A Primer on Virtue & Spiritual Growth Manual For Christians

By Cris Hernandez, Child of God

 

Table of Contents

Introduction

Part I – Preparation

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”  (Gal.2:20)

Chapter

1) Notes on Spiritual Growth            

2) Definitions 

3) All Human Needs Are Satisfied In Christ

4) Anatomy of Temptation that Leads to Sin and Bondage 

5) Understanding the Meaning of Virtue      

6) The Beginning of Spiritual Warfare; Knowledge of Good and Evil

7) The Purpose of Studying Virtues:  part 1- Obedience

8) The Purpose of Studying Virtues:  part 2- Knowing and Pleasing God

9) The Purpose of Studying Virtues:  part 3- Preparing for Heaven

10) The Acquisition of Virtues:  How To

 

Part II – Pursuit

“Though He slay me, I will hope in Him.”  Job

 Chapter

11) The Foundations of Virtue:  Fear of the Lord, Knowledge, Wisdom

12) The Pursuit of Virtue:  Faith, Courage

13) Recognizing Virtue:  Discernment, Remembrance, Watchfulness                      

-The “D” test for discerning goodness from evil

14) An Attitude of Virtue:  Peace, Abiding Prayer, Stillness, Hope 

15) Perpetuating Virtue:  Purity, Simplicity, Honesty, Integrity       

16) The Pleasure of Virtue:  Joy, Thankfulness, Praise      

17) The Essentials of Virtue:  Humility, Selflessness, Goodness

18) Sharing Virtue: Justice, Dignity, Mercy  

19) Virtue and the Human Will:  Self-Control, Patience, Gentleness

20) Empowering Virtue: Charity, Generosity, Hospitality

21) The Beauty of Virtue: Forgiveness, Kindness, Compassion

22) The Fulfillment of Virtue:  Love

 

“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation” 

Herbert Spencer as quoted in “Alcoholics Anonymous” © 1939, 1955, 1976 by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

 

Introduction

            The purpose of this book is to encourage and to challenge fellow Christians to a life of greater intimacy with God.  The study of virtues is the means to this end.  This book defines virtues as the characteristics of God, the fruits of the Holy Spirit, that we can aspire to obtain as part of our own being.  To know virtue experientially, is to know God, and to know Him as if He were a flesh and blood companion of many years whose personality and characteristics are familiar and recognizable enough to be emulated.  To study virtues is to learn the ways of God such that His workmanship is readily discernible in us, in others, and in the world around us.

 

Hebrews chapter 4, verse 12 describes the Word of God as a razor sharp, double-edged blade that easily slices the meat off the bone.  In that spirit, this book aims to be a stiletto, a dagger that is just long enough, just narrow enough, and so very pointed, that it slides easily through the protective rib cage and goes straight to the heart.  Thus slain by His Word and crucified with Christ (Gal.2:20), a death to self that we might be alive in Him, the work of separating the flesh from the spirit can begin.

 

The pursuit of virtue is presented here as an exercise in spiritual growth.  Spiritual growth means increasing our awareness of the presence of God in our day-to-day lives while conforming our ways to His, from the core of our being outward.  Prior to examining individual virtues, spiritual growth issues will be reviewed in detail, including specific “how to” recommendations.  It is imperative that we prepare our hearts in humility and submission as well as being well practiced at confession and repentance prior to our attempt to learn virtue.  Since God is the goal of our pursuit, it is best understood upfront that encounters with God can be very humbling experiences.   His awesome holiness is so overwhelmingly powerful and pure, all our impurities and ungodliness become grotesquely obvious to us as we near Him.  First, our imperfections are exposed and then our faithless bravadoes and facades are completely stripped away from us, for no unclean or impure thing can exist in His presence.  Akin to being naked, defenseless, and completely humiliated, our flesh will want to grab familiar garb and lean on comfortable crutches rather than let go of worldly ways so that our spirit may move freely toward God.  We need to be prepared for this encounter or we will be no less devastated than Isaiah (Is.6:5) when confronted with the ugliness of sin which dwells in our flesh (Rom.7).  Prior to studying virtue and having a more intimate, intense relationship with God, we as Christians, as children of God, need to be fully assured that God loves us.  We need to know with conviction that Christ has provided the means for the forgiveness of our sins (1Jn.1:9), and that in Christ we are wholly acceptable to God and welcome into His presence, worthy of His blessings (Eph.4:20-24, Gal.4:4-7).

