Chapter 5 – Understanding the Meaning of Virtue

Moral: “being or acting in accordance with established standards of good behavior”

Ethic:  “a principle of right or good conduct or a body of such principles”

Noble: “having or showing qualities of high moral character”

     High:  “lofty or exalted in quality”

          Exalted: “to raise in position or status; to glorify or praise”

Virtue:  “moral excellence and righteousness, goodness”

     Excellent: “superiority”

     Righteous: “morally right, just”

          Just: “consistent with standards of what is moral and proper; honest and impartial”

     Goodness: “kindness, benevolence, euphemism for God”

          Euphemism: “an inoffensive term substituted for one considered offensively explicit”

          Kind:  “showing sympathy, concern, or understanding”

          Benevolence:  “charitable good nature”

(All definitions above are from the “American Heritage Dictionary”, ©1983 Houghton Mifflin Co.)

            This chapter has as its purpose the goal of establishing common ground for our foundational understanding of virtue.  The above dictionary definitions serve to define and contrast virtue from other terms used to describe the quality of human behavior.  The indented words above are used in the definitions of preceding terms; the words not indented are our key terms.  From these definitions, we see that ethics and morals relate to human standards of right behavior.  Morals (physical) relate more to actual physical or external expressions, while ethics (soulful) pertains to the guiding principles that govern morality.  To be noble, is to attempt to exceed normal human standards of either morals or ethics.  Virtues (spiritual) are attitudes and actions inspired by God that are acceptable and pleasing to Him, exceeding even the highest standards of nobility.  Scripture teaches us that virtue is the life of Christ within us and expressed through us (Rom.6, Gal.2:20, 5:22, Col.3:1-17).

The author also deems it important to note here the view of man as a three-part whole, the constituent parts being 1) the physical body, 2) the soul, comprising our mind, emotions and will, and 3) the spirit.  The body can be seen as our “Earth suit”, it houses both the soul and spirit for our time on Earth.  It interacts with the soul and relates physically to the world around us.  The soul can be understood as our personality, the mental activity that produces thoughts, sustains beliefs, experiences emotions, and makes choices using the free will God created us to have.   Its function is to interact with others souls.  It interfaces with both the body and spirit, processing the collective input from the senses and intuitive powers in order to make decisions and tend to the issues of life.  Our spirit is the core component of our human identity; it interacts with the soul and relates to the spiritual realm.  The human spirit, the life God originally breathed into man, is what differentiates humans from beasts.

The importance of a bible-based understanding of our identity is integral to the stable foundation a Christian soul must have before embarking on a journey of spiritual growth.  It is human nature to think and act in accordance with what we believe about ourselves (Prov.23:7).  In Luke 6:46-49, Jesus speaks in a parable about the importance of having a life foundation firmly rooted in the Truth of the Gospel, and likewise of the devastation that results when life’s storms come to those not firmly grounded in His Word.  For Christians, identity is determined by birth in contrast to the secular notion that activity or occupation defines a person.  When born physically into this world, we are our parent’s son or daughter, inheriting obvious family traits.  When born anew in the Holy Spirit, a soul becomes a child of God (Jn.1:11-13, Gal.4:1-7) and is likewise given a new identity along with new family traits.  This new identity is no longer based on the flesh but rather on the eternal and righteous life of Christ within us (Eph.4:20-24).  St. Paul referred to all Christians as “saints” in addressing his epistles (2Cor.1:1, Col.1:2, Eph.1:1, Phil.1:1).  Christians need to have a firm grasp on the fact that in Christ we possess all the goodness of God our Father due to the indwelling Holy Spirit (1Cor.3:16-17).  Our outward behavior should reflect this eternal, inner truth.  This is not to deny that we are still capable of grievous sin, but again, behavior is not the determinant of identity for the children of God.  In Christ, spiritually, we have been wholly restored although the capacity for sin (or concupiscence) dwells in our flesh (Rom.7:14-25).  To the heathen, a person who commits adultery is an adulterer, whereas a child of God who commits such a sin is still a saint, albeit one in need of repentance (1Cor.6:9-11).  Again, as we pursue virtue, there will be many failings and Satan the accuser will certainly unleash the demons in an effort to convince us that we are unworthy of grace and damnable.  If we were without Christ this would be true, but since we are in Christ, it is a lie.  Believing such lies can lead to further frustrations and defeat, so it is critically important to know the truth of our identity in Christ as being beloved children of God.   As we learn of the goodness within us, our new nature in Christ, the practice and expression of virtue is incorporated into our being as we align our thoughts, deeds, and values with our true identity as children of God.

