Please welcome guest blogger, philosopher extraordinaire, and my husband, Tim Jacobs! Subscribe to his philosophy YouTube channel here.
I’m a Christian professor of philosophy at a state school in Houston, and at the beginning of each class I conduct an anonymous worldview survey. Only 20% of my students believe morals are objective and not created by individuals or society. About 33% say same-sex marriage is not permissible. About 52% say that abortion is not permissible, the majority adding the caveat that it is permissible in cases of rape or incest. About 60% say they are Christian. Why is it that 60% are Christian but only 20% believe in objective morality?
If Christians do not learn their worldview from church, they will learn it from society. Sunday School is dying and giving way to house groups that focus on application at the exclusion of learning. Don’t get me wrong, “life-on-life” accountability and support groups are valuable, but if Christians are not learning robust Christianity in the first place, their application will be of a largely secular worldview.
An example of a concept that is missing from the worldview of many Christians is the idea of virtue. We all think virtue is a good thing and have a vague concept that it means something like “goodness” or “holiness,” but that is hardly helpful. In order to understand what a virtue is, we must first understand that intellect separates humans from animals. The intellect has two components, cognition and willing. Cognition includes understanding, judging, and reasoning. A person can practice these and become very intelligent, but this does not make them good.
The will on the other hand is the seat of desire and making choices. This is different than saying that the will is emotion, for even animals have emotion. Yet, animals cannot make choices and only function in a stimulus-response way. This is why we do not say that a lion has committed murder when it kills another animal, nor do we say that a dog is a thief and a vandal when it eats my homework. Animals do not have moral status. Because humans have a will and can choose, they can develop habits of choice and can choose to either follow their emotions or lead their emotions.
A moral virtue is a habit that makes its possessor good. It is a character trait and disposition to act in a certain way. A virtue is not a mere habit, for we can have bad habits or useful habits that are morally neutral. A virtue is a habit that is intentionally cultivated by reason to achieve the ultimate purpose of a human life, namely the imitation of Christ. This is not to say that every good choice has to be well thought out. On the contrary, a lot of thinking may go into the first choice, but repetition of the same choice develops a habit, or a second nature, so that we can react in good ways without having to think about it every time. Practice makes perfect, you might say, and in this way you can see real change in your life.
God is interested not in creating a bunch of people who fulfill their duties and check off good behavior. He is interested in the person you become. Of course, a good person will do good things, but we are to become Christlike in character, not just in outward action. What does this look like? Here's some application.
First, the culture tells us to follow our heart and that love is something we are struck with and have an obligation to follow. “Love at first sight” and the obsessive addiction of infatuation are patterns of following emotion, or “following your heart.” Do your emotions control you or do you control your emotions? Let wisdom lead your heart. Is it wise to pursue a relationship with this person? If not, then it doesn’t matter how you feel about them. Keep reminding yourself of wisdom, and your emotional addiction will eventually subside. Culture, however, will tell you to follow your heart.
After a repetition of the right choices, your emotions will develop habits. Do you have a habit of thinking about what you are entitled to and what others ought to do for you? If so, then when you see injustice, you will likely feel the emotional habits of frustration and being offended rather than of pity and mercy. Do you give to the poor? If not, when you see the poor, you will habitually feel apathy. If you do, then you will habitually feel love. The way you respond to situations gradually grows your emotional response. Think first. Act second. Feel later. If your choice is habitually bad, then instead of cultivating virtue, you cultivate vice.
Second, obedience to God is not just about checking off your duties, going to church, sharing the gospel every once in a while, giving tithe, and volunteering for some ministry. Many will go to hell who have done these things well. The real question is whether they have done these things out of virtue, out of the love of Christ, or out of self-righteousness, trying to feel righteous by fulfilling external duties. Christ says that the motive for obedience to commands is the prime virtue of love, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The Fruit of the Spirit is a list of virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22–23). It is not a list of duties. In the Sermon on the Mount virtue plays a significant role, discussing how murder and lust are in the heart and not in mere action, and we should love our enemies. The Sermon climaxes in the Golden Rule, which is a tool teaching us that love of others is the most important virtue (Matt 7:12–14). Jesus saves his most scathing rebukes for religious people who have all their ducks in a row and fulfill all their duties while neglecting the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy, faithfulness—all of which are virtues (Matt 23:23). The Bible is saturated with discussion of virtue. If you read the Old Testament through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount, you see that God’s intent the whole time has been to restore people to the imitation of God’s character as the image of God.
