Last evening at our mid-week prayer meeting, a brother shared a devotional on Christian virtues. I found it challenging; it changed the way I thought about virtues and vices a little. I thought you might want to hear it, as well.
Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.
Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.
Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony.
Colossians 3:12-14 NLT
What is a vice? What is a virtue? Do all people have them?
A virtue is a good moral habit, including things like love, kindness, joy, and self-control. A vice is a bad moral habit, including things like anger, selfishness, grouchiness, and laziness. Both of those lists could be expanded with any number of virtues and vices.
Christians are expected to be virtuous, but choosing to be a Christian doesn’t magically make you virtuous. Being born again of the Spirit of God does change your heart and gives you a passion for God’s virtues. But if you had the bad habit of hitting the snooze before you were a Believer, you’ll likely still lie abed afterward. And if you had the habit of yelling at your children before you gave your heart to God, you may find yourself doing that, too.
We do not automatically or naturally change into a perfect person just because we’ve been forgiven of our past sins. However, we do have the power of the Spirit available to help us as we are changed into the image of Jesus, exhibiting the virtues that are indelible to His character.
It takes more than thinking our way into being who we should be. There are at least two ways to develop virtues: imitation and practice.
You’ve probably said of a child, “He walks/talks/acts just like his dad!” How does that come about? The boy has his eyes on his dad all the time, watching his every move and imitating them the best he can. Later when the dad’s not around, you’ll still find the boy practicing how to walk in just such a way as to match his dad’s particular posture.
The Apostle Paul said in Philippians 3:17, “Brethren, join in following my example, and note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern,” and in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.”
Being a Believer ourselves does not remove the need we have to follow someone, someone we can imitate. Jesus commanded His disciples many times to follow Him; He didn’t mean for them to literally walk behind Him, but to imitate His way of life and of relating to others.
How seriously do you take these Bible commands to pick out people who are living like Jesus and to imitate them? Or are you just out doing your own thing?
What you do over and over again becomes habit, and habits become part of your essence, part of your character. We can see that clearly when we think of vices, such as profanity, addictions, disrespect, disobedience, and gluttony.
What about sleeping in rather than getting up early? What about skipping time with God? What about snapping at your loved ones? What about skipping exercise? These are all vices that—as we continue practicing them—become part of who we are.
On the other hand, we can intentionally imitate positive virtues and practice them over and over to form a better character and natural disposition.
You may have heard the following quote:
Watch your thoughts; for they become words. Watch your words; for they become actions. Watch your actions; for they become habits. Watch your habits; for they become character. Watch your character, for it will become your destiny.
A solid habit of rising early does affect the sort of person you are overall. Habitually getting into the Word of God and praying will change you. Choosing to speak affirmation to those in your life, choosing to respond with kindness, thinking of others first—all these things will have a dramatic effect on who you will be.
We can either proactively develop these good virtues, or we can instead react to negative circumstances we encounter with hopes of responding correctly. Which do you think will be more effective?
The certain effect of practice and imitation makes it extremely critical who we spend time with. Who do you hang out with? We do begin to take on the characteristics of those we associate with. We imitate those we enjoy spending a lot of time with, many times unconsciously and gradually.
As we continue to spend time with those friends or acquaintances, they will mold and shape who we are for better or for worse. This is why Paul warned us in 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad company ruins good morals.”
How are the people in your social media feed affecting your habits or thoughts? Or the famous people you look up to? What about the people at the local fire company where you volunteer? What about your co-workers? Your neighbors? Your close friends?
There is no question of if they are shaping you—the question is merely how?
Vices happen automatically—virtues do not!
A natural disposition to be compassionate, to speak kindly, to react with soft words instead of blame or self-defense, to show humility—these things are put on at least in part by deliberate, intentional imitation and practice until they become part of the fabric of our character.
Yes, we need the help of the Spirit in this; however, Peter commands that we add to our faith virtue, and he says it will take diligence. We have our work cut out for us; God will not force us to be virtuous. Are you deliberately imitating someone who is like Jesus and practicing those virtues? If not, you’re disobeying the commands of Scripture.
Two things to think about:
1.) Who am I imitating? 2.) Who is imitating me?
Evaluate your relationships. To give yourself a handle, write a list of the ten people you relate to the most closely or frequently. Are they true Christians, ones who are imitating Jesus? Can you safely imitate them? Do you want to be like them? Do you want your children to be like them? If not, why are they in your top ten list, and what are you going to do about it?
Consider those following you. Can they safely imitate you? Would they feel safe having you as a mentor? Or as a model for their children? If not, what are you going to do about it?
Used by permission
In view of all this, make every effort to respond to God’s promises. Supplement your faith with a generous provision of moral excellence, and moral excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with patient endurance, and patient endurance with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love for everyone.
The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But those who fail to develop in this way are shortsighted or blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their old sins.
So, dear brothers and sisters, work hard to prove that you really are among those God has called and chosen. Do these things, and you will never fall away. Then God will give you a grand entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
2 Peter 1:5-11
P.S. A thought-provoking book on this topic is James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love. Don’t swallow it whole, but there are some good things in there. Imitate only the parts that imitate Jesus.