Cultivating Virtue to Battle Vice

This article is an excerpt taken from the mini-series Education in Virtue and is part of the education materials published by Lumen Ecclesiae Press and used by over 500 schools around the world.

Fr. Boniface Endorf, OP

We all have an innate desire for happiness. We all crave and want it. Nobody says they want to be miserable, nor that they want to have a life of pain and suffering. Everybody wants a fulfilling, happy life; but what do we need in order to be happy?

Most people have come to realize that what we need is love. A life without any love — without a spouse, friends, children, parents, or any of these relationships that provide meaning — would be a life of real drudgery and misery. However, the issue is, to love we need freedom. You cannot demand or order somebody to love you. Instead, you have to have the freedom to give yourself in love.

This poses a problem because we find it quite hard in life to give of ourselves. This is the selfishness, the self-centeredness that we constantly find in our lives. Virtue helps us to overcome that, to overcome the sin and vice in our life. By sin, I mean acts of selfishness, acts that prevent us from acting in love. Vice is when we have a pattern or a habit in our lives that undercuts our freedom and our ability to love.  

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Vice is how we form a pre-disposition in our character, a habit of doing something time and time again. You could think of the person that tells a small lie and does it again and again; suddenly he finds that it is difficult to tell the truth. He has become so used to lying that the truth becomes a real challenge to give. This person is not free, because he is not free to speak the truth.

This is what vices do to us; they become like old vinyl records with the needle running along well-formed grooves. Vice is like that needle, going into that groove time and again, playing the same song. It becomes very difficult to change because you become used to that pattern. Virtue, on the other hand, gets us out of the pattern so that it no longer undercuts our freedom, our ability to love, and, thus, our ability to be happy. Instead, it gives us the freedom to give ourselves in love. Freedom is essential for virtue, and our virtue supports freedom.

Think of a newly married young man. He plays video games. He gets home from work, and he is trying to get to level 42 in this video game. He is going to be the first one in his group to get there, and he is really excited. His wife and children who have not seen him all day desperately want his attention, yet he can’t give it to them. As much as he realizes he should be with his wife and children, he just can’t do it because he has to get to the next level in the video game. His freedom has been compromised because he can’t take himself out of this game and give himself to the people that God has put into his life.

Virtue gives us the power to not get stuck in this kind of pattern and ultimately gives us control and possession over ourselves. Since you cannot give something you do not have, you cannot give yourself in love if you do not have possession of yourself.

The examples of the grooves on the records and the young man with the video game show that our choices throughout life determine who we become. All of these virtues and vices come from what we choose in our life: our daily decisions to tell the truth or to lie, to be present to our family or not, to seek justice or injustice. In other words, we determine whether we are free or not by the person we decide to be. And that is how we build virtue or vice in our life.

All of that fight to become virtuous, free, and loving has a wider context. It is not just common wisdom of how to live your life. There is rather a cosmic and theological context because of who Jesus Christ is. The greatest context started with the fall of Adam and Eve. In the Garden of Eden, where the serpent tempted Adam and Eve and they ate of the fruit, the serpent promised, “You can be like gods.” Satan asked Eve, “Did God tell you, you can’t eat from any of the trees of this garden?” However, Satan’s question itself included a lie because God’s rule simply said there was one tree they were not allowed to eat from. The implication of Satan is, “God hasn’t put you in a paradise, He’s put you in a desert. Look, there are no trees you can eat from. You’re going to starve if you follow God.” This thinking leads to fear and the pride of wanting to take things into our own hands. People think, “If God put me into a desert, I need to take care of myself. I need to grasp at that fruit and be like God so that I can make sure I survive.”

Adam and Eve, through their disobedience by rejecting God’s gifts, put a great chasm between God and man. That is the path of Adam and Eve: that disobedience, fear, pride, and inability to give themselves in love.

God did not leave that state of separation between God and man. He immediately worked to restore that union, providing Christ as a bridge between God and man. Like any bridge, Christ is anchored on both sides. Jesus’ God is in heaven, and Jesus’ man is on earth. He is anchored on both ends of that chasm and forms a bridge.

That is the spiritual life; that is the Christian life. It is passing that bridge from earth to heaven and becoming like Christ. It is a journey to cross the bridge, but it is not a journey by foot. We cannot just say take a right, then left, then you are at the bridge and cross over. It is an inner journey.

Ultimately, becoming like Christ means growing in the virtues. Virtues describe what it is like to be fully alive, fully human, to be as God made us to be. If you describe what the perfect person is like, you are going to state the virtues.

So, learning and living in the virtues is growing to be more and more like Jesus Christ. That is salvation. God gives us the power to transform ourselves – to be truly free, truly loving, and therefore truly happy. In all of that, God is preparing us for heaven.

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