VIRTUES: The Glorious Pursuit by Gary L. Thomas

Embracing the Virtues of Christ

The Glorious Pursuit by Gary L. Thomas

From: The Glorious Pursuit

Grace, we must learn, is opposed to earning, not to effort.
(Dallas Willard)

If Godliness is not from deep within you, it is only a mask.
(Jeanne Guyon)

Imagine that one night God wakes you from a dream and offers you the golfing ability of Tiger Woods.  That would be something, wouldn’t it?  Or imagine being bestowed with the computer or entrepreneurial capabilities of Bill Gates: “You can create the next Microsoft,” God says.  “Interested?”

Or maybe you’re more the cultural type, and your heart would beat faster if God enabled you to sing like Pavarotti, to write like Jane Austen, or to paint like Rembrandt.

We could get lost all day in fantasies such as these, but, in fact, reality for the Christian is much more stunning.  Suppose God says, “You can have My eternal life in you.”

The truth of Christianity is that God offers us something infinitely more valuable than all human abilities put together: According to the apostle Paul, we can have “the mind of Christ,” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

Think about that for a minute.  Somehow, spiritually, as Christians, we have the mind – that is the knowledge of God, the attitudes of heart – of Jesus, God made man.

This is an incredible offer.  We are talking about a possibility that should take our breath away.  We are being told that we can become like the greatest human being who ever lived.

This is a pursuit for the ages.  Offered this opportunity, how could we ever settle for less?  God is telling us that we can forsake the eternally inconsequential pursuits that consume our time, energy, and passion, and can adopt a new pursuit – spiritual growth in the character of Christ.  It’s bold.  It’s daring.  It sounds unachievable, but the Bible promises that it’s within our grasp: We can become like Christ.

But how?

The Divine Nature

Because of his astonishing failures, Peter often is characterized as sort of the thickheaded buffoon who always acted impetuously and who just didn’t quite “get it.”  If the church spent as much time getting to know the Peter of the Epistles as the Peter of the Gospels, we would be struck by a profound understanding of the depth in spiritual growth I am talking about.  Peter “grew up” in Christ and reached an understanding of faith that few attain.  If we got to know this Peter, we wouldn’t dare dismiss him as a hasty, comical disciple.

I’m convinced of this by Peter’s second epistle in particular, which is a masterful call to spiritual growth.  Peter began his letter by assuring the saints that God’s “divine power has given us everything we need for life and Godliness,” (2 Peter 1:3).  God, said Peter, gives us everything we need to live – not just to exist in body, but to live!  He also has given us everything we need for Godliness – in other words, everything we need to experience and become trained in the character of Christ.

Right away, this seems too good to be true.  And then Peter upped the ante.  He took us one step further by assuring us that through God’s “precious promises” we “may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires,” (verse 4).

Peter did not say we will participate in the divine nature, but that we may.  What might keep us back?  Focusing on the wrong goal, to begin with.  Let’s look at some of the “false starts” that can lead us away.

Dead-End Paths

The first wrong path many of us take is the recruiter approach to the practice of Christianity.  Many evangelicals make the mistake of thinking we have become saved basically so we can stay at the head of the spiritual path and recruit others.  In this approach, we should know the Bible like a kid has memorized the back of a cereal box so that we have a potent arsenal with which to demolish every conceivable argument against the gospel.  While evangelism is a glorious experience, the recruiter approach tends to reduce “partaking in the divine nature” to nothing but evangelism: We are saved by grace simply to see others be saved by grace.

There is also the end goal of holiness. Some Christians are taught that if they can somehow achieve “sinless perfection,” they can finally please God.  Every sin is viewed as a step back, which only time (and the work of Christ on the cross) can erase.  The focus in this life is not experiencing the abundant life as much as it is avoiding the sinful life.  Many Christians have made their own righteousness the end goal and have found that it makes them morbidly introspective and miserable.

Today, more and more people set their eyes on the goal of activism.  This approach says, “As long as I sacrifice quantities of my time, live meagerly, and focus mainly on service to God, I’ll be living a God-pleasing life…and hopefully, I’ll be too busy to be selfish and sinful.”  For many of these people, stress and guilt and driveness take their toll.  Christlikeness, which results from entering the soul’s sabbath rest, is lost.

