05 Jun Virtue Reality, Part I
Virtue Reality, Part I
June 6, 2021
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Our live, hybrid service will be broadcast from our YouTube channel at 10:00 a.m. and can be accessed here.
Back in the 90’s, author William Bennet produced two books on, of all topics, virtue. Both his Book of Virtues and Children’s Book of Virtues became best-sellers and seemed to touch a sensitive nerve in the American psyche. Whether that was because we were a nation hungry for virtues or because of a guilty conscience that we weren’t virtuous, I’ll leave you to debate.
But it’s a good bet that these books of “virtues” quickly became “coffee-table tomes,” rather than dogeared volumes cataloging practiced behavior. Behaving virtuously is not an easy habit to develop, especially as adults. By their very nature, virtues are internalized attitudes nurtured into maturity over a long period of time, as the right conditions nourish them. Living virtuously, I think it’s fair to say, is a life-long endeavor. It is a marathon, not a sprint.
Paul’s letter to the Colossians provides the Church with a training regimen designed to help us build the virtues of Christian living. Paul starts by naming that powerful triad of faith, love, and hope. Together these three characteristics create the optimal conditions in which virtuous behaviors can take hold and thrive.
Paul is clear that Christians, “filled with the knowledge of God’s will,” should “bear the fruit” of virtuous work. In other words, spiritual knowledge never sits on the coffee table in a pristine cover. True spiritual knowledge reveals itself in right actions and attitudes. Real Christian virtues are identified by the dirt under our fingernails and the sweat of our brow, because they are constantly being worked into the very muscle and fiber of our being.
This week and next we’re going to look at six theological virtues as Paul articulates them to the Colossians. But even though we deal with each of these virtuous attitudes individually, we need to remember that they all spring from the same core place—the Christian’s faith in Christ Jesus, love for God and one another, and our confident hope for redemption. The first three virtues which we’ll examine today are generosity, tolerance and forgiveness.
Those who can “joyfully [give] thanks to the Father,” as Paul says in v. 11, have succeeded in developing the Christian virtue of generosity. Possessing a “generous spirit” enables Jesus’ followers to participate in the reckless extravagance that characterizes God’s own generosity toward creation.
Cautious, careful, miserly accounting is not one of God’s strong suits. Neither should it be ours. In some Native American tribes, gifts that are extremely expensive or highly valued are deemed inappropriate. They put the recipient at a permanent disadvantage, embarrassing him or her and threatening the person’s social status. A lot of people feel this way. They don’t want to be “beholding” to anyone. But in the Christian tradition, generosity is a virtue that can never be overdone. No matter how great our gifts, how open our spirit, we can never approach the extravagance of God’s gift to us of Jesus Christ.
As a Christian virtue, generosity is not weighed down by duty or obligation, on the one hand, or the need for attention or desire for ostentation on the other. Genuine generosity is fueled by a faith in the message of redemption through Christ, fostered by a love that binds Christians together as family, and by a hope in the ultimate gift of life with God. Out of the strength of these bedrock beliefs, a generous spirit is born. A grateful spirit cannot be stingy.
In this age where scrawny, waif-like models are the standard of beauty, it is no wonder that a skimpy, underfed soul is also in fashion, while an expansive, generous-sized spirit is viewed with suspicion or derided as foolishness.
- When was the last time you didn’t keep track of the time?
- When was the last time you added an extra scoop?
- When was the last time you invited more than you planned to?
- When was the last time you gave the benefit of the doubt?
- When was the last time you didn’t count the cost?
When practiced as a Christian virtue, generosity is extended without boundaries: to the poor, the outcast, the stranger and even to ourselves. It is generosity to a fault, reaching across all the faults and fissures that riddle our families, churches, and communities. It seeks to find the cracks and fill them in, to fill them up with love. As we run the race of faith, let us practice the virtue of generosity.
Preacher: Christ in You.
People: The Hope of Glory.
When Paul urges the Colossian Christians to “endure everything with patience” (v.11), he is advocating the virtue of tolerance. Tolerance is not apathy: You don’t “tolerate” a toxic waste dump slowly leaking into the ecosystem or your teenager skipping school.
The virtue of tolerance enables us to see ourselves in other people, in other situations, and to realize that we are in this together. Tolerance engenders empathy because it reveals to us how intimately we are all connected. We cannot arbitrarily separate ourselves from people or things we don’t like or don’t agree with. No matter how much someone makes your hair stand on end, no matter how much we may disagree with or just plain dislike another, the virtue of tolerance reminds us that as fallen, frail human beings, our fates are still tied to each other. As shareholders in the human condition, we have far more in common than we will ever have differences. We may disagree, but we can do so charitably.