 

With the threat of devastation to our self-image now looming, the question as to why we should pursue a study of virtues begs to be answered.  Many reasons could be given here as to why Christians should be acquainted with the virtues, but the primary reason is unity with God.  Unity with Him is the ultimate purpose of this life God has given us; it is how we honor Him best.  Virtue puts our lives in accord with life as God intended it to be.  The resulting harmony of His purpose and our intent added to the indescribable joys and pleasures we experience as we grow in nearness to God, the source of all goodness, makes this endeavor the most rewarding life pursuit option available to us.   Also, part of the beauty of this pursuit is that it can be done while pursuing other life interests, and as long as the ways of God are given top priority, all other areas of life become richer, fuller, and more rewarding.  As Jesus said, His yoke isn’t burdensome or weighty (cf. Mt.11:28-30), and the pursuit engenders the fullness and abundance of life Christ promised (Jn.10:10).

 

Our study of virtues isn’t merely a discourse on individual virtues and love isn’t just presented as the supreme virtue.  Though Jesus clearly teaches us the supremacy of love in Mt. 22:35-40, the focus here is more in line with verse 40, where Jesus says that love is the fulfillment of the law  (also see 1Pe.4:8;  Rom.13:8,10; Gal.5:14;  Jas.2:8).  In this work, love is presented as the fulfillment of all virtues and as the supernatural life of Christ as expressed through us.  Presenting the interdependency of virtues and expressing the need for them to grow together, may be a new approach to some readers.  The study of the component virtues provides the building blocks, or stepping stones, that need to be in place as we are learning to love.  Two things to note here, first, this work is not meant to be merely a source of information or read as a mental exercise.  Virtues must be lived in order to be learned, and this requires practicing their expression as we tend to the daily circumstances of our individual lives.  Secondly, our pursuit of virtue equates to the pursuit of God, for God is love, and since God is eternal and infinite, it is important to understand that we will never in our time on Earth be finished with this pursuit.  As humbling as this can be, to believe otherwise may lead to unnecessary frustration from our perpetual failings, or worse, giving up the pursuit altogether.

 

The pursuit of virtue also involves spiritual warfare, for there is no way to grow spiritually without combating the demons.  Demons can be understood as any obstacle that prevents a soul from being wholly united with God and His will, as the rebellions and temptations we face when we attempt to surrender fully our human will to His divine will.  The Bible portrays demons as the legions of fallen angels who are loyal to Satan, having both intelligence and purpose (Mt.12:25-27; 2Cor.2:10-11; Eph.6:11-13; Rev.12).  Their aim is to defame God and desecrate all that is sacred.  They especially hate Christian souls who have a sincere and strong desire to worship God and honor all that is His.  Demons operate using the powers of suggestion and persuasion to communicate with human souls.  They tempt the children of God into acting outside of His will.  They easily influence ungodly souls who are not even aware that demonic suggestions are not their own ideas and therefore unable to separate evil notions from their own thoughts.  The greater their influence over a soul, greater is the soul’s potential for committing acts of heinous evil.  This work aims to prepare us for this battle by first revealing the demon’s tactics and then explaining how to overcome their assaults.  Lack of preparation here can likewise have devastating results.

 

The author is a firm believer that unity in Christ and expressing the love of God are far more important than strict adherence to the doctrines that serve to divide His disciples.  Accordingly, an effort has been made to walk lightly around theological issues, choosing certain words that are less likely to be the cause of theological debate, while defining others within this text so that the reader knows the author’s intended meaning (2Tim.2:14).  For example, “unity” will be used frequently; “salvation”, “theosis”, “justification” and “sanctification” are used sparingly.   It is the author’s prayer that the purpose of this text, for us all to grow in nearness and likeness to our Lord Christ Jesus, not be compromised by our doctrinal differences.  As Christians, we all read the same book; therefore, the Bible is liberally referenced in this text as an inerrant and authoritative source of Truth.  Again, it is the author’s prayer that any current differences in our understanding and application of scripture not become an impediment to our pursuit of virtue.  The author also invites the readers to read around, or translate into their own framework of beliefs, any statement herein that is a matter of doctrinal interpretation in order to keep from dismissing the intent of the text altogether.  Likewise, if the author’s definitions don’t match the reader’s definition, the reader is invited to switch the pairings of words and their definitions throughout the text.  Giving priority to meanings instead of demanding that a particular word convey the same theological concept for all Christians is one way to keep from compromising our unity in Christ.  The author prays for your indulgence for the rewards of virtue are great.

