THE VIRTUE OF SELF-CONTROL

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Over the past few months, I have reflected on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.”   This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ. The reason that the New Testament writers focus on the virtues, is so that Christians can live and work joyfully and productively in community.

We find a similar list of virtues in 2 Peter presented as a plan for those who seek to make progress in the Christian life.

[Y]ou must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:5–8 NRSV).

To help understand the flow of the argument in 2 Peter, it is helpful to arrange the words in a different, more structured, way.

You must make every effort to support your:

Faith with goodness (lit. virtue)

Goodness with knowledge

Knowledge with self-control

Self-control with endurance

Endurance with godliness

Godliness with mutual affection (Gk. Philadelphian, lit. “brotherly love”)

Mutual affection with love

Love….

In the classical Greek thought of Aristotle, the word “virtue” refers literally to an “excellence,” a behavior, that we develop over time.  We gain virtue from practice.  Virtue, in other words, is gained much like a skill.  We learn as we fail and as we succeed, always building and growing.  We don’t gain virtue all at once but rather we develop it over time.

In 2 Peter we find the outlines of a program for the formation of Christian virtue; it begins with faith and ends with love, the pinnacle of Christian virtue (“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 1Cor. 13:13).  The purpose of the program is so that we may not be “ineffective” or “unfruitful.” In more positive terms, the program is presented so that our lives in Christ might bear fruit, genuine fruit.

When we compare the list of virtues that St. Paul identifies in Galatians 5:22-23 (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) with the list in 2 Peter, we find some similarities and differences.  “Patience” and “endurance” have similar, but not exact, meanings as do “gentleness” and “mutual affection” (lit. “brotherly love.”). [The virtue of endurance refers to the ability to hold up under difficult circumstances.  For that reason, I wrote about that virtue previously relating it to the “resilience” we need to bounce back from upsets, disappointments, and failures.]

The only two words, however, that are precisely the same in both Galatians and 2 Peter are “self-control” and “love.”

I would like to focus further attention on the virtue of “self-control.”  “The virtue of self-control” “involves the restraint of one’s emotions, impulses, and desires.” *

The New Testament writers were familiar with Greco-Roman philosophical ideas about moral virtue of self-control.  The idea was common to the Greek philosophies of Epicurus and Zeno, the father of Stoicism. It is also found in the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament. In Proverbs 25:28, for example, we read: “Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control.”

A staple of Hellenistic moralism, we find self-control central to the argument of 4 Maccabees, a book not found in our Bible, but one that is canonical in some Eastern Orthodox Churches.

[I]t is evident that reason rules over those emotions that hinder self-control, namely, gluttony and lust, it is also clear that it masters the emotions that hinder one from justice, such as malice, and those that stand in the way of courage, namely anger, fear, and pain (4 Mac. 1:4).

Modern psychological study and research now recognize that reason does not always go hand in hand with self-control, especially when it comes to addiction. People facing addiction realize all too readily that they have no power within themselves to control themselves. That is why the beginning of treatment starts with the recognition of the powerlessness of the human will in the face of addiction.

To live and work with others productively in community, we have to exercise some measure of self-control.  We should always think before we speak. In James 1:19 we find just such an admonition: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger….”  Notice it does not say quick to speak and slow to listen, but “quick to listen and slow to speak.”   Here a practical example is given to help us understand what it means to exercise self-control in our dealings with others.

The New Testament is full of advice on how to live together in community.  While there is much more I could say about this, the words of St. Paul sum it up best when he says that we should “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”  Striving to do that first and foremost lays the foundation for the “self-control” of our impulses and emotions.

*Michael J. Harrington, S.J, Jude and 2 PeterSacra Pagina Series. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2003), p. 244-5.

LOVE— PART 2

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This reflection is the second part of an exploration into the meaning of love in the letters of St. Paul. It is part of a larger collection of my reflections on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ.

The Fruit of the Spirit — Love, Part 2

The most familiar passage in the New Testament about love is perhaps the description we find of it in the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7).

In the film “Wedding Crashers” the two main characters, played by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, crash the wedding ceremony of an unsuspecting couple. As the pastor invites a reader to the lectern, Wilson whispers to Vaughn: “20 bucks, 1st Corinthians.”  Vaughn replies, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.” Then, in the background, the reader begins reading the first verse of 1 Cor. 13 — “Love is patient, love is kind…” — and Vaughn having lost the bet, pays up.

This vignette shows just how popular and well known the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians is to the general public, even to folks who may not know much about the contents of the New Testament.

While we immediately see the applicability of this passage from 1st Corinthians to the marriage of two people before God, in its original context this beautiful passage of Scripture was not written to describe Christian marriage.  St. Paul was writing to a Christian community to teach and direct them in the ways that they should love and respect each member of the church.  St. Paul addressed 1st Corinthians to a church divided by factions, each with its own set of conflicting interests, that bore witness to division and not to the mutual love and respect that should have been on display in that particular community.  St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church members, gently chastising them where necessary, but always with love and great respect.

At the beginning of the letter, he writes: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10. Throughout the ensuing letter, Paul urges the people of the church in Corinth to treat one another with mutual respect, as for example in 1 Cor. 10:24 when he writes, “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.”

St. Paul hopes to form a Christian community built on mutual respect and love.  In this community, each person is invaluable and irreplaceable.  For St. Paul, when we respect another person, we not only show respect to our own self, we respect the person of Jesus Christ who has called and incorporated the other into his own body, the Church.  That is why St. Paul can write the following sentences:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. … But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it(1 Cor. 12:12; 24-27v).

It might escape our notice, on first reading the beautiful words about the meaning and practice of genuine love in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, that the attributes of love that Paul describes in 1 Cor. 13 are those that usually are ascribed to God. St. Paul, however, desires earnestly that this sort of love be embodied in the behavior of the Christians living in the church to which he writes in Corinth.[1]

“Love is patient, love is kind….”  The description of what genuine love looks like on the ground in 1 Corinthians can also be used to flesh out the meaning of the virtues

St. Paul lists in Galatians 5: 22-23: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  The fruit of the Spirit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ, and love is first and foremost on that list.

Let’s examine St. Paul’s description of love one more time:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7). One thing that stands out that often runs counter to our own expectations is St. Paul’s statement that love “does not insist on its own way.”  This statement is often overlooked.  We sometimes seem to think that if someone truly loves us that they should agree with us in everything.  Personal relationships often falter on this very point. When we love someone, it does not mean that the other person always has to do things just the way we think they should be done.  Genuine love allows for genuine difference in our relationships. As long as there mutual respect and love exist, people can agree to disagree and still live together in loving relationships with one another.

A church that is faithful to Jesus Christ is a community shaped by the love of Jesus Christ in which people can agree to disagree on some things, but not on the essential character of the church, which is always formed by mutual respect and love for one another.

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13: 13).


[1] Raymond F. Collins; Daniel J. Harrington, ed., 1 CorinthiansSacra Pagina Series, volume 7 (Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1999), pp. 476 ff.

LOVE

“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:13)

Over the past few months, I have reflected on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ. The reason that the New Testament writers focus on the virtues is so that Christians can live and work joyfully and productively in community.

The most difficult Christian virtue to write about is love.  The word is used so often and in so many different contexts that its meaning is diffuse. Love in common parlance is used to refer both the object of our affection or desire and our relationship to it or someone else. We say, for example, that we love our spouse, our children, our parents, and our grandchildren while at the same time we say that we love chocolate ice cream.

Part of the confusion is caused by the fact the in the English language love is both a noun and a verb.  Love then is both a virtue and an action. When we speak about love in the context of a church community we usually distinguish between God’s love for us and our love for one another. Our love for one another in Christian community is always modeled on God’s love for us but God’s love is both beyond our capacity to understand and to enact fully in our lives.

Talking about the love God has for each of us can be so clichéd. We have heard about it so often and in such vague terms that it becomes meaningless. Krister Stendahl, the former Dean of Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Sweden who taught my seminary preaching class, gave his students the following advice: whenever you preach about God’s love, do so sparingly.  If you talk about it too much it will go in and out of the ears of your hearers almost immediately. They won’t hear it at all.  Remember, he said, when preaching that “a little love goes a long way.” That is why I saved writing about the virtue of love until last.

This post is the first of two in which I will begin to explore the meaning of love, particularly as we read about in the letters of St. Paul and other New Testament writers. The topic, of course, is enormous and a thousand books I fear would not be enough to exhaust it.  This article will examine the love of God for us and the love of one another in the community of the church.

