The intent of the list below is to prevent the possibility of saying what to do while overlooking instruction on how to do it. Just as reading a book about jogging doesn’t improve a person’s physical condition unless one actually starts jogging, just reading about virtues doesn’t improve our spiritual condition unless we intentionally learn to practice them. Likewise, a novice runner would be ill advised to begin with a 10-kilometer run, neither should the theologian begin their exercises without proper preparation.
We need to keep in mind that obeying commandments without also conforming our hearts to the ways of God, leads to the ungodly pitfalls of legalism. Obedience is willing submission to His will and His ways, not reliance upon willpower to obey His commandments. Also, for those who may already possess addictive or obsessive habits, the use of willpower as the means to obedience to God, is totally futile. When the objective is godly perfection, human willpower is useless if used in any way other than to become willing to surrender it to His divine will. As children of God, we have the power of the Holy Spirit within us, enabling us to see Truth and overcome ungodly deception if we are willing to believe and act on faith. Willingness opens the way to the fullness of life in Christ Jesus. If inner rebellions are strong and the willingness to surrender all to Christ isn’t present, a soul can back up a step and become willing to be willing to surrender all until the rebellion is overcome.
When the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, the first thing to do is to acknowledge the thought and verify that it is from God. Such thoughts are not to be dismissed. They need to be compared against scripture, the example of Jesus, the teachings of the church, and the examples of the saints who have gone before us. If our heart proves contrary to the goodness of God and the fruits of the Holy Spirit, we should immediately relinquish our attitude and submit to the will of God, adopting the mind of Christ as our own and His will as our will, and do as He would have us do in the immediacy of the moment. Ignoring His promptings grieves the Holy Spirit within us and marks the beginning of disobedience (Eph.4:29-31). When the practice of surrender becomes a habit, the spiritual journey in pursuit of virtue has certainly begun.
How to acquire virtue:
1) Decide: appreciate the worth of knowing virtue, of being a virtuous person and having the desire to attain them, then make a decision to pursue them, glorifying and worshiping God, pleasing Him, ever keeping these goals in mind.
2) Identity: claim the Christian’s identity as a child of God and act accordingly, moving the Spirit of Christ that dwells in our spirit, into our souls (mind, emotions, and will) and bodies, being sanctified, holy and pure according to His righteousness. Learn to part with all concepts of identity rooted in the flesh. Adopt a vision of self as being holy and pure unto the Lord.
3) Knowledge: study and meditate on the Word of God in the Bible, learn to recognize the Truth and be free of delusions (false beliefs). Regularly receive teaching and instruction concerning the Way of Life as taught by Jesus. A soul needs to know the Truth before being able to fully act on faith and trust in our Lord.
4) Focus: keep eyes upon God and be attentive to His Word and His promptings, not self or others or anything else. Take all thoughts captive, weigh them against the Truth, and dismiss all thoughts contrary to His Word or His ways. Be wary of curiosities and fascinations. Likewise, fear the Lord by respecting and revering all His creation and creatures, granting everyone the dignity they are due.
5) Prayer: pray without ceasing, abide in the Lord, listen for the prompting of the Holy Spirit and maintain an attitude of willingness to obey. Adopt the attitude of being His humble servant. Do not hesitate to ask to be blessed with a heart willing to learn virtue.
6) Contrition: perform regular house cleaning. Practice self-examination of thoughts and motivations. Search for sins and sinful attitudes, learning to recognize and claim rebellions and transgressions, confess them to God, repent of them and accept His ways. Then acknowledge His forgiveness with thanksgiving and joyful praise, and be willing to perform any applicable or proper restitution. Be open to criticism and suggestion, have and use a spiritual advisor or mentor, do not solely trust in self. Be wary of self-satisfaction since it leads to pride. Be prompt with repentance by turning temptations into opposing virtues.
7) Eternal: learn to recognize and value the eternal (heavenly) over the temporal (creation). Learn to use spiritual eyesight (seeing as God sees), seeing the day to day as parallels to eternal Truth (The Parables of Jesus). Be mindful of death and the fact that our physical life on Earth is temporary while our spiritual life is eternal.
8) Practice: cultivate virtues by intentionally exercising them in normal daily circumstances, regularly subordinating the human will to the divine (surrender, obedience, abiding, brokenness), looking for opportunities in every day events to live and grow in virtue by practicing them.
9) Spiritual Warfare: take a stand against evil and be prepared for an ongoing battle both internally and externally. Learn spiritual defenses and weaponry (cf. Eph.6:11-17). Know the enemy (but keep focus on God) and be on guard. Do not seek confrontation, let the Lord pick the battles and let the enemy bring his attack against our well-prepared positions. Do not avoid confrontation because it may be an opportunity for personal growth. Know and practice spiritual exercises like fasting, meditating and prayer vigils, learning to control the appetites and desires of the mind and body.