 

Also, please do not take the aforementioned warnings lightly, learning to live in the spiritual realm has inherent dangers, whether from agitating the demons or from adverse reactions to encounters with the holiness of God.  To proceed without proper preparation is analogous to getting married without first being willing to make a faithful commitment, or having children without first being willing to put aside selfish, self-serving ways in order to rightly provide for them.  Lack of preparation here can be similarly painful and harmful to self and others. It is quite intentional that the first 10 chapters of this book all concern preparation for the 12 that follow.  It is also recommended that this undertaking not be done alone, the use of a mentor is highly recommended, as is having someone to provide feedback and compare notes.  Before proceeding, a few more specific precautions:

  • Do not compare yourself or your progress to others, you will either become smug and conceited, or disillusioned and defeated; learn to be satisfied with simply pleasing God.  Comparing ourselves to others always leads to sinful pride or an erroneous sense of inadequacy.
  • Do not believe any suggestion that the pursuit of virtue is futile, unrewarding or unfulfilling, all such suggestions are from the demons and are contrary to the Word of God.
  • Keep your primary focus on Jesus and the examples of the saints who have gone before us, do not dwell on your successes or failures; again the result is either pride or frustration.
  • As we grow spiritually and learn to recognize the goodness of God more readily, it should become easier to compliment and encourage others as we learn to live our lives in the fullness of His love.  Likewise, ungodliness also becomes more apparent.  Do not succumb to self-loathing or the temptation to point out the failings of others, and do not lose heart when those who were once esteemed begin to appear all too human.

 

The author would also like the reader to understand that these lessons were originally prepared so that the author could learn about virtue.  The author does not claim to be a “paragon of virtue”, but rather a soul who came to Christ as an adult and has had to unlearn a wealth of sinful habits in order to learn of virtue.  There are many un-referenced sources in this work because the author pursued many topical studies prior to formulating the idea of writing a book.  These sources include books, magazines, preachers on the radio and television, pastors and priests during worship services, classes, friends, and so on.  One last note; the scripture passages following the chapter texts contain lessons to be learned as taught to me in my personal travels and studies, they aren’t meant to be literal or condensed translations.

 

I pray ye well.

 

Cris Hernandez

Child of God

email:  aprimeronvirtue@yahoogroups.com

 

 

Copyright Information:

King James Version (KJV):  public domain (http://www.biblegateway.com/cgi-bin/bible)

New American Standard Bible (NASB*):  © Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation

New International Version (NIV):  © Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society

(* Unless otherwise noted, scripture passages quoted within this text are from the NASB)

The Philokalia: (Vol. I © 1979 The Eling Trust; Vol. II © 1981 The Eling Trust; Vol. III © 1984 The Eling Trust; Vol. IV © 1995 The Eling Trust; Vol.V unavailable to the author)

Concerning scripture contained within quotes taken from The Philokalia, “All Biblical passages have been translated directly from the Greek as given in the original Philokalia.  This means that quotations from the Old Testament are normally based on the Greek Septuagint text.”   (from the translators of the Philokalia)

Note:  text within the quotes from the Philokalia and elsewhere contained within brackets “[example]” is from the author.

 

The author extends his appreciation to all his teachers whose thoughts are contained within this text as well as to those who supported him while these lessons were being prepared.

 

Chapter 4 – Anatomy of Temptation that Leads to Sin and Bondage

The purpose of this chapter is to highlight the implications of succumbing to any given temptation.  It should also serve as a tool to assist us in our introspections and to trace the roots of our sinful habits.   Correctly identifying our shortcomings helps us differentiate false guilt and self-condemnation, from the conviction of the Holy Spirit.   True convictions should result in our confession and repentance, ignoring them blasphemes His grace

 

Temptations can be understood as trials or tests allowed by God.  They consist of ungodly thoughts or demonic suggestions purposely devised to induce a soul to sin.  God allows the demons to tempt us in order to help us with our spiritual growth (Jas.1:2-4).  It is by this testing that we become souls of proven character before God, our fellows and ourselves.  We nurture our ability to trust God as we endure and learn to overcome.

