Three Books on the Pursuit of the Virtuous Life of Christ
In Philippians 4:8-9, Paul provides a short list of virtues. Here is how it reads in The Message:
Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.
On Sunday, I used 2 Peter 1:1-11 as an example of what EVERY New Testament author affirms about the formation of our inner world.
First, God is doing something that only God can do. God is the initiating, gracious, transforming presence.
Second, God gives us clear responsibility to partner with him in the transforming work he is doing in us. The sovereign God has so ordered the universe that humans are free, responsible, empowered, and accountable beings. We think, feel, desire, choose, decide, will, and act. All those things are real. God has so designed humanity and life in this world that we are to partner with him as he works the internal change inside us.
You see that same dual dynamic in Philippians 4:8-9. We are to do TWO things. We are to think. The Message says fill our minds by mediating on the virtues listed. And we are to put them into practice.
Then, as we think and put virtue into practice, God takes those vital human responses and works in and through them. And even though we can’t see it, God supercharges even our feeble thinking and frail acting with his life.
Keep working together with God in the formation of your inner world.
To help you in the THINKING part of Paul’s instructions, I am sharing three very good books on the formation of virtue.
Sometimes we just need more biblical wisdom and theological-spiritual reflection on the teaching of the Bible. Any one of the books will be very powerful.
This one is an older book (1998) and still one of my absolute favorites. It is one of those few books that had a foundational and formative role for me. Thomas did three things for me in this book.
(1) He provided a great biblical understanding of the synergy that takes place when humans are responsive to and cooperative with the work God is doing in our inner world.
(2) He gave a profound explanation of the virtue of HUMILITY, which for Thomas serves as the core virtue that makes possible all the others.
(3) He focused on pursuing the virtues, and not on resisting the vices. He had that positive orientation we have for the rest of our series.
(4) Finally, he placed the virtues in the pursuit of Jesus and not simply the pursuit of virtues. We pursue the glorious and good Jesus and, as we encounter Christ, his virtue grows in us.
You know of the seven deadly sins. They are a major framework in the history of the church to understand what sin does to us. It has been (and still is) a wonderful and useful model for character transformation. Resistance is always a good strategy, especially because the Bible frequently tells us to flee, resist, fight, put to death, etc. the bad things in us.
In keeping with our positive pursuit of the good, DeNeff has creatively taken the idea of the seven deadly sins and asked, “What are the seven ‘saving graces’ that are the counterpoint or the antidote to those sins?” Then he uses the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues as the alternative and tells you how embracing those virtues is the best means to overcoming what is bad.
I suggest you read either Thomas OR DeNeff. You will get the same general framework.
While the first two books cover many virtues, this book focuses on one virtue and applies it in many different situations.
Corey is the president of BIOLA University. BIOLA is one of the largest and best Christian universities in the United States. It just happens to be on the west coast, otherwise I would recommend more of our young people consider attending that school.
Corey has done something very clever. In the Hebrew HESED refers to the lovingkindness of God. HESED is love, but more than love. HESED is kindness, but more than kindness. So, an early translator of the Hebrew into the English language invented a new word, lovingkindness, to more accurately communicate the quality of HESED.
Corey takes that word and writes a book about how we can love kindness. He believes, and in my opinion he is right on, that we no longer love kindness. We have become mean and uncivil. We are now mainly antagonistic in response to the antagonism of others or to the position of others with which we disagree, even if the other person is not being so mean toward us.
Unfortunately, others often are mean and their meanness gets our meanness right back. Eventually, we are just as mean. And that is something that is seriously at odds with the transforming work of Jesus in us. It is not the virtue of lovingkindness that is inherent in our God.
This book will push you and probably raise some annoyance as well. It will not shy away from the controversial and adversarial issues of our day. It may help you think about lovingkindness and how to put it into practice.
Thinking about and practicing the virtues of Jesus along with you,