Virtues and Vices

Vices and Virtues

If we could get rid of every sin, every lustful or evil desire, every inclination to do what is wrong, what would remain?

It would seem logical that if you remove the impurities, what is left is pure. But I think there’s room to argue that if you erase the slate, all that is left is a blank slate. When the jar is emptied of the sour milk, all that remains is an empty jar.

The jar, the slate, the canvas must have fresh milk, chalk, or paint applied before it is anything more than an empty void space.

In Paul’s epistles, he often encourages us to “put off” or “put to death” our sins, sometimes including lists of different types of sins. The lists usually begin with outward behaviour that often reflect our broken sexuality and then move on to our inward desires, which seem to focus on our desire to control and manipulate others for the advancement of our own agendas.

But Paul never stops there. He follows up telling us to “put on” or to “clothe” ourselves in righteousness, and again he provides a list of righteous behaviours. In other words, put away or rid your life of the vices and replace them with virtues.

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. … But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, [and] abusive speech from your mouth.

Colossians 3: 5 & 8 NASB 1995

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience;

Col 3:12 NASB 1995

Not only do we have to deal with those vices that Paul mentions in these verses, but he instructs us to strive to incorporate compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience – virtues, into our day to day lives as Christians. These are the things which we are to seek; the things which are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God. These are the things we are to set our affections on. (Col 3: 1&2)

It’s been my experience that most Christians, myself included, put a great deal of effort into trying to defeat the vices, but not near as much effort into seeking the virtues.

One of the greatest detriments to a growing and maturing life in loving union with God is focusing too much on avoiding the vices – on putting to death our old selves.

The Deeper Journey, M. Robert Mulholland 2016

Robert Mulholland, in his book “The Deeper Journey – The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self,” says that focusing on the vices can actually interfere with the process of maturing as Christians and with our relationship with God.

I get it. The guilt and shame of my own inability to deal once and for all with those sins, those vices, has caused me, at times, to doubt even my own salvation and has kept me from pursuing a more loving and intimate relationship with my creator. In my experience, I feel it would be safe to say that if I were to focus more on the virtues, they would take care of the vices.

But how – how do we “put on” these virtues?

I think Paul gives us some pretty explicit instruction here in his letter to the Colossians in the following verse:

forbearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.

Col 3:13 NASB 1995

Paul says we must forbear (bear) and forgive one another. These two actions can only occur in our relationships with others. Genuine compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience can’t be practiced in isolation. They happen in the busy, sometimes uncomfortable spaces of our everyday life, lived with others. We learn these virtues by applying them through forbearance and forgiveness.

Forbearance or bearing with, might be best described as letting those around us be who they are. Often we, like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter stories, sort people into boxes (or houses in Harry Potter) designed to ensure that they will be what we want them to be. We can then control them better in order to accommodate our agenda.

However, if God is ever to be present in us for someone else’s healing, enlightenment, sanctification, or salvation, we have to enter into a relationship with them as they are. The goal is not to create a bunch of “mini-me’s” the goal is to entrust ourselves and God to work with people as they are in whatever way God chooses. This act of forbearance develops some of the virtues that we, as Christians, strive to “put on.”

Likewise, the act of forgiveness, genuinely, honestly and wholly given, releases us from the bondage of what the other did to us. Those inward vices, the desires that focus on control and manipulation of others for the advancement of our own agendas, interfere with our ability to be compassionate, graceful, humble and gentle.

For many unbelievers, forgiveness provides leverage that they can use to manipulate the other in the future. Mulholland says that kind of forgiveness requires “justice” (spelled r-e-v-e- n-g-e) before forgiveness can be given. The offender MUST be repentant, apologetic (often publicly), provide restitution for loss or injury, perhaps even make a commitment not to repeat the behaviour; then, perhaps we might consider forgiveness.

But Jesus has something else in mind.

Our lives can be taken captive by the one who wronged us, and we will dwell in the recurring memory of what they did to us. The walls of our prison become thicker and thicker.

Unforgiveness has a dramatic effect on our relationship with God: not only does it lock us into bondage to what was done to us, it shuts us off from God as well.

The importance of forgiveness is not so much that it absolves the one forgiven as that it cleanses the one who forgives.

Gobodo-Madikizela – A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness – Time Magazine 2003

Our bitterness, our resentment, our desire for revenge chokes off our openness to God, clogs our receptors of God’s grace and renders us incapable of receiving God’s forgiveness.

For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. “But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

Mat 6:14-15 NASB 1995

Only in our relationships with others can the fruit of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness and patience be “put on” replacing the vices we seek to destroy in our lives.