The Virtues of Virtue

Author Greg Koukl Published on 03/31/2013

Is happiness or virtue the greater good to see and cultivate in our lives?

I want to pick up on a theme that was introduced by a caller yesterday. She called and asked, “How do you deal with people, especially people that are in your charge, people that you are trying to encourage, build up, shepherd in some fashion, how is it that you deal with them when they encounter tremendous adversity in their life? And how legitimate or useful is it to tell them that God is using it for good in their life?” God is using it to develop their character. Something good is going to come out of it, some variation of the promise in Romans 8:28 that we know that “God causes all things to work for good for those who love God and for those who are called according to His purposes.”

Part of my answer was what I think is one of the most important things I could ever tell you that would equip you to lead a significant and full life. Now, I would normally say a significant and full life as a Christian, but it is not just pertaining to Christians, as I think about it. This is for anyone to lead a significant and full life. That is to understand the true nature of life and the world that we live in. Especially for the Christian, this is important because unfortunately I think Christians are more out of touch with life as it really is than people who do not have a belief in God or a religious perspective, and therefore they don’t have any predisposition to want to candy coat the world. Christians often times do because they think it’s their Christian duty to make everything look good and to act like they are happy and satisfied through every circumstance. It’s harder for Christians sometimes when the pains of life occur because they don’t expect this kind of thing. He thinks that God is supposed to protect him from that.

The most important thing that I could tell you about life, not as an apologist, not as a defender of the faith, but as a brother, as a friend, is that life—especially the Christian life—is often perplexing, and it’s punctuated with periods of pain and anguish, and sometimes that pain and that anguish is great. Now the reason that I am bringing this up is because, as Dennis Prager has said, “happiness is a serious problem.” It’s a serious problem because it gives people wrong goals in life and it gives them wrong expectations about what life is. And especially if you have a belief in a God that is good and a God that is somewhat committed to redeem your life and to make good out of your life, then we cast that promise in an expectation that focuses on our emotional state, not an expectation that focuses on our character. This is a significant stumbling block for people. It’s a mistake. Without being condemning—and I don’t mean to be—but it really is the spirit of the world to think this way, to think that what God is principally concerned with is our emotional state, our happiness, when that is just simply not the case. God is not principally concerned with our happiness. He is principally concerned with our character.

This brings us to the admonition or the attempt at encouragement when we face somebody who is dealing with something very, very difficult. We try to explain to them that God is using this for good in their life. This kind of counsel usually falls on deaf ears, at best, or seems cruel at worst, for the person who holds the belief that the greatest virtue in life is personal happiness. Why? Because they do not see how such difficulty and pain and sorrow and tragedy in their life can possibly contribute to their happiness in the future. We as their counselors try to soften the impact of their pain by trying to suggest in some convoluted way that this will actually cash out in increased happiness down the line. God will give you something that you will be happier with. He has closed this door to open a window for you—a better job down the line where you will have more fun and be more satisfied and make more money.

We are still trying to interpret God’s actions in our lives in terms of how it will increase our personal happiness, so it should not be surprising when counsel like that gets shoved back down our throat by a person who is hurt and now is angry at us for saying that kind of thing. Why are they angry? Because it doesn’t ring true to someone who’s in the midst of it, and I would say it doesn’t ring true principally because it’s not true. It’s false.

Future happiness, ladies and gentlemen, is not the issue. It simply is not. God’s goal is not to instill happiness such that we have to interpret every circumstance in light of how God may change these things and use them down the line to make us into happier people. God’s goal is not happiness, it’s to instill character. It’s not to make us blissful, but to make us virtuous. Are they inconsistent with each other? Not necessarily.

You ask the average person in the street what it is that he wants from life and he will tell you, “I want to be happy.” You ask what a parent wants of their child and they will say, “I want my children to be happy.” And it’s understandable that they would want those kinds of things. My simple point is that I personally feel it is one of the most worthless of all goals. I don’t know if happiness can be a goal, frankly. I think happiness is a very self-focused goal. In fact, it can’t be a goal because it seems that happiness usually is the outgrowth of something else. This is why when I mentioned earlier that I don’t think that God’s goal is to make us happy but to instill character, to make us virtuous. I don’t think the two are inconsistent with each other.