Some more enterprising Christians have concocted the goal of passivism.  Using logic as a shield rather than a sword, their argument goes something like this: Christ has already done everything on the cross.  There’s nothing I can do.  God will change me; it’s all up to Him.  As long as I show up at church with respectful regularity, read my Bible, and pray when I really get in a bind, then God will make me into a brand-new person.

There is also a pessimistic approach that goes further, teaching Christians that they are lowly “worms” who are so depraved they never can rise above their sorry, sinful state.  This approach errs on the side of man’s fallenness, and it puts off our inheritance in Christ until a far future date, instead of recognizing that our glorious transformation is as much a part of our witness as our logical knowledge of the Bible – and it begins now.

There are several other approaches, but I will mention only one more: There are Christians who are waiting for a supernatural “lightning strike” from on high to transform them in an instant.  The end goal for some, but not all, is to become conduits of this supernatural power.  They are focused mainly on Jesus’s miracle-working power, and very little on His humanity, character, or suffering.

Each one of these approaches, or paths, contains a grain of truth.  It is important to share our faith with others.  We should avoid sin.  Our beliefs will result in service to God and society and other men.  God is the primary change agent in our lives.  We can experience a power that is beyond all human power.

But where each approach errs is in making an idol out of a single truth.  When we insist on any one truth, we block the power and direction of other truths.  And the problem with all these approaches is that they tend to focus on how we can stay in favor, or prove our favor, with God.  These approaches to the Christian life are a galaxy away from the life modeled by Christ (and taught by His disciples), a life governed by an entire range of interior attitudes and orientations, which created the most beautiful and perfect life that has ever been lived.  Our race is growth in the virtues of Christ.  Our end goal is nothing less than Christlikeness.

The Real Power In Our Veins

A number of years ago, my oldest daughter became enthralled with the Olympic figure skaters.  One night she asked me, “Now Papa, if you enter the Olympics, you get a gold, silver, or bras, right?”

I was in the middle of a book and eager to return to it, so I decided to overlook her faux pas.

“That’s right, Allison,” I mumbled.

“But little girls can’t wear bras, can they?” she asked me in a worried voice.

And that’s when I understood what was going on.  My precious daughter was afraid that she would enter the Olympics, take third place, and receive an award for which she had absolutely no use.

I decided to respond on a literal level and said, “That’s right, honey, little girls don’t need to wear bras,” at which Allison hiked up her shirt just over her stomach, looked down and said, “But I’m on my way, right?”

Allison understood that physical development is an inexorable and natural part of life.  Her spiritual development, however, won’t happen so easily or naturally.  She’ll have to choose to grow.  And so do we.

Jesus’s followers testified to a dynamic inner reality which resulted in outward growth: “Inwardly we are being renewed day by day,” (2 Corinthians 4:16).  But a conundrum soon presents itself, as many Christians well know.  Read this next verse slowly, as Paul suggests something that at first glance sounds very strange: “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me,” (Colossians 1:29).  Paul is laboring.  But he is struggling to God’s energy, not his own, “which so powerfully works” within him.

In the context of this particular passage, Paul is not directly addressing spiritual growth, but he is pointing to an underlying spiritual principle, one that is repeated several times throughout the New Testament: We are working, but doing so with a supernatural strength in us.  A more explicit passage regarding spiritual growth is found in Philippians 2:12-13: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”

Many Christians have been hung up on these contradictions.  Does God work, or do we work?  Are we already perfect, or are we in the process of being made perfect?

The truth is, these realities are complementary, not contradictory.  The small forces of our decision making, our will, and our mental and physical efforts need to connect with a force infinitely greater and eternally different from our own.  They need to meet the limitless dynamism of God’s will, power, and His efforts toward us.  It’s a process of choosing to cooperate, giving over our relatively minuscule power of will and muscle, rather than canceling out the working of His grace in us.

The virtues are the key to understanding this.  They provide the bridge between the forces of God’s choice to empower and transform us and our choice to take the right attitudes about it.  Apart from Christ, these qualities are lifeless cardboard replicas – an adaptation of the world’s version of do’s and dont’s.  But within the contexts of faith, these spiritual principles can literally reshape a life.

