Years ago I picked up a used copy of Thomas Á Kempis’ Imitation of Christ at a second-hand bookstore. Kempis was a Medieval monk-priest who falls in the medieval contemplation spectrum, though he is far less a mystic than Julian of Norwich or St. John of the Cross. Reading Kempis can be strange for Protestants because of his thoroughly Medieval-Catholic view of works, but also because of his deep love and joy in Christ and amazement about grace. Part of his magnificence is that he not easily pigeonholed.
In Chapter 11, On Peace, and Spiritual Progress, Kempis makes an astute observation about human nature and spiritual progress:
If each year we should root out one fault, we should soon become perfect. But, alas, the opposite is often the case, that we were better and purer in the beginning of our conversion than after many years of our profession. Our zeal and virtue should grow daily; but it is now held to be a fine thing if a man retains even a little of his first fervor. If only we would do a little violence to ourselves at first, we would later be enabled to do everything easily and gladly.
The old monk thinks that spiritual progress is hindered because we give in to human lusts and appetites and seek after comforts. And while he probably believed that some sort of progressive moral improvement was possible, and to which I would take issue, his statement above makes a good observation: That practicing obedience does not make us more moral or better people. Though, it may make us more virtuous.
Kempis relates what we know: that the excitement we have when we first come to faith, or have a “mountain-top” experience, tends to wane over time. It is simply not possible (or I’d argue helpful) to “be on fire for God” all the time. Instead of seeing our lives as a skyscraper which starts small and grows taller and larger into the sky, our lives don’t progress to reach moral heights.
It IS true that the Holy Spirit transforms us, and weans out bad habits and helps us put away sins and vices. I am truly not the man I was. But it would be a mistake to see this as progress. It’s more like a dance where the Holy Spirit takes the lead as I fumble through the moves. The Spirit patiently teaches and helps me improve my two left feet, but at the same time I just learn new ways to sabotage the waltz. Because the reality is, my nature wants to dance alone (a ridiculous notion since dancing is communal), but it’s what I want. I’m not getting morally better, I’m just getting more cunning. I learn to sin less publicly. I learn to work the system. I learn to appear better. Some of my bad habits are truly put away. Some of my struggles are really worked-out by the grace of God. But I creatively find new ones. In some ways, to Thomas’s amazing point, sometimes I was “better and purer at the beginning of my conversion than after many years of [my] profession.”
So practicing obedience doesn’t make us morally better. Then why do it? Why try to be good? In some ways this is a stupid question. We should try to be good because God says so, because we love God, and because it is better for us and our neighbor. Do we even need a reason to seek after the good? Perhaps not. But I ask because there is something that obedience does progress us in. We don’t get morally better, we don’t get more love or credit from God, but practicing obedience does make us more virtuous. And that’s a good thing.
What is virtue? Virtue is a pattern, a perception, a condition that results from our spiritual formation. Think of virtue not as a work, or collection of works, but as a pattern or habit. Virtue is like character, but it’s bigger than that. Virtue is the living out—thoughts, actions, feelings, hopes, dreams of what you love.
What that means is that we can grow in virtue even if we digress in moral improvement sometimes. To grow in virtue is to habituate ourselves to Christ and neighbor, to find the rhythms of Christianity—prayer, hearing God’s word, worship, reconciliation, communion, fellowship etc. being our rhythms, to extend the former analogy, virtue teaches us to keep step with the Spirit’s dance, even if we stumble along.
To be virtuous then, in classic Christian doctrine, is not to be a moral superior, but to enter into a holy (that is, set-apart) life. This “holy” life is a life where feelings are not the primary mode of motivation. Virtuous Christians are less concerned with how they feel about their dancing and more concerned with their partner. They are not concerned predominately with improving their dance moves as much as they are learning to follow the Leader. A virtuous Christian is simply one who learns to live as if God’s words and promises are true for themselves and their neighbors.
We harness virtue in our lives not by a sheer act of will, by trying to be morally better (even though we should try to always be morally better), we harness virtue by putting our lives in a pattern where we are integrated into the life of the One we love. Sometimes we’ll find we can truly improve our vices, but other times we’ll find we get deceived or rebel. What is most important is not moral progress but virtuous engagement. To be a virtuous Christian is to be a Christian who finds obedience something worth striving for, who is willing to struggle and sacrifice for their faith. But being a virtuous Christian also means keeping that obedience firmly under the verdict of grace, so that it does not rise up to the level of faux-assurance.
By learning to listen to God and enter into his breath and cadence, we learn to hear his words over our heart’s feelings, to trust his promises over our predictions, and to love his people over our own selfishness. We don’t seek after virtue, we become virtuous by the simple and delightful engagement with God through the Church. And that is why we strive for obedience, not because we fear God’s wrath at our sin (thank you Jesus!) but because we’re past that. We now want to be like God. Be close to God. Enter into his ways and love his people. We want to dance with the One who broke my shackles off and invites me into his feast. And I’m sure at the Great Feast of the Lamb, there will be dancing.