His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness… For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 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. (2 Peter 1:3-8)
When I first became a believer, I was like the woman with the alabaster jar (Matthew 26:7). I loved much because I had been forgiven much. But as the years slipped by something happened in my life that happens to many believers: my gratefulness towards God’s mercy transformed into frustration at my lingering sinful nature. I understood why I failed so greatly before knowing Christ, but it was difficult to accept my failings when I felt I should know better.
It’s easy to beat yourself up, even run from God, when you fall. Out of frustration and shame, I have begged God to rid me of my sinful tendencies. Of course, God didn’t instantly heal me with a lightning bolt, but answered me with a different kind of grace. The answer to my prayer came in the form of a Sunday school lesson on “holy habits,” more traditionally known as virtues.
Practicing virtue is a lot like lifting weights – it’s exercise that builds health in your soul. There are many virtues, but as we learned in class that day, the foundation of all virtues can be found in the four natural virtues or cardinal virtues. These were first articulated by Plato but hardly belong to Plato. They are part of what theologians call “natural law” – God’s design for humanity woven into our beings since the beginning of creation. When a person cultivates these virtues in his or her life, they are cooperating with the Creator’s design for the human soul.
It’s important to note here that pursuing a virtuous life is not the same as trying to earn salvation. Our salvation is a gift that flows from God’s grace. But in our Christian journey, it’s important to do our part to improve our character so that we can grow in character and more accurately reflect Christ’s goodness to the world. Now let’s take a closer look at each cardinal virtue:
1. Wisdom: For wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her. (Proverbs 8:11). You’ve probably known people with book smarts who lack common sense. Or perhaps you know someone with street smarts who lacks knowledge. A person who has cultivated the virtue of wisdom can not only discern truth but has the ability to implement their insights appropriately in any given situation. According to scripture, characteristics of wise people include those who prepare properly for hard times (Proverbs 21:20), those who humbly heed instruction and correction (Proverbs 8:9), those who hold their tongues from saying foolish things (Proverbs 10:19), and those who fear the Lord (Proverbs 14:16-35). Because wisdom allows us to discern right from wrong, this virtue sets us up to practice all other virtues.
2. Justice: Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed (Isaiah 1:17). Most of us have some sense of justice from a very early age when we yell, “It’s not fair!” A just or righteous person gives to others what is deserved, keeps his word, and acts fairly even when no one is looking. According to scripture, a just person favors the innocent over the wicked (Proverbs 18:5), never accepts bribes (Proverbs 17:23), aids the poor, fatherless, and widows (Proverbs 29:7, Isaiah 1:17), and experiences joy (Proverbs 21:15).
3. Courage: In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence (Proverbs 14:26). While most of us associate courage with lack of fear, courage has more to do with fear put in proper perspective. A courageous person chooses right even when a decision is frightening or comes with personal cost. Among many traits, the courageous person exalts Christ (Philippians 1:20), holds on to God’s promises (Acts 27:25), and gives an effective witness for Christ (Acts 4:13). A person can not exercise any virtue for long without courage because sin often appears easier or more attractive than virtue.
4. Temperance: Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control (Proverbs 25:28). Temperance is an old-fashioned word for moderation. A temperate person exercises self-control, building a wall against unhealthy, sinful extremes. Among many qualities, scripture tells us that a temperate person does not gossip (1 Timothy 3:11), does not vent anger (Proverbs 29:11) is respectable and able to take on leadership roles (1 Timothy 3:2), and is sexually pure (1 Thessalonians 4:2-5).
So, are any of these virtues lacking in your life? I can see some areas where I am still weak. Thankfully, with God’s grace and a few good decisions, we can grow in our effectiveness and productiveness for Christ.
Identify which cardinal virtue you struggle most with. Ask God for the grace to grow and make one positive change in your behavior this week that will help you develop this “holy habit.”