Vogues of Virtues

Editors Note: This post was contributed to by D.W. Syme.

Introduction

I can recall the time in churches when Maranatha! music was all the rage. Everyone was wanting to put on their own God With Us contada. And now I doubt anyone even knows what I write of. Judgement Houses were also huge in the mid nineties. A sort of Christian house of horror with an invitation at the end so you would not go the hell you just took a walking tour of. Humans are prone to fads, fashions, and vogues. Musical, theological, ecclesiastical, you name it the western church has given it the old college try. As well individual Christians are susceptible to trends. It is usually the elevation of some specific pet virtues over all others. For example David Platt and Tim Keller and the emphasis to live in cities for incarnation ministry. Or legalism where the refusal to partake in lawful but easily abusable gifts of God was iron clad. Today we have our own vogues of virtues, and as in previous cases the elevation of some over others has created a lopsided and unhealthy church body. Rather than poke at the over inflated virtues, I would like to look at the neglected ones. Perhaps to bring them up alongside in the hope of properly ballasting the ship.

Thanksgiving

Lest this begin to appear to be a particular hobbyhorse on this blog, I would again emphasize that the lack of gratitude, not only in a secular society, but specifically in the church has been the gateway to all the other vices that are to follow. a greedy and discontented people that focus on what they lack rather than what they have are, in short, committing the original sin of Adam. With laser like focus people zero in on that which God, in is eternal wisdom, has denied them.

God says to Adam and Eve: See what I have made you. Behold a creation with shape that cries out for shaping, with a meaning waiting to be meant by somebody. I challenge you to a game of oblation. My serve first. Watch now! Watch trees and grass, watch earth and mountains and hills; watch wells, seas, and floods, and whales and all that move in the water. Catch! Catch beasts and cattle and men and women; catch winter and summered frost and cold; catch nights and days and lightenings and clouds; catch omnia opera Domini – catch them, and return the service!

And Adam and Eve say to God: Wait a minute; I didn’t hear you mention that tree over there. And God’s jaw drops.

Look, God says, that’s only the foul line. Forget it; it’s just a rule. I have my reasons for it, but it’s in a good place, believe me. If I can provide the court and the game trust me to make the rules to play it by. After all you haven’t even returned the service yet. Try it again – my serve.

And once more across the net of the world, come ice and snow and light and darkness, fire and heat and dews and frosts, winds of God and fowls of the air, and omnia germinantia in tetra. And this time Adam and Eve thrown down their racquets, and with an edge in their voices say: But what about that tree? – R.F. Capon, An Offering of Uncles

We long to be the ones to determine the foul line and then cry high dudgeon when we realize that God is well on the other side of it. Rather than look about us and realize that there is very little that he has refused us. We stand in his garden surrounded by reproducing gifts eyeing that one heavy bough with a serpent coiled around it. This kind of thinking leads to all manner of other sins. If God has failed, by our estimation, to be good and generous then there is no reason to thank him for anything, or to follow any of his other pesky commandments that do not align with our current worldview. God has sinned against us so we, like Israel in a bad decade, have turned to the idols of our neighbors, gleefully jettisoning those requirements of holiness that the chintzy old God imposed on us. Or to put a finer point on it. We want fire insurance but refuse to pay for it while playing with gasoline and matches. How dare we not be covered, doesn’t God know that socialism is a perfect form of government?

“Remember, in every loss there is only a suffering. But in every discontentment there is a sin, and one sin is worse than a thousand sufferings.” – Thomas Watson, Art of Divine Contentment

Joy

A close second offender is Joy. Contentment and gratitude flow naturally from joy and flow back into it. Like an M.C. Escher pen and ink all of the virtues are connected. The more you are thankful for such things as you have the more joy you possess, the more joy an delight you take in Christ the more grateful you will be for his lavish gifts. Joy is cultivated, it flashes through the dark night of the soul with brilliant clarity. It hints at you longing to be possessed and grown.

“[Joy] must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again … I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.” – C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy

“It jumps under one’s ribs and tickles down one’s back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o’ nights. It shocks one awake when the other puts one to sleep. My private table is one second of joy is worth 12 hours of Pleasure.” – C.S. Lewis, in a personal letter to Mrs. Ellis*

Joy is first beheld then held. But in an era more devoted to exegeting grievance studies joy is strenuously avoided. It is self medicated away by counterfeits that terminate on themselves rather than rolling up into glory and praise. Blackout curtains are thrown up to insulate us from the brilliant flashes of real pleasure which arc back to the source. Without joy we are a sad aggrieved people looking for our next slight to be enraged by so that we may feel something.

Forgiveness/grace

“Forgiveness should neither be demanded nor assumed.” Jemar Tisby – White Christians, do not cheapen the hug and message of forgiveness from Botham Jean’s brother**

There is much more to this article. In brief the context is that in the trial of Amber Guyger who murdered Botham Jean, the brother of the murdered, Brandt Jean, offered an explicit gospel message and his personal forgiveness. He hugged the convicted and reportedly even the judge in the case offered her a personal Bible. Jeramy Tisby is an American, reformed pastor. I would like to draw your attention to the fact that he as postulated that forgiveness is not demanded. I beg to differ. It absolutely is.

