The Young Man And
Mr. Donald K. Steele of Lakefield. Ontario, favors us with still another of his practical and edifying studies on “The Young Man.”
Mr. Steele is employed by the Peterborough Board of Education and, among other things, serves the Lord as an elder at Lakefield Gospel Chapel.
As a word, “virtue” has fallen into disuse today; as a concept it is more often ignored than considered. Somehow, virtue has come to be considered old-fashioned and is seldom mentioned in daily conversation. Yet the classics of English literature abound with references to virtue, such as Alexander Pope’s Essay on man, in which he says:
Know then this truth, enough for man to know;
Virtue alone is happiness below.
In a way, Pope reflects Paul’s thoughts in Philippians 4:8 that we ought to put our minds constantly on things of virtue and of praise, things that are worthwhile and edifying.
What then is ‘virtue’? It has been defined as a disposition to conform to the law of right, or moral excellence, or rectitude. It has also been defined as the practice of moral duties and the abstinence from immorality and vice. Many have tended to equate virtue with sexual purity, especially in women. These definitions reflect in part the rich heritage of the word virtue in our language. It is an honourable word indeed.
To the Greek philosopher, Plato, there were four particular aspects of moral excellence, which he called the four cardinal virtues. These were justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude. Each one could be a study in itself. “An unjust man is an abomination to the just” we read in Proverbs 29:27. God asks Israel in Psalm 82:8, “How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the person of the wicked?” Justice not only demonstrates fairness to one’s fellow man, but it is also honouring to God. Temperance is self-restraint or self-control in all areas of life and is advocated in such Scriptures as Titus 2:2 and 2 Peter 1:6. Prudence is another curiously old-fashioned word, which simply means to cultivate the habit of acting carefully, with caution, attempting to avoid errors in all areas of life. A prudent man is sagacious, cautious and judicious. He seldom ever steps unwittingly on other people’s toes. Proverbs 16:21 describes the prudent man as “wise in heart.” Plato’s fourth cardinal virtue was fortitude. It involves a strength of mind which enables us to endure pain, adversity or peril with unfaltering patience and constant courage. Robert Louis Stevenson, in his Christmas Sermon, says:
To be honest, to be kind to earn a little and to spend a little less, to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few friends, but these without capitulation — above all, on the same grim condition, to keep friends with himself here is a task for all that a man has of fortitude and delicacy.
To these four cardinal virtues of Plato, sometimes also called the natural virtues, were added three others, called the theological or Christian virtues: faith, hope and love. Paul mentions all three in 1 Corinthians 13:13 and describes them separately elsewhere. Faith has been defined as a “firm belief, or assent of the mind and understanding to the truth of what God has revealed in the Scriptures… a divinely wrought, loving and hearty reliance upon God and His promise of salvation through Jesus Christ.” Since faith is absolutely essential to eternal salvation, it is difficult to overestimate its importance. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). Faith is the key to eternal life, when exercised in the finished work of Christ at Calvary. No other kind of faith will do. Hope is next. To hope is to desire with the expectation of obtaining something.
It involves confidence too. The Christian’s hope of eternal life is founded on his unshakeable confidence that what God has said He will do, He will ultimately perform. There are no ifs, ands, or buts in our eternal hope. The psalmist could say, “In Thee, O Lord do I hope” (Psalm 38:15), and we can say the same, Our hope rests secure in the unchanging nature of God Himself. Faith and hope are so closely related that you cannot have one without the other.
Finally, there is love, or charity as it is rendered in the King James Bible. Love is listed third among the Christian virtues, but it is really first in importance, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. The unselfish caring affection that delights in doing good to another, that is prepared to sacrifice personal gain for the benefit of the beloved, is the Christian virtue of love. In the Greek language this was agape love, and much that is called love in our modern world falls far short of that ideal. The love of God in giving Christ to die for us is the ultimate expression of agape love. No word has been more abused and mauled in modern song lyrics than has the word love.
So we have discovered that there are seven great virtues: justice; temperance; prudence; fortitude; faith; hope and love. At some point in church history, there were opposed to these the seven deadly sins, although these have also fallen out of common usage, so much so that it is very difficult to discover a list of them in print. I believe that pride, covetousness, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy and anger were on that list.
Gerald Mann, in a brilliant little book, The Seven Deadly Virtues, quotes Dorothy Sayers who postulates an interview in which an anti-Christian is being interviewed and is asked to define the beliefs of Christianity. To the question, “What are the seven Christian virtues?” he responds, “Respectability, childishness, mental timidity, dullness, sentimentality, censoriousness, and depression of spirits.” There is no doubt that the world, whenever it portrays a Christian in any play or novel, uses these as the key attributes of Christians. However, this is the world’s view, not the virtues that God expects of true followers of Jesus Christ. Could anyone seriously examine the life and character of the Apostle Paul, and find these traits in him? Gerald Mann goes on in his book to examine censoriousness, permissiveness, childishness, exhibitionism, certitude, velvet violence, and independence as the seven deadly virtues found among Christians today. To believe that any of these are indeed ‘virtues’ is to seriously obscure the differences between saints and sinners. It is to be pharisaical. The Pharisees thought that they knew the differences between saints and sinners, but the Lord Jesus went to great pains to demonstrate how wrong they were. He accepted all people, regardless of their lifestyle, on an equal basis, and we must do the same, recognizing that the only real difference between a saint and a sinner is the matter of salvation. A saint has been saved by the grace and mercy of God, while a sinner has not yet had that experience.
How does a young man lead a virtuous life? One sure way to fail is to reduce it to a list of do’s and don’ts and then try to live by your list. Remember the Pharisees, and the elder brother of the prodigal son. Lists are external, and true virtue is not a matter of externals, but comes from the heart of the individual. Jesus taught that vices flow from within, from the heart of man, and so the only way to live a virtuous life is to change the heart within. If Christ has saved you, and taught you to love Himself and all His ways, and if His standards of purity and excellence are yours in all of life’s endeavours, then—and only then—will you be on the road to a life of true virtue and a life of intelligent choices, designed to make you a blessing to yourself and others, serving the Lord Jesus Christ with utter joy and total dedication. The halfhearted lackadaisical Christian, seeking his pleasures from this world’s paltry store, will never truly please God, nor will he ever be very pleased with himself. Matthew 6:24 tells us that no one can successfully serve two masters.
What are your particular virtues, or assets? Have you, through patient study of God’s Word, and persistent daily prayer, sought to understand, develop and foster Christian standards of virtue and excellence in all that you do and say? Many young men today could take stock of their habits, and determine in their hearts to be more faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ in all things. After all, nothing else in this life really matters very much, if at all.