VIRTUES: Getting Your Life Back by Gary L. Thomas

Embracing the Virtues of Christ

Getting Your Life Back Gary L. Thomas

From: The Glorious Pursuit

Once you let God into you,
you have God in you.
And God is a dynamo.
(Peter Kreeft)

On August 20, 1949, a rather bizarre headline appeared on the front page of the Washington Post: “Priest Frees Mount Ranier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.”  Though the exorcism took place in St. Louis, the story made top billing in the Post because the thirteen-year-old boy was a native of Mount Ranier, Maryland, a small town in the shadow of Washington, DC.

The boy, “Robbie,” had developed a close relationship with a spiritualist aunt.  After the aunt died, objects started flying around the room in Robbie’s presence.  Robbie’s family turned to their priest, Father Luther Miles Schulze of St. Stephen’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Washington, DC., for help.  Somewhat skeptical, Schulze took Robbie into his own home for observation.  In Schulze’s presence, the bed that Robbie was lying on began to shake.  Schulze put the mattress on the floor.  With Robbie still lying on top of it, the mattress glided back up onto the bed.

Rattled, Schulze referred the family to the St. James Catholic Church, also in Washington, saying that Robbie’s situation was something “the Roman Catholics understand.”

A young Roman Catholic priest undertook the rite of exorcism and paid dearly for his inexperience.  During the rite, Robbie ripped a spring from the bed and slashed the priest from shoulder to wrist, a wound requiring over one hundred stitches to close.  The young cleric gave up in frustration.

Robbie’s family eventually took him to St. Louis, where he was placed  under the care of Father William B. Bowdern, who was granted permission to initiate the rite of exorcism.  Six weeks of grueling spiritual battle ensued, but on Easter Monday, April 18, 1949, Robbie was freed.

Too many reputable priests and medical professionals testified to Robbie’s situation for us to dismiss it as one man’s hallucination or as religious sensationalism.  Father Bowdern would later be consulted on over two hundred cases of alleged demonic possession.  He didn’t find a single one to be valid – ample evidence that he was not frivolous in citing demonic influence.

Though Robbie lost all memory of the events, the same is not true of his former Maryland neighbors.  The house that Robbie’s family had lived in soon became known as the “Devil’s House,” and after Robbie and his family moved on to St. Louis, the city had an unsalable eyesore on its hands.  No one went near the place.

Eventually, Mount Rainer officials decided to turn the place into a park and build a children’s gazebo.  Aware of the fear and superstition that follows such events, the city completely demolished the house and even dug deeply around it, then leveled the hole with trucked-in, new dirt.

On the spot where a young man lived in spiritual darkness, children now run and play tag as families take walks and eat picnics.  A place once forsaken, unusable, was given new life.

In a sense, this gives a vivid picture of what God wants to do for us.  We need not be possessed by demons to need deliverance from the imprisonment of a self-centered life.  Many have hoped for this change to come in a moment in time we call “conversion.”  Yet most of us have found that we need more than initial conversion because the hoped-for freedoms and changes did not come.  Or they showed themselves briefly and then slid away from us.

The truth is, we need a process of renewal, a deep digging and infilling of our souls with something new so that on the site of our former life, a new life stands.  We want God to take us – people who are stuck in old habits, trapped in the living death of boredom or irrelevance, possessed by our own possessions – and to deliver us from ourselves by a long miracle of spiritual transformation.  We need him to dig out those abrasive aspects of our character and replace them with a refreshing vitality, ultimately creating a new personality – the promised life of Christ in us.

God designed us to be his image bearers, each of us reflecting a particular aspect of himself.  He is eager to “deliver” each of us from ourselves and create a “new man” in us, as C. S. Lewis points out in his modern classic, The Screwtape Letters.  As Screwtape, the mentor demon, explains to Wormwood, his protégé, “When God talks of their losing their selves, he only means abandoning the clamor of self-will; once they have done that, he really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly his they will be more themselves than ever.”

Pause a moment and try to imagine yourself as a person who acts with the compassion of Christ; who has the patience of God himself; who is discerning; gentle, yet confident; surrendered to the will and purpose of God.  This is the life Jesus wants you to inherit, transforming you into a person who is motivated by the beautiful, not the lustful; the generous, not the selfish; the noble, not the conniving; the creative, not the destructive.