“But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” – Matthew 6:15

“Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” – Colossians 3:13

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:32

Consider also that bitterness, the natural end of unforgiveness, in Scripture is always associated with the demonic. Should the general insistence to withhold forgiveness until whatever nebulous demands are met be considered directly from hell? I would say so. A unified church is a terror to Satan, the gates of Hell can not withstand us. But if divided by grievances to one another… the pickings become quite easy. The goal being to take those things we hold most dear and turn them against one another. If I may paraphrase Screwtape:

“I think I warned you before that if your patient can’t be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don’t mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. And it isn’t the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice. The real fun is working up hatred between those who [are] “woke” and those who are “conservative” when neither party could possible state the difference between, say, The Frankfurt School and William F. Buckleys’, in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things – protests and MAGA hats and what not – are an admirable ground for activities. We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other inessentials – namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. [You would expect to find the “conservative” churchman genuflecting and doffing his MAGA cap lest the weak conscience of his “woke” brother should be moved to rebellion, and the “woke” one standing for the national anthem lest he should betray his “conservative” brother into Christian Nationalism.] And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labor. Without that the variety of usage within the evangelical church might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility.” – Screwtape (C.S. Lewis), The Screwtape Letters; Letter XVI

Which leads to grace. Forgiveness and grace work hand in hand. Without the substitutionary atoning work of Christ we would all be damned. But in the Grace of God we are offered forgiveness of our sins. Yet it is implied, heavily, in the church today that both of these must be withheld until, “the other side” bucks up. It would seem that the greater the sin the longer the wait, and the louder the condemnation. Yes law has been trespassed, therefore grace should overflow like Niagara.

“Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” – Romans 5:20

Consider, you did not ask to be saved. God knowing the full expanse of your sin, which was an offense and assault against him, chose you before the foundation of the world in his grace and offered up his only son as a propitiation for your sin in order that he would lavish on you forgiveness. Grace and forgiveness from christians should be assumed because it is demanded by Christ.

Long-suffering/patience

Enough ink has been splashed about the place aimed at that tormenting devil which is our age of immediacy. We are not a patient people, and that is a sin enough in itself. But if we are not patient then the very idea of being long-suffering is anathema. We want our sufferings to be short. I believe this to be one of the areas where the Authorized Version has a leg up on more current translations. We are taught now the far more benign term that can be tweaked to each meaning and even make one feel a bit proud. Consider the following comparison:

“With all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love;” – Ephesians 4:2 KJV

“With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,” – Ephesians 4:2 ESV

Lowliness, long-suffering, forbearing… These all seem like quite a lot more work than perhaps we would like. Humility has tripped common Christians up for ages, but lowliness well quite frankly that mindset does make it harder to look about and think, “by jove I’m being lowly!” and have the spell broken. Lowly is, just being lower than others when we would rather advance above others. Forbearing is lovingly putting up with someone in advance. Not just in the moment that they are irritating. And long-suffering, to suffer at length. It negates the perceived right to hit you limit and then let em have it with both barrels. None of these are popular, if we are honest we would rather the softer words that seem to be spiritually attainable but give us leeway to tell the Holy Ghost where he can step out for ten while we handle things.

Where I show my Reformed Cards

All of the reasons to cherry pick the virtues and fill our basket with the choicest of the virtues that allow us to look spiritual and still rage at our social, racial, or political enemies is a failure. It is an enormous failure if you claim to hold to the Doctrines of Grace, which is shorthand for you have failed to believe the Gospel. A faith that demands penance from the opposition, redistribution of their goods, or an elevation of a persecuted class is no gospel at all. It is a doctrine of Hell. God is sovereign, he and he alone will judge the quick and the dead, he will bless and curse in his own way, he will raise up and tear down as he pleases. To attempt to arrest control from him due to impatience, envy, or bitterness shows a failure to understand who he is and who you are O man. He will not share his glory with another.

At the same time the Doctrines of Grace show us that our hope is ultimately in him and we have nothing to fear from man. Despite the sin in the church, the twisting of doctrines to let in foul streams of progressive bile, God is turning all to our good and his own glory. Though we are enduring heaps of foolishness, forked out of many pulpits, it will all burn away. God has a much better project in mind, and he will complete it. On this we rest.

For by the disaster of his charity, God plays out at last the Game that began with the dawn of history. In the Garden of Eden – in the paradise of pleasure where God laid out the court and first served the hint of meaning to humankind – Adam strove with God over the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But God does not accept thrown down racquets. He refuses, at any cost, to take seriously our declination of the game; if Adam will not have God’s rules God will play by Adam’s. In another and darker garden he accepts the tree of our choosing, and with nails through his hands and feet he volleys back meaning and unmeaning. As the darkness descends, at the last four drive of a desperate day he turns the the turf on the right and brings off the dazzling backhand return that fetches history home in triumph: Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise. – R.F. Capon, An Offering of Uncles

*https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/09/unseen-cs-lewis-letter-defines-joy-surprised-by-joy

**https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2019/10/03/white-christians-do-not-cheapen-hug-message-forgiveness-botham-jeans-brother/

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