If we focus on that which I believe God is focusing on—our lives—happiness may often be the characteristic result. Happiness and virtue are not incompatible. In fact, I would argue that the deepest satisfaction from life comes not from being happy but from having virtue. And by the way, I suspect that most of us in a quiet and more candid moment really knows this to be true. We know that virtue is it’s own reward and when we do things that are deeply virtuous we experience a deep sense of satisfaction. We look at the people that are most virtuous who have not sought fun or happiness but virtue. And we look at them with a special kind of respect as if we intuitively know that what they have done is something that is patently more valuable than what we might be doing when we are seeking happiness or fun in life. So I really believe that the two ultimately go hand in hand.

But listen to this. When happiness becomes the principle goal, as opposed to right living, when we let the tail wag the dog, so to speak, we invite all sorts of confusion. We hear a statement like, “How could God let this happen?” If you think about it for a moment here is what that statement really means. Here’s the question that is really being asked. How could God allow me to face difficulty, pain and disappointment? How could God allow this tragedy in my life? And my response is, how could He not?

Do we expect that God is going to cover us with some kind of magical bubble and protect us from every contingency of living in a fallen world? Do we expect that He would protect us from the harm that other people will to do, but not protect other people from the harm that we will to do to them? If we deeply know and have been taught that this is what life with God entails—pain and suffering and difficulty, that’s part of the package—if we’ve been taught that God doesn’t isolate us from the contingencies of living in a fallen world, but rather He redeems us in the midst of them, or as one of my teachers told me early on in the Christian life that Christ is not the bridge over troubled waters but He will pull you through the troubled waters if you can stand the tow—if we understand that, I honestly don’t believe that this other question will ever come up or will come up very often.

If we understand that this is the way the game is played, this is what it’s about, then we aren’t going to ask the question so frequently. We will not allow the question to be an indictment on God because we realize that this is life and these are the kinds of things that are the most vital factors in our lives to make us the kind of people we truly and deeply want to be.

Frankly, I’m always a bit mystified by the person who asks, how could God allow this young person to die, or this earthquake to happen, or a war to happen? Fill in the blank. People ask the question all the time when tragedy strikes. I think the question itself shows a profound misunderstanding of both God and life.

I think it is possible to develop a point of view and understanding that would place us in a position to be more capable of dealing with life as it truly is. Simply put, I think it’s possible to develop and to prepare us for the development of character and virtue in our lives. One of the ways to do that is to breed the expectation of such a thing. In other words, we don’t tell our children or our friends or potential Christian people untruths, lies essentially. We don’t tell them that life is meant to be a bowl of cherries and that God will make life all wonderful and peaceful without difficulty. We should tell them the truth.

We tell them that life is filled with joys and pains together. And what God will help you to do is to get more in touch with both of them, to help you live real life more powerfully. When the hard things beset us He can actually use the hard things to do the thing that is most important—not make us happy, not thrill us, not give us more fun, but make us deeper people and allow us to lead a more meaningful life. God can do that for us. That’s one of the advantages of having God around. God is not the scapegoat for our anger and frustration when life deals us a rough hand. He’s there to partner with us in working through it. It’s possible to develop that.

I think we can develop virtue and character in a couple of different ways. The first way is through the inspiration and example of other people. The second way that we can do that is through using literature to harness the imagination for the purpose of moral training. Both of these, by the way, are useful even in the context of a so-called pluralistic society because virtues are the kinds of things that it seems that most people acknowledge are valuable. Thrift, hard work, kindness, mercy, forgiveness, love, good manners, and valuing other people will help us solve a tremendous amount of moral difficulties and moral problems if we focus on the development of virtues.

There are two ways that you can do to encourage your children or your friends to be virtuous, or even develop virtue yourself. The first way is just simply looking at people who are virtuous. This is the value of having heroes. This is the value of moral heroes, in particular—not anti-heroes, not bad guys that become heroes—but moral heroes—the people that sacrifice and suffer, the Albert Schweitzers of the world, the Mother Theresas of the world.

I mentioned a month or so ago that I saw the movie Tombstone. One of the things I liked about the movie was that it presented Wyatt Eerp and his two brothers as heroes, not as the overly machismo-type, but as men who were willing to stand in the gap and have their blood shed to protect innocent people. Wyatt Eerp was a type of hero in that way. A virtue that was being expressed in that, and when we watch that virtue in action, we are compelled in some measure to manifest a virtue in our own lives. I think that’s a wonderful thing. I have often recommended movies simply because those movies have that impact on me.