10) Thankfulness: be grateful for both victories and shortcomings, remember to give praise and thanks to the Lord for them all, for it is His grace that enables victories, gives hope in tribulations, and allows temptations that we might learn from them. Worship Him regularly with gratitude, giving alms and offerings.
11) Remembrance: be mindful of the rewards for faithfulness. Learn to receive His blessings (not rejecting them for reasons such as feeling unworthy or inept) and likewise be mindful of the consequences of disobedience. Learn to avoid the quagmire of unpleasantness resulting from sin and being outside His will. Appreciate the fact that acting on faith spares us from sin and its resulting emotional turmoil of guilt, shame, remorse, depression, unworthiness, worthlessness, anxieties and stress.
12) Perseverance (resolve): never stay down, get up and return to virtue as soon as possible after failures (see #6 above). Keep in mind the circular nature of pursuing virtues, learning one requires learning others beforehand, and trials can be an effective teacher when study fails to lead to application. Each revolution of the learning cycle is of greater height (closeness to God), and greater depth (deeper wisdom and understanding), and greater breadth (encompassing more and more areas of life).
1) Josh.24:15, decide to serve the Lord or something else
2) John.1:12-13, per our new birth identity in Christ, we become children of God
3) John.8:31-32, live by His Word so that we will know Truth and be free
4) Mt.6:33, Jesus says to seek His kingdom first (focus)
5) 1Thes.5:15-18, instruction to live our lives in prayer
6) Ps.51:17, a contrite heart is favored by our Lord
7) Mt.6:25-34, seek the eternal first and trust Him for our daily care
8) Mt.6:16-23, Jesus instructs us to serve the Lord in all we do (practice)
9) 2Cor.10:3-5, St. Paul teaches about our inner spiritual warfare against the flesh
10) Eph.5:17-21, instruction to give thanks to God at all times for all things
11) John.16:1-4, Jesus says to remember His teachings so that we do not stumble
12) 1Tim.4:10-16, St. Paul’s exhortation to persevere in both growth and ministry
“Fight, therefore, with great determination. Do not let the weakness of your nature be an excuse. If your strength fails you, ask more from God. He will not refuse your request. Consider this – if the fury of your enemies is great, and their numbers overwhelming, the love which God holds for you is infinitely greater. The angel who protects you and the saints who intercede for you are more numerous.”
Dom Lorenzo Scupoli (16th C.?); “The Spiritual Combat”, pg. 44 as printed by Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., © 1945 by The Newman Bookshop
“All He asks of you is that you defend yourself courageously, and that, despite any wounds you may receive, you never lay down your arms or leave the battleground.
“You must not shirk your duty. This war is unavoidable, and you must either fight or die. The obstinacy of your enemies is so fierce that peace and arbitration with them is utterly impossible.”
ibid pg. 45
“Begin to fight immediately in the name of the Lord, armed with distrust of yourself, with confidence in God, in prayer, and with the correct use of the faculties of your soul. With these weapons, attack the enemy, that predominant passion you want to conquer, either by courageous resistance, repeated acts of the contrary virtue, or any means that heaven gives you to drive it out of your heart. Do not rest until it is conquered. Your endurance will be rewarded by the Supreme Judge, Who, with the entire Church triumphant, has witnessed your behaviour.”
ibid pg. 47
“When the soul leaves the body, the enemy advances to attack it, fiercely reviling it and accusing it of its sins in a harsh and terrifying manner. The devout soul, however, even though in the past it has often been wounded by sin, is not frightened by the enemy’s attacks and threats. Strengthened by the Lord, winged by joy, filled with courage by the holy angels that guide it, and encircled and protected by the light of faith, it answers the enemy with great boldness: ‘Fugitive from heaven, wicked slave, what have I to do with you? You have no authority over me; Christ the Son of God has authority over me and over all things. Against Him have I sinned, before Him shall I stand on trial, having His Precious Cross as a sure pledge of His saving love towards me. Flee from me, destroyer! You have nothing to do with the servants of Christ.’ When the soul says all this fearlessly, the devil turns his back, howling aloud and unable to withstand the name of Christ. Then the soul swoops down on the devil from above, attacking him like a hawk attacking a crow. After this it is brought rejoicing by the holy angels to the place appointed for it in accordance with its inward state.”
St. Theognostos (8th C.?); The Philokalia Vol. II, pg. 364-5 #26