January 22, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
The time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.
1 Peter 4:3-5
In Mark Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale, a family heirloom becomes a metaphor for the moral compass of the story’s protagonists. A salver, an ornately decorated tray overlaid in both silver and gold, had survived generations of the Marratta family, giving rise to the notion that the tray was somehow protected. Around the circumference of the tray were embossed four words in Italian: onestá (honesty), corragio (courage), sacrificio (sacrifice), pazienza (patience)—the virtues that defined this family. The son who possessed it remembered his father telling him,
Little men spend their days in pursuit of such things [wealth, fame, possessions]. I know from experience that at the moment of their deaths they see their lives shattered before them like glass. I’ve seen them die. They fall away as if they have been pushed, and the expressions on their faces are those of the most unbelieving surprise. Not so, the man who knows the virtues and lives by them. Ideas are in fashion or not, and those who should prevail are often defeated. But it doesn’t matter. The virtues remain uncorrupted and uncorruptible. They are in themselves the bulwarks with which we can protect our vision of beauty, and the strengths by which we stand, unperturbed, in the storm that comes when seeking God.
The Apostle Peter has told us thus far in his letter that to be found in Christ is free of cost, yet it is a costly fight to follow God. That’s why he calls us not simply to remember Christ’s own suffering but to “arm ourselves” with that knowledge. The fight to follow God presents itself most chronically in the call to uphold virtue before a world that mocks or maligns it. That’s why half of verses 1-6 call attention to the enduring influence of a corrosive way of living—one, sadly, for which our taste remains.
Virtues are not ends in themselves, but expressions rather of our love for Christ, who longs to see them in us. In fact, the only reason we would choose not to pursue them is that we do not trust the one thing that motivates them: the love God has for us in Christ. We lie because we don’t think His love for us is enough to protect us from what telling the truth will yield. We shrink back in fear because we don’t think His love for us is enough to steel us against what threatens. Impatience turns to petulance when we think Him unable to provide us what we need for contentment.
So what shall keep these virtues in us?
Sunday called us to frame the rest of our days in much the same way Jonathan Edwards did in his resolutions—one of which, worth hearing again, would be sufficient to sustain our loving pursuit of those virtues: “Resolved: to examine carefully, and constantly, what that one thing in me is, which causes me in the least to doubt of the love of God; and to direct all my forces against it.” Virtue proceeds from a profound humility before God, issuing from a sense both of His majesty and of His love.
Like that gilded tray ennobled by virtues, we must have the truth of His love embossed upon our souls. The embossing begins and is sustained by a frequent consideration of Him who embodied virtue unsurpassingly. Who has spoken more honestly than the One who unflinchingly told us both the depth of our flaw and the depth of His love for us? Who has shown more courageous sacrifice than He who willingly suffered for us to know God truly? And who has shown greater patience than He who withheld His judgment (Acts 17:29-31), and continues to advocate for us whenever we fall into sin (1 John 2:1)?
Where are you lacking courage at work or school? Where are you lacking patience at home? Not mere willpower, but, as Edwards taught, only a robust sense of the love of God in Christ can nurture those virtues in us. For then we see their beauty and long to see them embodied in us. What’s your plan to direct all your forces to that end? It shall be worth the fight.