The supernatural union between God and man needs to be understood as an ever-present reality and normal for the Christian.  The indwelling Holy Spirit changes our flesh identity as a child of wrath into a spiritual child of God (Jn.3:1-21, Eph.2).  In Christ, we are righteous (Rom.5:18-19, 2Cor.5:16-21) and sanctified (1Cor.1:26-31).  The gift of righteousness which is ours in Christ enables us to enter into His presence (1Cor.6:9-11).  Christians are a temple for the Holy Spirit, sanctified and set apart for use by God like the church sanctuary or the sacred items contained within (1Cor.3:16, 6:19).  His presence is meant to be the life source of the Christian; He provides for all our needs.  Meeting human needs according to the ways of the world, apart from Christ, is living according to the flesh.  Living in the flesh is to function at a constant deficit since only God can truly satisfy the needs He created within us.  The ways of the world can never truly satisfy a soul.  Trying to do the work of God while in the flesh leads to frustrations and resentments stemming from the fleshly need to be recognized and rewarded by those around us.  Instead, we should look to God to meet our need for significance.  A needy soul attempting to minister to another needy soul perpetuates neediness.  Only when we are fully sated with the abundant life of Christ are we able to operate out of His fullness and be of service tending to the needs of others.  To continue the pursuit of virtue, every thought we have must include in its underpinnings:

1)      we are to look to God, to the power of the indwelling Holy spirit, in order to establish our identity firmly on the solid foundation which is Christ Jesus (Mt.7:24-29)

2)      we are to live in the abundance of His life, looking to God to meet all our needs (Jn.10:10).

Jesus is quoted in John 15:5, “I Am the Vine, you are the branches”.  Jesus is our source of life, He supplies us with all we need to sustain life, and we have life because of our communion with the source of eternal life.   A life of virtue is a life lived abiding in the vine.  Christ teaches us in John 15:4, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.”  Virtues are fruits of His life as expressed through us.  The passage also teaches us that it is impossible to pursue virtue apart from life in the Holy Spirit who makes our lives fruitful (cf. Gal.5:22-23).

Scriptural References:

Col.3:12-14, many virtues comprise the virtue of love; love is the fulfillment of all virtues

1Thes.5:16-24, the pursuit of virtue requires the sanctification of the body, soul and spirit

1Jn.4:7-12, God is Love, a life of virtue is one lived in love and knowing God

Commentaries:

“God is the source of every virtue, as the sun is of daylight.”

St. Mark the Ascetic (5th C.?); The Philokalia Vol. I, pg. 113 #40

“Fulfilling a commandment means doing what we are enjoined to do; but virtue is to do it in a manner that conforms to truth.”

ibid. pg. 123 #194

“Virtue may be defined at the conscious union of human weakness with divine strength.”

St. Maximos the Confessor (580-662); The Philokalia Vol. II, pg. 230 #79

“Virtue is a stable and utterly dispassionate state of righteousness.”

ibid. pg. 261 #2

“Virtue is… something we choose.  We choose it and will it in the sense that we do good by deliberate choice of our own free will, not unintentional and under compulsion.”

St. John of Damaskos (675-749); The Philokalia Vol. II, pg. 341

“Greater practice is rewarded by greater knowledge; and from the understanding thus acquired we gain control of the passions and learn how to endure our sufferings patiently.  Sufferings produce devotion to God and recognition of His gifts and our faults.  These give birth to gratitude, and gratitude inculcates the fear of God which leads us to keeping the commandments, to inward grief, gentleness and humility.  These three virtues produce discrimination [discernment], which gives us spiritual insight and makes it possible for the intellect to foresee coming faults and to forestall them through experience and recollection of what has happened in the past; in this way it can protect itself against stealthy attacks.  All this generates hope, and from hope comes detachment and perfect love.”

St. Peter of Damaskos (11th C.); The Philokalia Vol. III, pg. 78

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One thought on “Chapter 5 – Understanding the Meaning of Virtue

  1. Pingback: A Primer on Virtue & Spiritual Growth Manual For Christians | A Primer on Virtue

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