And Old Path to New Life

Though these ideas may seem new to some of us – and that in itself is unfortunate – the ancients clearly understood this “path” of Christian growth.  John Climacus, who wrote a fifth-century classic of the Christian faith entitled The Ladder of Divine Ascent, assures us, “A Christian is shaped by virtues in the way that others are shaped by pleasures.”

If you approach the virtues as nothing more than obligations, you’re going to labor without being able to rest.  And unless you’re carried along by God’s power working within you, you’ll be crushed by the seeming impossibility of spiritual growth.  But as we progress, we come to understand how “contradictory” truths are really “complementary”: In Christ we are already perfect as we are being made perfect; we labor with God’s strength, not our own, and our labor is a constant struggle to stay at rest in God’s acceptance and empowerment; and this allows a powerful dynamic to take place – an inner orientation will begin to carry us along so that what once seemed like labor becomes the cherished inner passion that drives our life.

Here are two analogies that may help this make sense.

My oldest brother came to visit our house when we lived in Virginia, and, as we sat in the back yard one day, he looked at our flowerbeds and said, “I think I’m going to do some weeding.”

I thought he was crazy.  Here he was, on vacation, wanting to work in our flowerbeds.  But to him it wasn’t work; it just looked like work to me.  To my brother, this was a restful thing to do, and he really enjoyed it.

Personally, I feel the same deep satisfaction when I run.  I’m sweating my heart is beating fast, but I’m loving it.  It looks like work to those who watch me from the outside, but if they could see the inner reality, they’d see I’m deriving satisfaction from the effort.

When God re-creates us, what looks like “work” to the outside world becomes a delightful “rest.”  We’re loving it, even as we’re sweating.  Why?  A dynamic change has occurred within us.  We cherish the spiritual freedom created by each virtue as it begins to blossom; we experience the power of a transformed life, and we’re drawn to want more of Godliness in the same way we used to be drawn to plunge deeper into sin.

Throw any pleasure in front of a hedonist, and he can’t resist.  He’s captivated by its imprisoning force.  Dangle a virtue in front of a healthy Christian and her heart is liberated to walk in that light.  She’s enchanted by it, can’t wait to revel in it, and runs after it accordingly.  This is what Jesus was talking about when He said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)  In The Message, Eugene Peterson phrases it this way: “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God.  He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.”

To an immature kid, eating dinner can be a chore: “I don’t like peas!  Fish?  Are you kidding me?  You want me to eat fish?”  But to a mature adult, eating can be a real pleasure.  The difference isn’t in the activity – the man is eating the same food he rejected as a boy – but his orientation has completely changed.  He has matured.

If we don’t sense this inner orientation toward righteousness, it simply means our souls are unrefined and pre-adolescent, spiritually speaking.  We might still be on our way to Heaven, but we’re still far too weighed down by the world.

Feeding the Soul For Healthy Growth

But why do we need to grow?  Peter provides us with some sobering words.  After telling us that we can participate in the divine nature, he dared to say, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness.” (2 Peter 1:5)  After listing spiritual qualities in which we should grow – knowledge, self-control, perseverance, Godliness, brotherly kindness, love, and so on – Peter explained, “For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ,” (verse 8).

Peter never said we add to our faith to be saved.  But he did point out that if we don’t add to our faith, we’ll be ineffective and unproductive, and our knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ will not result in much change.  That’s the important distinction, which Christians of the past understood.  As the great Calvinist writer, John Owen, wrote, “God works in us and with us, not against us or without us.”

The warning imbedded in Peter’s verse is this: You and I can know the way to transformation but actually miss experiencing it on a personal level.  We can live this entire life “saved” but relatively unchanged.  That’s tragic because, if we do not “partake” in the divine nature of Christ, we can starve our soul until it is limp and powerless.  For our sake, Peter urged us to make every effort.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis has the mentor demon, Screwtape, encourage Wormwood after a seemingly devastating setback.  Even though Wormwood’s man has become a Christian, Screwtape reminds him there is yet a sliver of hope: “I hope with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian.  There is no need to despair.  All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favor.”

Though the eternal penalty for old “habits” is completely removed upon salvation, these habits have a pesky way of hanging around to pester us, like a small dog that runs when we yell at it but circles back and attacks from behind the second our backs are turned.  We practice and grow in the virtues of Christ and let His nature feed us in order to create new habits of holiness.  We press forward to grow in His attributes not out of fear, but because growing in His character is the path we travel to maintain intimacy with the Lover and Lord of our soul.

