Friday, February 25, 2011

In Pursuit of Virtue

Virtue has become almost an impediment to normal human development and is either judged beyond our reach or provincial and passe'.  We love to talk about goodness and holiness and purity but we seem to prefer being bad, living in sin, and being dirty.  I am certainly not the first or the only one to notice this.  But what troubles me is that we as Christians seem to give passing, if grudging, agreement to the idea that virtue is either unattainable or not worth the trouble (given the world in which we live).  No matter how you slice it, this is a sad and troubling day when even Christians no longer seem excited about or pledged to pursue the path of virtue.

A friend of mine alerted me to the new app for your phone that alerts you to the nearest place where you can obtain free condoms.  Apparently lust is not only rampant but urgent -- not to mention cheap.  Sad day when you won't even spring for the cost of a prophylactic in order to indulge your desire.  We seem resigned to the fact that no one of any age has any will or desire to resist the urge to have sex.  Abstinence programs are seen as either religiously incongruous with free choice or ineffective when fifteen year olds think it is time to "do it."  If that is the case, and even Christians confess the implausibility of abstinence, then we have not only surrendered virtue, we have given up on that which distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation and the nobility God claims to have placed within us.

I could mention a thousand other areas in which the path of virtue is either no longer taken seriously or deemed an impossible burden but the phone app for free condoms seemed too easy a target.  In all of this the point is not about sex but about the nature of our will and virtue as both gift and goal of moral and Christian life.  As Lutherans we are quick to remind folks that they are forgiven, that no sin is greater than God's mercy, and that God dwells and eats among sinners.  But are we as quick to raise up the higher path of a virtuous life as not some silly pie in the sky goal but the genuine and real aim of our Christian lives?

Judging from the great unpopularity of private confession and also on the basis of the pseudo contemporary confessions used in so many worship services, we seem to want forgiveness without actually admitting that we are poor, miserable sinners.  As I have often reminded, we are not miserable because we try sinning and just cannot seem to get the hang of it in order to do it well.  No, we sin because we are miserable sinners, as Dale Meyer would put it.  It is who we are and what we do since the Fall.  No denying that.  But what of the baptismal death and resurrection in which we died with Christ the death to sin in order to rise in Christ as His new creation?  Is this not also real?  Is this new life and the transformation of our minds, wills, and desires only a dream?  Or, is it real enough for us to seek out the path of virtue and, by the grace of God, attain it from time to time?

It seems to me that we Lutherans (me included) need to raise up goodness and righteousness a bit more.  We would do well to preach the goal of our lives in Christ as well as the reality of the justification and redemption that is ours in Christ (third use of the Law, anyone?).  Virtue may be hidden but it is alive and well.  There are folks even within my own family and parish whose lives constantly inspire me.  They do not settle for the mean or the average or the base of mortal life but are people of good will and good spirit in Christ.  I wish that I was more like them.  I am not.  But that does not keep me from holding myself to a high standard and from encouraging virtue upon me and those who are called with me in those baptismal waters.  I know that in my own heart expedience is too often the substitute for virtue, and one I that I settle for too easily.

This is also the source of great frustration for some in my parish - not that we are sinners but that we seem too content in this sin and too comfortable with who we are instead of striving to be something more.  I am not unsympathetic.  Sometimes the nature of our conversation even in the halls of the church building is coarse and vulgar.  Sometimes we sound way too much like tax collectors with a tinge of guilt instead of sinners who, by the aid of the Spirit, long to be holy.

Some recent circumstances in my life have caused this to boil over.  In theological conversation with family, we talked about this.  Time and time again we spoke of sin as a poison on our souls and it is not just forgiveness we desire but to be rid of the desires that give birth to our guilt and shame.  We long to be holy not simply because it is good and God-pleasing but because unholiness is like an open wound, bleeding and weakening and infecting every aspect of our daily lives.  Virtue is not simply the path we should seek but the path of hope in Christ, of love in Christ, and of grace from Christ.  Virtue is the pursuit of our humanity, stolen from us by sin in the fall and restored to us in Christ when we were baptized.  So let us aim higher and preach for this higher goal -- not in exchange for the preaching of the cross but because the preaching of the cross either empowers us under the Spirit to reach for this or it has not been heard at all...


Paul said...

"Delay not your conversion to the LORD, put it not off from day to day. For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance you will be destroyed. Rely not upon deceitful wealth, for it will be no help on the day of wrath" (Book of Sirach).
In other words, don't play games with God and trifle with His grace.

Anonymous said...

From a Biblical view, the Christian
is become like Christ. This happens
as those who belong to Christ have
crucified the flesh with its passions
and desires. Christ has set us free
to walk by the Holy Spirit's to live
a changed and transformed life. The
evidence that we walk in the Spirit
is the love, joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness. faithfulness,
gentleness and self-control that we
demonstrate despite our sinfulness.

Cheryl said...

Thank you for writing this, Pastor. I don't know if this is the same topic, but I am frequently dismayed by fellow Christians and Lutherans who seem to go out of their way to publicly flaunt "naughty" behavior and language in an effort to not be seen as pietistic. I'm not talking about the honest appreciation of temporal things that are not inherently sinful, such as the enjoyment of a good beer. Nothing wrong with that. But sometimes I do see what strikes me as going way beyond that in the intentional display of questionable words and actions. So it is nice to see the pursuit of virtue be extolled as something good. It should be possible to uphold virtue without being seen as someone who is holier-than-thou or buying into works righteousness.

Karyn said...

Pastor Peters, please allow me to add my thanks for your thoughts in this post. After withdrawing for a time from browsing all of the blogs I’ve looked at over the years, this week I happened to take a look around the web to check in on some of them, including yours. I especially appreciate a number of your posts but this one, in particular, for a variety of reasons (another reminder to me of God’s marvelous timing.)

It is so rare to hear an LCMS pastor mention any virtue in a goal of sexual abstinence outside of marriage these days so even that in itself is commendable, but all the points within your post are profound truth that call for more attention particularly in the LCMS. I am by no means perfect, far from it, and I always question whether it’s worth offering any personal testimony when issues such as these are addressed, but on the chance that it might be helpful to someone out there, I can testify that I am a 47 yr old virgin who through each day of my years on this earth (through my late teens, 20’s, 30’s and 40’s) has had to deal with the same powerful, seemingly uncontrollable desires as anyone else and I can tell you that sexual abstinence outside of marriage is very possible. In addition, not so long ago, I was sexually assaulted by a man I loved very deeply. He claimed to be a Christian but I was also literally shocked to discover he hated my virginity so much and felt so entitled to premarital sex that he used a birthday gift I gave him to set me up and commit a violent crime, forcing sexual contact against my will (short of intercourse) on a Christmas Eve, of all things. I won’t go into details of my personal aftermath, the despair, the spiritual and material costs, but I will say if anyone is tempted to believe that with so many Christians being left to feel entitled to sex outside of marriage and with some church leaders now pushing for attitudes of indifference & high tolerance toward fornication, that this is of little consequence to souls, I would humbly advise that he or she is sadly mistaken. The third use of the law was not an evil thing to our forefathers and it is particularly distressing to observe some church leaders purposely treating it as if it were an evil enterprise, especially when it comes to addressing fornication.

Pastor Peters said...

Karyn, My prayers are with you and I am so saddened to hear of your assault and suffering... even as I am heartened by your pursuit of virtue within your single estate and pray God's blessing and contentment of heart upon you...