Alan Cohen, in his book The Dragon Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, tells of going to a concert performed by an elementary school band. “As the director raised his baton, I sat back and for some reason expected to hear a beautiful symphony. To my surprise, I heard instead a horrid cacophony of squeaks, honks, upbeat notes on the downbeat and a march that sounded like a 45 rpm record played at 33. ‘This is terrible!’ I thought, as I shriveled inside. And then I heard a gentle voice speak within me: ‘These are children; they are learning; they are doing very well.’ The voice, of course, spoke truth. I was judging them according to my expectations, not accepting that they were all expressing according to their ability. At that moment, the music became so lovely to me, I sat back and thoroughly enjoyed every remaining moment of the concert, and I think I cheered loudest at its finale”.
Having won the battle for tolerance within, it becomes easy to cheer and clap on the outside as we run the race of faith.
There is one caveat that must be stated. God’s divine “tolerance” is not blanket acceptance or tacit approval of our poor performance. It is bound up in the faith, love, and hope that God extends to us through Christ. Practicing tolerance in our own lives is only possible when we, too, are grounded in these attributes.
- In faith you can tolerate the constant interruptions in a carefully planned day, with trust that every day and every encounter is meaningful in its own way.
- In faith you can tolerate the tedium of yet another church budget discussion, trusting that even in this, you are working to bring in the kingdom.
- In love you can tolerate a spouse’s frayed nerves, loving the sensitivity while dismissing the sting.
- With love you can tolerate the unmerited suspicions cast your way because you are “different” (black or white, male or female, young or old, disabled, divorced, pierce or tatted), loving the uniqueness of each of us as a child of God.
- In hope you can tolerate your teenagers’ moods and music, with the hope that they are growing into their future.
- In hope you can tolerate foibles and failures of your church congregation, with hope that no matter how seemingly frail, it is still the body of Christ.
As we run the race of faith, let us practice the virtue of tolerance.
Preacher: Christ in You.
People: The Hope of Glory.
Perhaps the greatest theological virtue we can develop is the final one Paul mentions. In verse 12 he begins describing the most miraculous example of forgiveness that has been experienced—that God has “enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” It is only this act of the Divine Will that makes it possible for us to be “transferred … into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (v.14).
The virtue of forgiveness is not natural. Ask the baby bird that stretches too far and falls out of its nest; ask the hibernating squirrel whose tree is blown over in a winter storm; ask the starving residents of a lightning-burned forest: nature is unforgiving. One mistake and you’re out—toast!—someone else’s dinner. In nature, the ethereal-sounding “circle of life” that Elton John crooned about in Lion King is based on death.
While the virtue of forgiveness is not natural, it is supernatural and Spirit-driven. God’s forgiveness breaks the rules of nature and casts aside the judgments of creation. There is no earthly reason for God to extend the gift of divine forgiveness our way. There is only a heavenly reason—the power of love.
Just as tolerance should not be confused with apathy, neither should forgiveness be confused with condoning. Wrong behavior—injustice, cruelty, deceit, hate—none of these behaviors are condoned through the act of forgiveness. But it is equally true that none of these behaviors can be altered or undone without the act of forgiveness. Only when we learn how to forgive can the healing power of love be released to work against these evils.
How wrong that old movie Love Story was when it claimed, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Extending and accepting forgiveness is the essence of love. It is the Christian virtue most rooted in love, the most dependent on faith, and the most embedded in hope.
Life without saying “I’m sorry” is, “in emotional terms, Everest without oxygen; Wimbledon without a racket; La Scala without a score,” writes Stephanie Dowrick. When you forgive, “the muscular tensions that you had come to assume were normal are eased. You are less vulnerable to infection or far more serious illness. Your immune system lifts. Your face muscles let down. Food tastes better. The world looks better. Depression radically diminishes. You are more available to other people and a great deal more available to yourself, yet you think about yourself less, and less anxiously” (Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love 289-90).
When Christians practice the virtue of forgiveness, we often forget to include ourselves among those who need to be forgiven. This is not letting ourselves “off the hook.” Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we are already forgiven. But we must always account for our actions. When we do wrong, we are required to “own up” to what we have done. Without taking that first step, we continue in a state of personal unforgiveness, a state which is self-destructive and blunts our ability to extend genuine forgiveness to others.
In the concentration camp of Ravensbruck, this extraordinary prayer was left by the body of a dead child: “Oh Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted; remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering—our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness” (Dowrick, 334).
How many of us could pray this prayer? How many of us even want to? How many could pray that our murderers be spared by the triumphs of grace caused by suffering? These are critical questions because they get at the heart of the very meaning of forgiveness—and reveal our understanding of how much forgiveness costs God, not just what it costs us.
To run a strong race, practice forgiveness. Practice generosity. Practice tolerance.Preacher: Christ in you.
People: The Hope of Glory.