If we do not grow in grace and spirit, those of us who are serious about our faith are likely to be lured by legalism or at least by the tendency to measure ourselves against other people.  We need to know what we can aspire to, rather than becoming obsessed with what we must fight to avoid.  Legalists and perfectionists focus on the “cant’s”: “I can’t do this; I mustn’t do that.”

Taking off sin is an important component of Christian spiritual growth, but it’s only the first step.  After we take off, we need to “put on.”

The clearest scriptures on Christian growth are in Ephesians: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness,” (4:22-24).

Many of us know we cannot escape an old habit, or a pattern of sin, by focusing on it and trying hard to avoid it.  Before we know it we’ve become sin-focused, and the energy we invest in trying to stop has the effect of a tire spinning in mud: Somehow we entrench ourselves deeper into the very act we’re trying to stop.  That’s why any discussion of Christian growth apart from growth in the spiritual virtues is incomplete, maybe even detrimental.  The virtues tells us what to put on – the attributes of Jesus.  They sculpt the future and provide a much more healthy focus.

Clothing ourselves in Christ is the lifelong process, then, by which we put off the old and put on the new.

Cooperating Christians

Can you taste this invitation of a new life in Christ?  Are you eager to get your life back?  Before we get into the individual virtues, let’s briefly explore three qualities of a person who is cooperating with God.

First, a “cooperating Christian” has an earnestness about his growth.  Consider this earnestness the “invitation,” the opening up of our soul to God’s holy light.  Jonathan Edwards, the great eighteenth-century pastor and revivalist, wrote, “The religion which God requires and will accept does not consist of weak, dull, and lifeless wishes which scarcely raise us above indifference.  In His Word, God insists that we be ‘fervent” in spirit and actively engage our hearts, (Romans 12:11).”

Step out of your shoes and imagine this from God’s perspective: He offers us the most glorious, fulfilling, and meaningful pursuit possible in human experience, and by our lethargic reactions, we say, “Well, okay, maybe – unless something better comes up.”  The Bible is very frank in this regard.  When people casually reject God’s initiative and invitation, He gets angry, and he moves on, inviting others, (see Matthew 22).

Remember, Jesus said only those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will be filled.  Many of us experience indifference, either because we do not care or do not know about the power of grace that is available to us for growth and change.  But the hunger for righteousness is also the hunger to become the mature, responsible people we wish to be.

As Edwards said, “The scriptures often represent the search, effort, and labor that occur in a Christian chiefly after his conversion.  Yet his conversion is only the beginning of his work.  From then the Christian has to stand, press forward, reach out….

Even though this calling is so glorious, many of us take it for granted.  If our priorities were straight, we’d see this disinterest as scandalous: “We are nothing if we are not in earnest about our faith, and if our wills and inclinations are not intensely exercised.  The religious life contains things too great for us to be lukewarm.”

The second characteristic of a cooperating Christian is streamlined living.  If our lives are consumed by secondary pursuits, we’ll never be able to grasp the one, most important pursuit – new life in Christ.  Edwards said a Christian is someone who “places holy living above everything else.  This is his main preoccupation; he is devoted to it with the greatest diligence and earnestness.”

Baseball’s “iron man,” Cal Ripken, Jr., has credited part of his phenomenal success to his early, streamlined focus.  While other neighborhood kids wanted to be good at all sports.  Cal clung to baseball – and look at the result.

The third characteristic of a cooperating Christian is a restful and passionate relationship with God.  If we pursue holiness ahead of or apart from Christ, “trying hard” will either burn us out or tempt us into hypocrisy.  Delight in God’s love and His plan to give you your life back.  Revel in it, and let the desire to grow and experience such a freedom motivate you from within.  Though this isn’t an easy process, it can be a delightful one.

We’re now going to enter a new section in this book, in which we explore the concrete virtues that will help you claim your true inheritance, enabling you to become a partaker in the divine nature as you escape the corruptions of this world.  Each one of these virtues represents a doorway through which you can travel to overcome your “God resistance” and enter into a new understanding of who God is.  Each virtue represents a window you can open to your soul, thereby transforming you as you begin to experience Christ.

Let’s start opening those windows.

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