I was rocking my four year-old daughter tonight and we had our usual ritual of nightly prayer. When we had said “Amen” I asked her if she knew what “sin” was. She said “no” and so I explained to her that sin was when we fall short of what God wants for us. It’s when we do bad things and purposefully make bad choices, like disobey or lie. She had that concept pegged.
But then (after she picked her nose) my daughter asked “What’s the opposite thing?”
“The opposite of what?”, I asked (after telling her not to pick her nose).
“Hmm…good question”, I said. “I don’t think there’s an opposite. I think it’s just ‘being good’.”
But as I thought about that a little more, that didn’t sound quite right. Then, I remembered…the opposite of sin is virtue. I then explained to my daughter what virtue means and why it’s important for us to not just be good, but to be virtuous, like Christ.
Our culture seems to have lost the word “virtue” in our moral vocabulary. “Virtue” used to be everywhere. You can read old Victorian books and even more ancient texts to see it everywhere. Where did it go? I recently looked up the definition of virtue and this is what I found:
- behavior showing high moral standards.
- a quality considered morally good or desirable in a person.
A lightbulb went on over my head.
Moral good in and of itself is pretty much the minimal standard, but virtue is the highest attainment of that standard. If we believe that God wants us to be free from sin and to be set apart, holy before God, then the attainment of virtue is a part of our life. We will sin. We will fail. But we also have more than one path. With every decision we stand at a fork where we can choose sin or virtue. The Spirit is constantly calling us to choose virtue.
According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue (2 Peter 1:3)
And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; (2 Peter 1:5)
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
So, when I tell my daughter I want her to be good, I want her to know that’s just the start. I want her to be a decent human being, but I also want her to acquire virtue, which keeps a human being decent in the worst circumstances. This is also built on “integrity”. Even non-believers are good, but God calls us to fix our eyes on the good that comes from Him. Virtue is the attributes in Christ we are to emulate, so as to be united with Him in the Light of His goodness. It is the attributes that make up His character.
The Greek word for virtue translates to “habitual excellence”. I like this definition because it describes the higher moral nature of virtue. But we are all human, right? We all screw up. So, why is it important for us to excel in moral behavior and to teach our children the same when it’s so hard? St. John Chrysostom says in a beautiful way why are to teach children virtue:
When we teach children to be good, to be gentle, to be forgiving (all these are attributes of God), to be generous, to love their fellow men, to regard this present age as nothing, we instill virtue in their souls, and reveal the image of God within them.
And this is the crux of all of our moral striving. We are not being good for goodness sake. We are being virtuous for the revealed image of God in each of us.
I want my children when they’re older and are teenagers to remember back to what I taught them about abstaining from sin. I want them to believe in their hearts that the reason they make the right choices is not so God won’t smite them, but is because He has made them to be something more. They are beautiful souls trapped in temporal bodies. The more virtue they acquire, the more visible this is in them, to themselves and to the world around them.
I’ll give an example of where virtue shines forth in the world right now.
The country of Ukraine is going through a violent revolution as we speak. Monks from a monastery near Kiev and priests within the city have taken it upon themselves to get between the police that are wanting to do violence to the protesters and the protesters wanting to do violence to the police. They stood (and may still be standing as of the time of this post) hour after hour, taking shifts, because they believe the love of their fellow man and for God compels them. Jesus Christ is in their midst and their virtue is self-evident.
The Holy Spirit expresses these characteristics through us. What are the virtues exactly? I think we could find a root list in the scriptures, when Paul talks about the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
I often hear the phrase “world-changer” a lot in the evangelical community. It seems to be the big buzz word right now. But how do you go about changing the world? Do you start a bunch of programs? Do you make people feel good about themselves? I believe excellence starts with Christ, but it is perpetuated by the acquisition of virtue. You are called to be more than a good person. You are called to be filled with the divine presence of God. This presence calls us daily to die to ourselves and be filled with the character of God and His virtue.
If you want to change the world, acquire the Holy Spirit. Acquire the virtues from the Holy Spirit. Be more than good. Be virtuous.