It’s true that in this life we will never reach the point at which sin ceases to be an issue. However, we can make great progress in our spiritual journey—and in the process, build up the culture of life—by striving to grow in virtue. Then, when tested, we’re disposed to act in accordance with our values—in other words, to act virtuously.
Virtues are “character muscles.” Let’s look at it this way: We may desire to accomplish some athletic feat (such as win a race or make the team), but to reach that goal we need physical muscles. We need to be in shape. We can’t show up and expect to succeed if we haven’t put in the requisite effort. Similarly, if we want to live happy, godly lives, the virtues are the muscles that enable us to reach our goal.
A virtue is a good habit that inclines us to perform morally good actions, as opposed to a vice, which is a bad habit that inclines us to sin. Virtues enable us to do the right thing with:
Ease: A habit allows us to do something with relative ease. We say something that has become a habit has become “second nature” to us.
Two men—Al and Bob—notice a pornographic magazine on a co-worker’s desk during the day. Al knows he is alone and could easily skim through the magazine without being caught and he tries to rationalize why he should do just that. After mulling it over for awhile, he decides not to open the magazine.
Bob, meanwhile, sees the magazine but doesn’t even consider looking at it. Rather, he continues on to the copy room to complete his task. Both chose well, and neither sinned. But which of the two acted virtuously?
Bob acted with ease and lack of interior struggle, demonstrating how virtue empowered him to do the right thing. Virtue is more than one act, or even multiple acts, but rather involves a firm interior disposition—a habit of acting that forms character.
Readiness or Desire: A couple years ago I was putting with my family on a large practice green. I must have tried a particularly long, difficult putt 20 times and never came closer than about three feet from the hole. My wife walked up and asked if she could try it. She doesn’t play the break, strikes the ball way too hard—and it goes in.
Maureen’s great shot was not “virtuous” —she has no desire whatsoever to be a good golfer. That’s fine when it comes to golf, but when it comes to Christian virtue, a hallmark is the desire to live well, to choose the good, to deliberately aim at a goal. Are we truly committed to Christ and doing things His way? It should go without saying, but if we shoot at nothing, we’ll hit it every time.
Satisfaction or Joy: Virtue makes us want to do the right thing and actually enjoy doing it. This notion runs counter to the perception that virtue is unappealing, as though it takes away our fun. After all, the popular TV show in the 1980s was called Miami Vice, not Miami Virtue!
How much better off are we if we learn to enjoy eating vegetables, rather than not eating them or eating them only under compulsion.
The word virtue is derived from the Latin word vir, which means “man.” Through the centuries virtue has been linked to words such as strength, power, and ability (“virility”). While a good physical workout gives us added strength, endurance, and satisfaction, building virtue brings about a
comparable, in fact more profound, sense of well-being.
Effectiveness: We desire to live a beautiful life that is ordered to our happiness. Despite trial and error, we discover over time that we have made progress in our spiritual lives. We eventually get better, become more “effective” Christians.
I’ve been teaching my teenage daughters how to drive. At first, I didn’t feel safe, so until they became used to driving we stayed in parking lots. Now they have (somewhat) acquired the virtue of driving and are able to drive on major highways.
Our moral decision-making skills likewise benefit from practice—probably at first in the relatively safe “parking lot” of our family home.
Where to Begin?
When we begin a new exercise regimen, we want to get our entire body in shape, but typically we do that by focusing on one muscle group at a time.
Similarly, there are hundreds of virtues, but they all relate to seven fundamental virtues—seven muscle groups. First are faith, hope, and charity—these are the specifically Christian virtues. Then there are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—the moral or cardinal virtues.
Men who want to be more effective adversaries of the culture of death should make sexual purity and overcoming sexual sins a top priority. The muscle group needed for this is the virtue of temperance. We will unpack this virtue in tomorrow’s post.
We are blessed to have Fr. Larry Richards and Stephen Ray lined up as speakers for our next Men Under Construction conference. For more information on this dynamic event for Kansas City-area men, click here.