 

Concerning the progression from mere suggestion to actual consummation of sin, it is important to note that our culpability does not begin until we contemplate carrying out the temptation.  Being provoked with an evil thought is not sinful; entertaining these evil thoughts is indeed sinful and is cause for repentance.  The fact that the demons are able to make suggestions that our souls are able to perceive, does not constitute culpability on our part, nor does reacting to the suggestion.  However, as soon as a thought is recognized as being evil, if not dismissed and disposed of immediately, culpability begins.

 

When a soul decides to pursue virtue and embarks on a journey of spiritual growth, the demons take note and begin their onslaught of evil suggestions.  This venture is much akin to swatting a wasp nest with a broom, for in order to bring the goodness of God into our lives, we need to expel the impurities and clean house; Jesus uses this analogy in Luke 11:24-26.  For those new to spiritual growth issues, this is a warning to be prepared for some truly absurd and grotesque thoughts when uprooting demons.  We need to be prepared for these temptations to be stronger and more persistent than usual when making our first serious effort to expel them.  There is no need for alarm, it is normal to be disturbed by their foul suggestions.  All that needs to be done is dismiss these thoughts for what they are, the desperate activity of demons being thwarted and displaced.  Also, keep in mind that demons are not omniscient; they cannot read our minds, they merely perceive our activity and send predictable temptations aimed at our individual weaknesses.  The work of C. S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters”, is an amusing and lighthearted reading that provides much valuable insight into the workings and activities of demons.

 

Our Lord knows our weakness and promises us that that we will not be tempted beyond our ability to endure (1Cor.10:13).  However, since we are infected by sin (or concupiscence), we share in the battle described by St. Paul in Romans 7:14-25 and it is understood that we will have our failings (1Jn.1:5-10).  For Christians, the prescription for sin is confession and repentance, activities that should become an integral and regular practice for those pursuing virtue.  It is understood that owning up to one’s shortcomings can be emotionally painful and mentally anguishing.  Initially, it hurts our sense of self-worth and our positive self-image to see ourselves covered with grotesque blemishes, but the consequences of not doing so are much, much worse.  Sin, because it is outside the will of God, has ungodly consequences (2Pe.2:2-22).  Deception and denial fool a soul into believing it is without sin.  Anyone who says they have nothing to confess is a liar (Jn.8:51-59; 1Jn.1:5-10).  Furthermore, if unaddressed, such delusion can lead to false sense of security concerning the eternal disposition of one’s soul (1Cor.6:9-11; 2Thes.2:1-12).

 

Succumbing to a particular sin with regularity engenders a habit.  A habit becomes an addiction when a soul’s ability to abstain is compromised.  Such addictions most assuredly rob us of our ability to serve our Lord freely and without making allowances for sin.  St. Paul refers to these addictions as “slavery of sin” in Romans 6.  Addictions are diseases of the will.  They compromise a soul’s ability to make life choices freely and without undue coercion from within.  Activities that make a soul very susceptible to addiction include gambling, intoxication, homosexuality, pornography, and abusive relationships.  Twentieth century psychological studies once termed these behavioral imbalances as “neurosis”, and later by a variety of labels under the heading of “anxiety” and “personality” disorders, but do so without acknowledging sin.  The refusal to acknowledge sin as the underlying cause of these ailments leads to perpetually addressing the symptoms without ever remedying the root cause.  Again, confession and repentance of our sin is how we overcome.

 

If a soul surrenders to an addiction to the extent that they no longer consider it sinful, the stage is set for being overcome and possessed by evil.  The modern psychologist refers to such cases as “psychotic” or “psychopathic” while generally dismissing the influence of evil.  This collective misdiagnosis by the scientific community has rendered their “treatment” ineffectual, and to drawing the conclusion that such chronic cases have no cure.  If not for the miraculous healing power of Our Lord Christ Jesus, their assessment would be correct since the ability to acknowledge Truth is so severely compromised.  However, let us not discount the usefulness of modern medicine in treating psychological disorders, but rather hold fast to the belief that true healing is from Christ.  Our confession and repentance of sin followed by accepting His forgiveness, heals in Truth.  The point to be made here is that the sooner a sinful suggestion is recognized and dismissed, the easier it is to do so again.  The opposite is likewise true.  Once a particular sin is repeated, it then becomes easier to repeat the sin and harder to repent.  This is why it is important to impress upon children the importance of virtue, so that they may enter adulthood without the burden of spiritually crippling habits.

