excellent publishing house that offers a monthly newsletter that features a free ebook. They also offer periodic sales that are uber-bargains. You can sign up here via “Stay in Touch” and perhaps receive access to a download of the current offering.

The book is written by a Finnish professor. It is simply titled Virtue, and is intended to be an introductory text.

The list of both virtues and vices is very long. It would be quite easy to list several dozen of them. It is not necessary for us to go through all virtues and vices, or even the most important, here. In this chapter we will look at the four traditional cardinal virtues (temperance, courage, justice, wisdom) and the three theological virtues (faith, hope, love).

Study of these virtues and their corresponding vices shows how they are dependent on each other, how the different virtues support one another, and how lack of one virtue prevents realization of another.

One final warning from C.S. Lewis. In the context of self-examination, Lewis cautioned a future friend not to spend much time dwelling on our spiritual state. It was 1954 and he was responding to a letter from Walter Hooper, who would a decade later assist Lewis as a secretary.

I am glad if I have been the instrument of Our Lord’s help to you: in His hands almost any instrument will do, otherwise none. We should, I believe, distrust states of mind which turn our attention upon ourselves.

Even at our sins we should look no longer than is necessary to know and to repent them: and our virtues or progress (if any) are certainly a dangerous object of contemplation.

As to Lewis’ humble statement about our progress “if any,” allow me to add that he most certainly did recognize growth in our spiritual lives as a natural result of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

Although I never penned a letter to Lewis, like many of you, I share Hooper’s gratitude for God’s use of C.S. Lewis as an instrument to bless and encourage me.