Is this the person you want to become?  If so, there is an ancient and Biblical practice by which the image and nature of God are restored in you.  For centuries, Christian teachers spoke about “the practice of the virtues of Christ,” meaning the process of growth in the spiritual character qualities of Christ.  Thomas à Kempis’s thirteenth-century work, The Imitation of Christ, became a classic “handbook” for spiritual growth, as did John Climacus’s Ladder of Divine Ascent, Teresa Avila’s Interior Castle, and The Ascent of Mount Carmel by John of the Cross.  It was not assumed that the “new life” from above would come to instantaneous fruition, but that it would result gradually from the reshaping of the inner man.

Conversion is just the beginning of the Christian life.  Spiritual formation – rooted in the virtues – must follow.  As we put our faith in Christ and walk with him, he changes us from within.  That’s what spiritual formation means – being formed, spiritually.  While salvation is a work that is done entirely within God’s mercy and without human effort, (Romans 9:16), growth in Christ involves a cooperation between God and his children, (1 John 3:3; Philippians 2:12-13).  And just as body builders use weights to shape their physiques, so Christians of the past “worked out” by practicing the virtues.  They didn’t expect holiness to “suddenly appear” just because they had prayed a prayer of salvation.  Instead, they understood spiritual formation as an intentional process.  This is what James was talking about when he wrote, “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything,” (James 1:4).

Plato argued that there were four virtues – wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice – to which Medieval teachers added the three “theological” virtues – faith, hope, and love.  Past Christian teachers often preferred to speak of the “virtues” of Jesus rather than aspire to abstract ideals of goodness.  Virtues to them meant a certain set of spiritual attributes, or heart attitudes, that describe the inner life of the Lord.

That’s what we mean by virtue in this discussion – inner orientations and behaviors evidenced in the life of Jesus while he walked on Earth.  A virtue is displayed when we choose to serve rather than dominate or manipulate; when we choose to respect rather than lust or harm; when we choose to be gentle rather than abrupt.  Choosing virtue is choosing to submit our will to God and to act like Jesus would act.

Practicing a vice means being ruled by the power of self.  A vice-ruled life is prone to chaotic outburst of anger, selfishness, and destruction – the opposite of the orderly and disciplined life that God calls us to.  Vice enthrones the self – “I’ll act however I want to act, making myself in my own image.”  This life, as we’ll see, is a self-defeating life.  While the virtues bring spiritual health, the vices are a spiritual cancer, destroying us from within.

The list of virtues chosen for this book has been based on the virtues recognized throughout the ages, though I make no claim that it is anywhere near exhaustive.  Some well-known virtues (hope, for one) are not addressed.  But the ones discussed here will certainly suffice to help you begin your exploration into the life-changing and spirit-transforming world of the virtues.

The virtues we will discuss were readily seen in the life of Jesus.  Chief among the virtues was humility, for Jesus left his position beside the Father and humbled himself, taking the lowest position all as the suffering servant for the whole human race.  The practice of humility was, and is, the lifelong, arduous work of remembering our place beneath the authority and sovereignty of God who, though he has welcomed us as beloved children, is still God.

Other virtues of Jesus include surrender to the will and purposes of God; detachment from our dependence on worldly securities; love that’s clear of self-interest; chastity that springs from purity of heart; generosity; and keeping vigilance over our souls (for out of the heart come the forces that determine our life).  Also patience, or enduring with ourselves and others in the long haul of growth and challenge; discernment, by which we learn to perceive God with the eyes of the soul; thankfulness in all things, for we see all things coming to us from the hand of God; gentleness; and fortitude to continue in spirit when people and circumstances turn against us.  And along with these, obedience as we cooperate with God’s unfolding will; and penitence, by which we actively correct the errors we’ve made and redress the harms we’ve caused.  (Though it is true Jesus was without sin, we are not.  Therefore, penitence was included in the list of classic Christian virtues for the sake of fallen men and women, which includes each one of us.)

The virtues were understood to be the heart attitudes by which Jesus, as a man, showed us how to stay in right relationship to God and to others.  As Christians grew in these spiritual attributes of Jesus, real change took place in their character.  And so spiritual growth was measured in the maturing of a person’s character, not only in, say, his or her knowledge of scripture or doctrine.  And change, to be real and lasting, was known to proceed from a transformed heart.