 

Stages of Sin*:  From provocation to losing the will to combat evil 

 

*adapted from St. John of Damaskos (675-749) “On Virtues and Vices”, The Philokalia, Vol. II, pg. 337-338

 

1)      Provocation– an ungodly thought or suggestion yet without passion and without

mental imagery, no sin or culpability for sin exists at this stage.

  • Mt.4:1-11, Satan attempts to distract Jesus from the Will of God

 

2)      Momentary Disturbance– the provocation’s initial effect upon a soul, brief loss of

stillness, hostility and/or enticement, yet without sin or culpability.

  • Rom.8:6-8, a mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God
  • 2Cor.10:5, take every thought captive and destroy all those contrary to His will
  • Col.3, instruction to be free of all hostile thoughts and replace them with love

 

3)      Coupling/Communing – taking mental possession of, and entertaining a provocation, contemplating it and giving it mental imagery, the start of culpability, a lapse of watchfulness.

  • Mt.5:28, Jesus says to look at another lustfully is adultery
  • Mt.15:19-20, Jesus says that evil thoughts in our hearts destroy our purity

 

4)      Wrestling – a soul’s activity to resist a provocation; two possible results, 1) a passion that leads to assent, or 2) destroying it and returning to stillness.

  • Rom.6:21-23, St. Paul says Christians are free to choose goodness
  • Gal.5:17, the conflict between the spiritual soul and a soul in the flesh

 

5)       Assent – giving approval to a provocation, the decision to act on a passion.

  • Rom.14:22, St. Paul says to act on a desire is to give it approval, though the faithful conscience will bring conviction when there is error

 

6)      Actualization – the sinful act, succumbing to temptations or provocations, acting on passion.

  • Gen.3, the story of mankind’s original rebellion against God and the consequences of sin

 

7)      Prepossession – sinful habit, predisposition to yield to a particular provocation.

  • Ac.8:18-23, St. Peter rebukes Simon over his bondage to sin
  • Rom.1:26, those whose accept sinful ways incur a total break from goodness
  • Gal.4:8-9, St. Paul speaks of being a slave to sin
  • Eph.4:19, St. Paul speaks of succumbing to sin such that it becomes one’s practice
  • Col.2:8-9, St. Paul warns against being captivated by the ways of the world
  • 1Tim.5:13, St. Paul speaks of learning sinful habits
  • 2Tim.2:22-26, contrasting godliness with the insanity of being addicted to sin
  • 2Tim.3:1-7, human will is weakened by continual indulgence in ungodliness

 

8)      Captivity – obsession resulting from habitual sin, a life controlled by evil passions.

  • Mt.4:24:  Jesus heals those possessed by evil
  • Mt.8:16:  Again, Jesus heals the demon possessed
  • Mt.8:28-33:  Jesus commands the demons to leave a possessed soul
  • Titus 3:3:  St. Paul speaks of slavery to sin for those unwilling to repent

 

Commentaries:

“You should also learn to distinguish the impassioned thoughts that promote every sin.  The thoughts that encompass all evil are eight in number:  those of gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, self-esteem [narcissism] and pride.  It does not lie within our power to decide whether or not these eight thoughts are going to arise and disturb us.  But to dwell on them or not to dwell on them, to excite the passions or not to excite them, does lie within our power.  In this connection, we should distinguish between seven different terms, provocation, coupling, wrestling, passion, assent (which comes very close to performance), actualization and captivity.”

St. John of Damaskos (675-749); The Philokalia Vol. II, pg. 339-340

 

“For the devil is in the habit of promoting in the soul whatever he sees is in accordance with the soul’s own disposition, whether this be joy of self-conceit, distress or despair, excessive toil or utter indolence, or thoughts and actions that are untimely and profitless, or blindness and unreflecting hatred of all that exists.  Quite simply, he inflames in the soul whatever material he finds there already, so as to do it as much harm as he can, even though in itself the thing may be good and acceptable to God, provided that it is used with due restraint by one who is able to judge things and to discern the intention of God hidden in the six passions* that surround him…”

St. Peter of Damaskos (11th C.); The Philokalia Vol. III, pg. 233

* see commentaries on Goodness at the end of Chapter 17