A quaint word, perhaps an outdated concept. It means something like moral excellence, or goodness. And who wants to be good, when everything we watch or read tells us to be clever, or successful, or rich, or thin instead. All these other goals are shiny. All these other ambitions are cool. Goodness? Not cool.
Well, I disagree. Maybe it’s another symptom of the ageing process, like using slang that’s 20 years old, and reading at arm’s length, and being surprised that middle-aged people are the same age as me. But I think that virtues like kindness and gentleness and self-control, yes even that one, are cool. Great assets for building a life with meaning and depth.
The Bible is full of lists of virtues that Christians are encouraged to cultivate. Recently I came across a relatively short list of these in a letter Paul wrote to one of the early groups of believers.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. (Colossians 3 v 12 )
A more famous example, often quoted at Christian weddings and at my own, is the passage on love, which Paul describes as the greatest virtue to cultivate because
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. ( 1 Corinthians 13 v 4-8)
These are beautiful characteristics and I frankly would love them to become part of my nature. But they can seem so far away that perhaps it’s easier to simply forget about them. What puts them within reach for me is Jesus, who by the holy spirit changes believers like me from onlookers admiring these qualities like paintings in a gallery, to people who gradually achieve a greater degree of them and display them in their lives. Of course I haven’t got there. But I’m having a go and God is helping me, very patiently, to learn to practise these disciplines.
History is full of the positive, lasting achievements of people of great character. Of course I’m not just talking about Christians here – Christians have no monopoly on virtue. Jesus himself tells a story about a good Samaritan – the equivalent to a contemporary Christian audience of the good Muslim – whose character generated a compassionate and loving response to the victim of a vicious mugging.
Virtue doesn’t always look great, draw applause or even raise a smile. Sometimes it is despised, ignored or criticised. Patience can be seen as weakness, gentleness as naivety, kindness and compassion can raise suspicion and even offend; humility is often seen as lack of self-esteem. But these are strong virtues that will help me towards the kind of life I want to live. It means listening more than talking, caring more than needing to be right, taking time to understand and to dignify others, and yes, it’s how I also want to be treated.
The Bible has many, many lists of virtues to be cultivated and vices to be got rid of. It is surely impossible to do any of that on my own. And it’s a daunting prospect. But with God all things are possible. It’s not what I do for God that counts; it’s not about chalking up a load of achievements, but it’s about letting my character be shaped by the company I keep. So I’m trying to stay close to Jesus, the virtuous one, to learn how to live a virtuous life by studying his life. And I’m trying to listen to the prompts and reminders and encouragements of the holy spirit, who keeps pointing me towards the virtuous life of God and away from myself and my nonsense.