Nothing is more important to individuals or nations than the practice of virtue. The fact that the word seems outdated and foreign to us shows how far we have fallen from its power and beauty.
To navigate the coming new world and its challenges, we must return to the primacy of virtue.
The Virtuous Life
In 1970, I learned from All-American center Steve Patterson how the UCLA Bruins won ten-out-of-twelve national basketball championships. He spoke to my summer missions team around a roaring campfire in Northern California.
Coach Wooden taught us the key to success is majoring in the fundamentals. If you master the essentials of basketball better than others and possess better conditioning than they do, it doesn’t matter what they run or who their superstars are. You will beat them any given night.
When the campfire broke up and I returned to my cabin, I thought about his words.
Master the essentials. Major in fundamentals.
That summer our team took them to heart as we traveled throughout the Pacific Rim, winning twenty-nine out of thirty games games. When I returned home, I made a commitment to apply this principle to other areas of life.
God’s Word abounds with the need to master the basics. No clearer passage can be found than 2 Peter 1:2-11 where Peter names seven fundamental character qualities that are essential to a successful life: virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.
Many people today major in minors. They waste time scouting out the enemy. They look for rock stars to emulate. They chase secular success schemes. And they fall flat on their faces.
But God promises us in 2 Peter that if we master the fundamentals of godly character, we will never be useless (v.8), have better lives (v.8), never fall (v.10), and receive a rich welcome into His eternal kingdom (v.11).
The first character trait Peter mentions is virtue–which describes heart purity, moral excellence, integrity, or personal goodness.
Here’s why virtue is the starting point.
When we first come to Christ, our greatest problem is sin. We have been polluted by selfishness and our motives are wrong. Our inner being has been defiled and our heart has been darkened. When we are born again, God immediately begins a massive “moral toxic waste” clean-up operation.
Without a purified heart, we can’t really grow. There is too much rubble and junk in the way. So God helps us begin the process of moral renovation by developing virtue.
Here’s how we do it.
Seek a Pure Heart
Heart purity describes a present state of being. It involves analyzing our thoughts and motives, allowing the Lord to search our hearts and minds, and keep ourselves free from mental sin.
Many years ago I began the practice of analyzing my heart. I knelt by my bed at night and opened my life to the Lord in the attitude of Psalm 139:23,24:
God, examine me and know my heart; test me and know my nervous thoughts. See if there is any bad thing in me. Lead me on the road to everlasting life.
Usually I asked the Lord some questions and let Him reveal His thoughts. Did I act in pride today? Did I doubt Him in any area? Was I disobedient? Was I unloving to any person?
Then I thought about the questions and let Him speak to me.
Later I learned to to keep my heart pure on a momentary basis. Christian maturity is shortening the time period between sin and confession, revelation and obedience. Since sin is our main problem (Romans 3:23), we should get rid of it as soon as possible–not just before bed. When our hearts are right with God to the best of our ability, we will know deep and abiding peace.
Maintain a Good Conscience
A few years after my basketball trip, I attended a seminar where I learned the importance of clearing my conscience before God–getting rid of the “baggage” of past sin.
Some weeks later while holed up in the seclusion of my grandparents’ home, I patiently (and agonizingly) listed on paper all of the past sins I could ever remember committing. After five hours, and three “goings-over,” the list numbered roughly 300 specific acts of disobedience (that I could remember), and fifteen-to-twenty people to whom I needed to confess my sins.
I thanked God for His grace and love and then burned the piece of paper in the fireplace with tears streaming down my cheeks. In the coming days, I followed through and cleared my conscience of past sins. It was like taking a spiritual shower that made me feel clean all over.
A clear conscience is crucial for inner freedom and holiness. It removes all the skeletons of the past that the enemy loves to drag out to haunt us.
Live in Sincere Faith
Inner purity–virtue–requires maintaining a pure heart in the present and clearing away the sins of the past with a clear conscience.
But it also involves hope-filled faith toward the future. A sincere faith is a by-product of meticulously taking care of the first two areas. It is this sincere faith which is most “pleasing to God” (Hebrews 11:6).
Purity of heart is especially important when it comes to sexual sin and its motivation–lust. Virtue nourishes. Lust rots. In 2 Peter 1:4, we are told that we can either be “partakers of God’s nature”–literally, feed on God–or we can be eaten up by the passion of lust.
Many people in today’s world live in a dense fog of disobedience in the area of sexual immorality. On a human level, it might be the most paralyzing sin of Western culture that needs to be cleansed.
The number one character goal of our lives must be holiness of heart. Jesus said in Matthew 5:8:
Those who are pure in their thinking are happy, because they will be with God.
The apostle Paul stated:
We should make ourselves pure–free from anything that makes body or soul unclean (II Corinthians 7:1).
King David added years before:
Who may go up on the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy temple? Only those with clean hands and pure hearts (Psalm 24:3,4).
And the writer to the Hebrews warned:
Try to live in peace with all people, and try to live free from sin. Anyone whose life is not holy will never see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
Bill Bennett in The Book of Virtues lists ten character qualities that arise from a virtuous heart. They include self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith. He explains:
Moral education–the training of heart and mind toward the good–involves many things…what virtues look like, what they are in practice, how to recognize them, and how they work…They are traits of character that will enable people to make sense of what they see in life and help them live it well.
My favorite quote on virtue was a prophetic warning to America from founding father Samuel Adams in 1775:
A general dissolution of principles and manners will more surely overthrow the liberties of America than the whole force of the common enemy. While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.
A virtuous life is crucial to navigate the coming new world.