People should certainly follow their duties even when they don’t want to. Imagine a person who has a duty they dislike, but with great effort they do it anyway. This is morally praiseworthy. Unfortunately, without a consideration of virtue in our Christian worldview, we often think that this is all obedience has to offer. Obeying God usually entails doing something we really don’t want to do. This is a poor conception of the gospel life. Instead, imagine a person who so desires to do the right thing, that they don’t even think of it as a duty. They have developed such a habit of doing the right thing that it is natural for them, and they actually enjoy doing the right thing. It is not enough to do the right thing. We must love doing it. This is how we must imagine Jesus, the most human human.
Third, because virtues are habits, every choice is significant. In a situation where you can choose to act in love or apathy, cowardice or courage, diligence or laziness, whichever choice you make makes it a little easier to make that same choice next time. Before you know it, you’ve developed a habit and have changed your moral character and disposition. It is dangerous to say, “Well, it’s okay just this once.” After the first time, the second time will be easier. Before you know it, you’ve fallen down a slippery slope. This brings a sense of healthy fear in doing anything less than urgent, radical, whole-hearted obedience. The greatest commandment is a virtue, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt 22:37).
Since virtues are character qualities and dispositions, when you develop morally good or bad habits, you are changing your personality. As habits are formed by practice, this also gives hope for change. Most change takes place one step at a time. Take the first small step towards obedience and repeat it until it is as easy as habit. Growth takes place in small steps over a long period of time. Since virtues are habits ordered by reason to the imitation of Christ, they will more often than not begin by resisting emotions. You won’t feel like obeying. This is what it feels like to have reason lead emotion. However, this should only be a phase. Gradually, as the habit of choice develops, the emotional habit will as well. As C.S. Lewis says, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him” (Mere Christianity).
Addendum on Grace
No discussion of virtue is complete without discussing GRACE. Without grace, we can grow in virtue, just like how a blind, three-legged dog can get better at walking. Your non-Christian neighbor may be more patient, hospitable, or hard-working than you. This is legitimate virtue, but only in a crippled sense. It aims generically at human perfection, but not specifically at finding that perfection in the imitation of Christ. It is not true to say, "Non-Christians cannot do good deeds." In fact, Jesus says, "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matt 7:11). Jesus verifies that non-Christians can do good things.
Why do I emphasize that Non-Christians can do good? I have three reasons. First, because my whole aim is to fight against the oversimplified, greeting card Christianity that is full of catchphrases that sound close enough to the truth to dull the critical thinking of Christians and lead them away from a robust Christian worldview. Instead, I seek clarity and precision in my love of truth and wisdom, which leads to my second point. Verifying that Non-Christians do some good (just look at all the self-sacrifice after Hurricane Harvey) helps us ask what sets Christians apart. If we don't verify the good of Non-Christians, that not only cuts off our witness with them, it excuses our own mediocre moral actions as being "at least better than them." Third, verifying the common grace God gives to all to restrict humanity's evil serves to highlight special grace, which is the thing that separates Christian virtue from Non-Christian virtue.
Grace changes both the goal and the cause of our efforts to be moral. Because of grace, we cultivate virtue for the imitation of Christ, not for self-righteousness, self-fulfillment, or even the good of society alone. Grace enables us to pursue not merely the generic perfection of human nature but its specific perfection in the imitation of Christ. Paul says everyone knows God from creation (Ro 1:19–21), and everyone has a basic understanding of morality in their conscience (Ro 2:15). However, without grace, they cannot submit to Christ as savior, cannot be motivated by love of Christ, cannot act for the sake of the glory of God, and do not have the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who works in us to sanctify us and recover the image of Christ in us. Progress is promised, despite our failures (Eph 1:4). This is the goal of salvation. You will grow in virtue, however slowly, if you have the Holy Spirit in you. This is grace, that every step forward was pushed from behind.
One last note on growth. PRAYER is magic. I've often asked myself why God didn't give us magic. It's because he's got it and we just need to ask him to use it. You know that bad habit you can't seem to kick or that good habit that never seems to stick? Pray and be patient. If you don't believe in prayer, pray that you will. If you don't have patience, pray that you will. If you don't believe anything that I've said, pray that you will.