Virtue for the Sake of Virtue or Your Neighbor?

Reading Time: 4 mins

This is an excerpt from Vocation: The Setting for Human Flourishing written by Michael Berg (1517 Publishing, 2021). Available for purchase this Tuesday!

Do you have a maid? I once asked this question to a group of people I knew. They would all reply, “No,” even if they did make use of a cleaning service. They were the type of people who worked hard. They were self-sufficient. Asking for a handout was not just a sign of weakness but a sign of immorality. I asked them, “Why don’t you hire a maid?” Before they could answer, I offered a handful of responses to the question. Option #1: Maybe it is a lack of money, but then again, none of you are suffering in poverty. How many cars do you have in the driveway? Option #2: Maybe it is because you do not want to spoil your children. Are these the same children with iPhones? Plus, it’s not like the maid has to clean their rooms. Option #3: Maybe you are a private person and don’t want a stranger in your house. Please, you just posted fifteen pictures of yourself snuggling up with your cat in your pajamas. You’re an open book. Option #4: Maybe you think that you could use that money for other, more honorable things. Like what, vacationing in Florida? Isn’t your time more valuable than money?

Imagine a typical family. Both parents work. It’s a busy lifestyle. You are one of these parents. You come home on a Thursday evening. The mail is stacked up, and so are the emails. The laundry is piled three feet high, and Junior is wearing his underwear inside out because nothing is clean. You can barely see out the windows, they are so dirty: “When was the last time we washed them, June? No, I think it was two summers ago.” But you don’t have time to think about that now because you have somewhere to be. You can’t remember where, but you know it is somewhere important. Flute lessons? PTA meeting? Hockey practice? You’ll have to check the schedule and round up the kids, who are already exhausted but paradoxically pent up with energy from the school day. Off you go again, buying fast food on the way because a home-cooked meal is a luxury you simply cannot afford but twice a month.

Now wouldn’t it be nice to come home to discover that some of those stresses were gone? Laundry folded, windows cleaned, dishes put away, carpets vacuumed, maybe even dinner prepared? Just once. Maybe once a week or even just once a month. Would that stress relief not help your marriage? Would that not make you a bit more patient with the children? Wouldn’t your waistline benefit from one less greasy burger? Just once a month. It wouldn’t cost that much. Would not one evening a month change your outlook on life just a little bit?

We turn our work from a gift to us and a gift from God to others into an avenue of self-justification.

So why don’t you hire a maid? “Because we clean up our own messes” is the answer. It’s a pride thing. More than that, it is a “curved-inward” thing—a self-justifying thing. We work hard in this house. We don’t need help. I do my own work. I am not some soft trust-fund kid. I am independent. I. I. I. We turn our work from a gift to us (we have purpose in life) and a gift from God to others (vocation to our neighbor) into an avenue of self-justification.

Now let’s look at the situation through the lens of vocation. I am a father. I am stretched thin. We all are. If I am curved inward, I look at work around the house and say, “I’ll do it myself ” with more than a tinge of self-pity. But if I am curved outward, and I see the benefit my marriage and my family might gain from me being a little less stressed out and not so busy, I might just forget my pride for a minute and see an opportunity for love. It doesn’t have to be about hiring a cleaning service, of course. It can be anything: paying for an oil change, hiring an accountant at tax time, mowing the lawn. Maybe I don’t need to fix the plumbing myself. Everybody’s financial situation is different, of course, and some things we cannot afford, but still, wouldn’t it help not only your family but also the personal economy of whomever you hired? Nobody is purely self-sufficient anyway. We depend on scores of people carrying out their vocations. We do not and cannot do it all. You don’t churn your own butter, do you? So why not hire a maid?

This is about virtue—or, to put it into theological terms, sanctification (the holy life Christians live as those made righteous by Christ). What is the purpose of your virtue or sanctification? What is the telos—goal, end, purpose? Is it virtue for the sake of virtue, sanctification for the sake of sanctification, or is it something else? In vocation, the telos is a neighbor, not God or our own virtue. My actions flow out of me with one target and only one target: my neighbor. It need not, nor can it, go beyond that target to God. Nor does the flow of love to my neighbor return to me so that I can say, “I am: I am patient, I am generous, I am loving, I am a good father, I am a good citizen, I am a good neighbor, I am self-sufficient, I am a hard worker. I am.” (1) If my virtue is for the sake of my own virtue, then I have used my neighbor for my own gain. I have treated my neighbor not as a person (let alone as Christ) but as a thing—I have used him. Even if it is cast in virtuous terms like self-sufficiency and hard work, I use him.

What is the purpose of your virtue or sanctification? What is the telos—goal, end, purpose?

The Christian is free from such a crushing burden. I don’t make myself holy (sanctified) or even virtuous. God sanctified me. He made me holy, and holy people perform holy acts. Paul went so far as to declare that Christians are “slaves to righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). In this “slavery,” we are free—free to love. But the Christian is at once sinner and saint. So there is a battle waging. It is a battle of death and resurrection. The old sinful nature is killed, and the new creation (Christ living in us) is raised to live a new life. Paul lays this out in Romans 6 in the context of baptism. Baptism is a death and a resurrection. It occurs once but also daily:

It occurs once with water, as an adoption into the family of God. It is done. It is a fact of history as real as yesterday’s stock market prices. Yet every time there is repentance and forgiveness, there is another death and another resurrection. It is a daily baptism. Every day, I die and rise.

  1. It is always dangerous to start too many sentences with “I am.” Those two words are reserved for someone higher. See Exodus 3:14 and John 6:35–51, 8:12, 10:7–14, 11:25, 14:6, and 15:1–5.