Polluted Virtues

Unfortunately, “practicing the virtues of Christ” has a polluted history.  In some centuries, virtues were used as measuring sticks to make Christians feel guilty and inferior.  In other times, practices like humility and penitence were imposed on people as obligations.  And so we look back and see garish things in church history – people flogging themselves in public as acts of so-called humiliation and repentance.  What a tragic misunderstanding of practices that were meant to begin in the innermost chambers of our being, not as superficial demonstrations, to empower us from the soul to find freedom from our old self-centeredness and sin.

In better times, Christians understood that they could learn to practice the virtues as part of a literal school in Godliness.

There was no mystery to this, no esoteric knowledge to uncover.  It did require a fundamental understanding of the basic patterns of spiritual growth.  Our forebears understood that, at the time of conversion, there is a gap between our ideals and the reality of our behavior.  Today, we may want to hide from, or deny, this fact.  We may believe that a Christian should change instantly at conversion (or shortly thereafter).  We want to skirt the long, arduous process of real spiritual growth and development.  The ancients weren’t fooled; they saw the hard but rewarding work of character transformation as the normal pathway of every Christian’s experience.  Common sense tells us that bad habits take time to lose and good habits take time to develop.  If someone is willing to learn and to be transformed from the inside out, they will eventually see true, long-lasting changes.

If you mention “virtues” today, however, many people – even some Christians – assume you are talking about a sex-less, pleasureless, colorless existence.  Just as our understanding of Puritanism has been distorted into a ridiculous caricature of what it really was, so virtuous living has been defined by what it is not: “Virtue means you can’t do this, that, or the other.”  The ancient reality, however, presents Biblical virtue as a positive life – what you can become. 

The life Christ wants to grow in you is not founded on a list of do’s and don’t’s, and it cannot be accurately measured by our current yardsticks of spiritual performance standards – by how much you do or do not witness, or read your Bible, or attend church.  And it is most definitely not a life of striving as you compare yourself to someone else.  It is the slow dawning of the life and characteristics of Jesus Christ, who lives in you and who wants to grow more evident in you.

Learning how to grow in the spiritual characteristics of Christ does not take your life from you.  In ancient times, it was understood as God’s preferred method of giving you your life back.  The virtues are, quite literally, God’s sculpting tools by which he shapes us into the image of his son.  To experience his life in us is to find our way into the life Jesus promised when he said, “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.”

No, we’ll never experience all of eternal life on this planet.  Sinless perfection and complete transformation are not possible here.  But it is possible for us to radically reflect the very nature of Jesus Christ, and in this sense, live life “to the full.”

A Life Misspent, or Well Spent?

“Jennifer” looked horrified when I told her about a college reunion I was planning to attend.

“What?” I asked.

“There’s no way I could face all those people again, considering the way I behaved.  I wish I could wipe those four years off the pages of history.”

Because Jennifer lived without regard to virtue, she created a season of regret rather than memories to treasure.  This is what we’re talking about when we suggest that God wants to give us our life back.

How sad it would be to say at the end of your life, as does a character in one of C. S. Lewis’s novels, “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”  Instead of spending your days with regret, growing in the virtues of Christ will help you to live a meaningful, focused, and selfless life.

Virtue allows us to live with an intact reputation, an energizing sense of zeal, and an abiding enjoyment of life.  Peter Kreeft refers to the life of Godly virtue as “health of soul.”  Isn’t that a marvelous thought?  God wants you to have a healthy soul!  Learning how to practice the virtues of Christ won’t get you from Earth into Heaven, but it will bring the life-giving power of Heaven to Earth.

In the next two chapters, we’ll explore the dynamics and nature of how we are transformed from the inside out through the virtues and presence of Christ.  Later, we’ll explore the individual virtues one by one, examining their importance and demonstrating simple ways to practice them in daily life.

In this, we seek to recover a lost art – the time-tested, life-proven, rock-solid knowledge, practiced by the ancients, that the school of virtues really works.

Have you been looking for change?  Life from within?  Spiritual strength to face life’s demands and challenges?  The knowledge of God’s presence with you…and in you?

Transformation and growth in Christ are possible.  They are the promise of God and your heritage.  They are the new life for the soul you have been hoping for, the proven method through which God will give you your life back.

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