What does it mean to cultivate virtue? Knowing that Peter includes virtue on the list of things to see added to our faith (2 Pet. 1:5), how can we go about it? Here are a few thoughts:
1. Heart-level transformation comes by the Spirit of God, through the gospel and the Word.
As we saw in the last post, sanctification is a product of the Holy Spirit – not of works of the Law. Asceticism by itself only makes for hard-bitten, more disciplined sinners. If we want to see ourselves grow in virtue, we must begin by steeping ourselves in God’s Word and sitting in contact with God’s Spirit.
And for fallen, helpless humankind, the only fountain of real virtue is the nature of Jesus imparted to us through the gospel. His record is imputed to us once for all time; but His Spirit is imparted to us and gradually transforms us into the same image. As Paul says in Romans 13, the antidote to sin (and thus the secret to virtue) is to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 14).
2. Virtue seems to act like a muscle – the more we flex it, the stronger it gets.
I’ve heard several great illustrations of this, but the muscle one stands out to me. Exercising the will strengthens it, one way or another. Our choices become habits, which become the pattern of our lives.
Training in virtue means practicing virtue, just as training in baseball means throwing a lot of balls and swinging a lot of bats. We can set ourselves up with opportunities to practice generosity, honesty, courage, or kindness. If I’m deficient in a virtue, then at first acting out of it will require a conscious, deliberate choice; but as time goes on, it should become more natural. Maybe one day, God willing, instinctive.
3. We need to think both long-term and short-term.
In one sense, the cultivation of virtue – like the mastery of any skill – is a lifelong process. Chris Thile is hands-down the best living mandolin player; we could rightly say he’s a “master” of the instrument, but I’d bet money he’d still say he had things to learn or grow in regarding his craft. And anyone who’s started learning an instrument later in life can affirm that it takes quite some time to get to a level where we’re satisfied with our mastery.
In one sense, I think, we can think this way about virtue. If I start my Christian life as the incarnation of Ebenezer Scrooge, it may take some years before I’m as instinctively generous as I once was miserly. Thinking long-term can keep us from becoming discouraged if we’re cultivating a virtue that feels alien to us.
But at the same time, we can’t claim a long view in such a way that really just means we’re being lazy. Paul didn’t tell the Corinthians to start coming around to the idea of sexual purity gradually (1 Cor. 6:18). Zacchaeus was at least somewhat transformed – in a big way, it seems – by a one-off meeting with Jesus. So while the long view can encourage us in the struggle, we should also be always looking for change right now.