I’ve been thinking about virtue lately. The dictionary defines virtue as “behaviour showing high moral standards.” Virtue isn’t about knowing; it’s about doing. James understood this connection between knowing and doing when he asked, “Who among you is wise and understanding?” (James 3:13) He goes on to say that a person’s wisdom should be shown by his good conduct. Karen Glass, in her book Consider This, says “When our knowledge is transformed into action, it becomes virtue, and virtue was the goal of the classical educators.”
Aristotle taught that every virtue sat in the middle between two vices, sort of like Goldilocks tasting the porridge that was too hot and too cold until she found the one that was just right. Everything has its dark side when carried to either extreme. That’s what motivates us to frame our weaknesses as strengths on our resumes, isn’t it? We all know that too much or too little of a good thing is not good. There are lots of practical examples of this. Like gluttony versus starving ourselves to death. A happy medium of eating and enjoying what we need to be healthy would probably be the “virtuous” choice. Think of arrogance versus self-loathing. Somewhere in the middle we are sure to find a healthy amount of self-confidence.
John Ruskin drew an example from nature, saying that the earth is held in its orbit by the balance between the forces which pull it towards AND away from the sun, at the same time. Of course, being an art critic, Ruskin was applying this to the opposing tensions that keep Art in its sweet spot. He said, “…in like manner, when Art is set in its true and serviceable course, it moves under the luminous attraction of pleasure on the one side, and with a stout moral purpose of going about some useful business on the other. If the artist works without delight, he passes away into space, and perishes of cold: if he works only for delight, he falls into the sun, and extinguishes himself in ashes.” You can see an application here for life in general, can’t you? Sometimes our “stout moral purpose” can freeze the life out of us, but crashing and burning in a reckless dive into carnal pleasures that abuse our freedom in selfish and hurtful ways is not the answer either. Balance is a beautiful thing.
But do we really attain the wisdom that will guide our knowledge toward virtue by moving to some middle ground? When it comes to how we live our lives and what guides our moral compass, is it really just a matter of finding a balance that we can achieve on our own? I think there’s something better, but it’s something we can’t reach through human reasoning. It’s revelation. Instead of looking left and right to determine where we need to bring ourselves into alignment, we need to start looking UP! Jesus said He is the way, the truth, and the life. He came from God, from “above,” because we could never find our way to God or figure life out on our own, with any amount of sideways shuffling.
Over and over and over again God’s word tells us that wisdom comes through fearing the Lord. He alone opens our understanding to a supernatural perspective that practically nullifies that continuum of vice and virtue we’ve been dancing on, leaving it in the dust when compared to the pursuit of the glorious life God has called us to. As C. S. Lewis said, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” So, go ahead and find some balance in your life. Discover that sweet spot you should be orbiting in. But remember, God is offering you infinite joy that you can’t even fathom until you humble yourself and hop off the throne of your life.
It astounds me that such wisdom is available to anyone and everyone. It’s not reserved for scholars and brainiacs. Look at the transformed lives of Jesus’ first disciples — uneducated, common men who became brave and bold and baffled the religious elite of their day. Anyone, from the lofty spheres of academia to the lowest of the illiterate in any age, can access God’s truth and wisdom because the gateway to this incomparable blessing is the same for all of us — the door of humility and meekness.
Scripture tells us that wisdom begins with fearing the Lord. In fact, it says that fearing the Lord actually is wisdom. My coffee cup is reminding me this morning of the connection between wisdom and a virtuous life. The Proverbs 31 woman excelled all others in virtue because of her fear of God.
Fearing the Lord and giving Him the place He deserves in our lives requires an incredible amount of trust on our part. But lest you feel hesitant in relinquishing the reins of your life, remember that those who fear the Lord lack nothing.
You who are his holy ones, fear the Lord, for those who fear him lack nothing. Young lions lack food and go hungry, but those who seek the Lord will not lack any good thing.Psalms 34:9-10 CSB
The Hebrew word for lack has lots of meanings. Just to drive home the point, it means no shortage, deficiency, deprivation, scarcity, want, need. What a promise! This surrender is no loss for us but unimaginable gain! I can’t resist another Ruskin quote here. He said, “It is because of the special connection of meekness with contentment that it is promised that the meek shall ‘inherit the earth.’ Neither covetous men, nor the Grave, can inherit anything; they can but consume. Only contentment can possess.” There is much to be gained in fearing the Lord. Or should I say, much to be given to us by God? When we hold out humble hands, He gives us lasting gifts. When we open meek minds to Him, He fills us with a supernatural wisdom beyond compare. Does this exchange sound strange to you? I leave you with one last Ruskin quote: