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.

EUCHARISTIC COMMUNITY


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Note: This is a follow-up to my post “We are Eucharistic Beings” from November 20, 2018.

All of the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer are important. But the question that always stands out for me as a parish priest is, “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers?”

Making this promise puts us in continuity with the earliest church, the church of the apostles. In Acts 2:42 we read that the members of the earliest Christian community “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The central aspects of my ministry are shaped by this promise. I strive to teach and proclaim the apostolic faith of the church and to foster a Eucharistic community in which fundamental respect for the dignity of every person is not only welcomed but essential.

The other promises made in the Baptismal Covenant fall under this “devotion,” this commitment to living in a community formed by the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. We can only “respect the dignity of every human being” when we respect the members of our own community, the people we often know best but find most difficult to live with. In my ministry,  I find that people long for genuine community. They long for a place where they can love and be loved in return. This recapitulates the whole story of the Bible: God desires to form a people, first Israel and then the Church, who will love God and whom God will love in return.

In community, we have to learn to love people we do not necessarily like. That is why Christians need the Church. We need its community and fellowship if we are to grow and mature in our Christian lives. Christians need the church to teach them how to love others fully and to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”

The response to the baptismal questions is important to keep in mind: “I will with God’s help.” Remaining in communion and fellowship with others is not always easy. We can only do it with God’s help, and God is always present to assist.

When we promise to continue in “the breaking of bread” we acknowledge that we are Eucharistic “companions,” literally, persons with whom we share bread. In a true Eucharistic community, we do not have to agree on everything. We only have to agree to continue to break bread and share it with one another. In a Eucharistic community, I believe, genuine diversity and differences of opinion can live side by side because in community we fundamentally live for one other.

Finally, when we promise to “continue in the prayers” we make a fundamental commitment that we will lift up and honor all of God’s people, and the world in which we live, before God. Prayer reminds us that everything we have comes from God and that nothing we have comes from ourselves alone. We are “Eucharistic beings” who are created by God to give thanks. It is only when we offer prayer and thanks to God and when we care to the utmost for those who are different from ourselves — always respecting the dignity of every human being — that we live into our full humanity.