Throughout the Old Testament, and most often in the Psalms, we find this refrain: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good for his steadfast love endures forever.”  The words “his steadfast love endures forever” occurs 42 times in the Old Testament.  The Hebrew word the NRSV translates as “steadfast love” is hesed.   It is often translated as “mercy” or perhaps even better as “loving-kindness.”

Mercy and loving-kindness are at the heart of God’s very being.  This is also reflected in the New Testament book of 1 John where we find these words: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).

For Christians, the model of love is Jesus Christ himself.  The love embodied in the person of Jesus Christ is not selfish but self-giving.  Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd, lays down his life for us.  The writer of the Gospel of John observes that “God loved the world so much that God gave his only begotten Son” for us and for our salvation.  (See Jn. 3:16). Or, as St. Paul puts it, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 NRSV). God’s love, in other words, is made most evident to us in the gift of God’s Son, Jesus, for us and for our salvation.

Throughout the New Testament, the example of God’s love as modeled for us in Jesus Christ is made the cornerstone of our love for one another.  The example of Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of how we should act towards one another in Christian community.  The author 1 John says this quite directly:

Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7–11)

Because God loved us so much, we ought to love one another. The model for how we are to love one another is shaped by the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. It is a cross-shaped love, a love willing to sacrifice the self on behalf of another. This love always looks first to the good of the other.  St Paul captures that spirit when he advises Christians on how to live together in community with these words: “Let love be genuine; …love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor “(Rom. 12:9-10).

St. Paul writes this immediately after he says: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function…. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom 12:4, 6).  In other words, St. Paul is saying that we all are not alike. We are different people with different abilities and gifts.  Our abilities, our greatest strengths, are not the same nor should they be. If we truly love other persons we should not try to shape them into our own image but rather seek to love and honor them, as God by virtue of our baptism has called the other into community with us.

Imagine what Christian community would be like if we each strove to outdo one another in showing honor to one another. What if we made a point to honor everyone for who and what they are, without criticism, without rancor, without bitterness, but sought first their welfare and dignity over that of our own? How might it change our life at home, at work, at church, and in the wider world?

As St. Paul says, “Think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

To be continued. In part 2, I will discuss the most familiar passage in the New Testament concerning love: the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. 

BEARING FRUIT

I have posted several meditations on what St. Paul calls the “fruit of the spirit” (Galatians 5:22). The last post focused on “Kindness.” In this post, I would like to reflect more generally on what this “fruit” might mean for you personally.

The “fruit of the spirit” refers to the virtues that genuine Christians should manifest in their daily lives in word and deed.  How should you as a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, live your life in relation to others?  How should you behave?  The answer St. Paul gives is that in everything we do and say, we should manifest the “fruit of the spirit” in our lives.  

The way we live and work with other people witnesses directly to our own spiritual formation and maturity. If we live in peace with one another, demonstrating our kindness, love, and generosity with others, we demonstrate that Christ indeed lives in us.  On the other hand, if we are angry most of the time, our lives do not witness to the love of Christ, something that all those who follow Jesus are called to embody and show to the world.  Jesus told his disciples very clearly that they were to love one another just as he had loved them.  

In the New Revised Standard of the Bible, the version used most often in the Episcopal Church today, St. Paul’s words are translated in this way: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness” (Gal 5: 22).

Each of these words contain a vast treasure of meaning for us.  After all, what does it really mean to love another person or to be a person of peace? How are we to be kind and gentle toward others? 

The Message is a paraphrased translation of the Bible. Eugene Peterson, its author, does not call his translation the Bible, as he does not want his version to be confused with more literal translations.  His version seeks to express what the passage means for us today in our current context using simple, but contemporary language. As a result, it functions best as a companion to more literal translations of the Bible.  I find that after I read a passage in the NRSV, I often want to see what Peterson makes of it in The Message

The paraphrase of Galatians 5:22-23 in the Message is as follows:      

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

The way in which Peterson unfolds what St. Paul means by the fruit of the spirit is brilliant: “[God] brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard….”   

The purpose of a fruit tree is to produce fruit.  Similarly, Jesus calls those who follow him to bear spiritual fruit by living a life that is genuinely Christ-like, a life that is peaceful, loving, gracious, forgiving, kind and generous towards one another.  

What kind of fruit are you bearing in your life?