Reading from the book Why Johnnie Can’t Tell Right From Wrong written by William Kilpatrick, he talks about the moral crisis in our schools. He makes this point. “One of the best ways to teach virtues is in conjunction with history and literature. That way students can see that they are more than abstract concepts. In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Season, we see a remarkable combination of all four virtues in one man, Sir Thomas Moore.” Incidentally, that has been made into a film twice, and I highly recommend viewing the older version with Paul Scofield. If you would just view that film with Paul Scofield you will understand what I am talking about. This is a man who struggles with virtues and manifests them at great personal expense. That motivates you to want to be like that person.

Kilpatrick goes on to say, “The plot of High Noon revolves around the tension among justice, courage, and prudence. To Kill a Mocking Bird shows one kind of courage. The Old Man and the Sea another, measure for measure. And The Merchant of Venice teaches about justice. Moby Dick depicts a man who has lost all sense of prudence and proportion.... In the story of David and Bathsheba we are shown a much harsher view of a man who yields to his desires.” Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why I thought the movie Camelot was so good, the musical from the sixties with Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave. It showed the destructiveness of adultery, especially in the life of a man who had high ideals and wanted to have an impact for good in the world. There was a moral in that; it was moral instruction to watch this movie.

This is why I think it is so important for parents to demonstrate virtuous living before their children because virtue is something that can be caught, and it will be caught by those who are in a position to respect you.

The second way to develop virtue is through using literature to harness the imagination for the particular purpose of moral training. Often times I have recommended one particular chapter out of a book by C.S. Lewis. The book is called The Screwtape Letters, and although the whole book and many of his other writings are excellent, chapter eight in The Screwtape Letters is one of the most profound things I’ve ever read that pertains to the issue of Christians struggling with adversity. Here you have a fictitious character, a demon named Screwtape who’s writing a letter to his charge, his disciple Wormwood. Screwtape is teaching Wormwood how to deal with Christians, how to thwart them. The instruction is the foil that Lewis uses to give instruction to the Christian on right living. And there’s a tremendous encouragement in chapter eight of The Screwtape Letters that has to do with, as Lewis calls it, “the law of undulation,” and how to deal with the ups and downs of Christian living.

There was also a very wonderful book that has been assembled precisely to the end of using literature to harness the imagination for the purpose of moral training. The book is called The Book of Virtues. It’s a very, very popular book now. It was compiled by William J. Bennett. It’s a thick book—almost a thousand pages. It has all these wonderful stories in it. I’m going to read you a couple in just a moment. These are actually stories that are meant to capture the moral imagination and stimulate the birth of virtues in the one who reads them.

Remember Aesop’s Fables you used to read as a kid. All of Aesop’s Fables were stories that had characters that went through a drama in their life. There is a moral at the end of every story. You remember the moral because you remember the story. This is something that helps not just children but adults, as well, to get moral education. The story itself conveys the truth and the value of virtuous living. I’m going to read a couple of things to you that are excellent examples of literature that teaches virtue.

In reading the story you will see the powerful impact that it can have in influencing a person’s life to accomplish and do and be the kind of person that the story depicts here. Most of the stories start with just a short couple of sentences of introduction, I presume added by William J. Bennett himself. It begins, “Webster defines our manners as ‘our morals shown in conduct.’ Manners are morals shown in conduct. Good people stick to good manners, as this story from a turn of a century reader reminds us.” The author here is Allisia Aspen Wall and here’s how the story goes. The story is called “Please.”

There was once a little word named Please that lived in a small boy’s mouth. Pleases live in everybody’s mouth, though people often forget that they are there.

Now all Pleases to be kept strong and happy should be taken out of the mouth very often so they can get air. They’re like little fish in a bowl, you know, that come popping up to the top of the water to breath.

Now the Please I’m going tell you about lived in the mouth of a boy named Dick. But only once in a long while did it have a chance to get out. For Dick, I’m sorry to say, was a very rude little boy. He hardly ever remembered to say “Please.”

“Give me some bread! I want some water! Give that book!” This is the way he’d ask for things. His father and mother felt very bad about this and, as for the poor Please itself, it would sit up on the roof of the boy’s mouth day after day hoping for a chance to get out. It was growing weaker and weaker every day.

This boy Dick had a brother John. Now John was older than Dick. He was almost ten, and he was just as polite as Dick was rude, so his Please had plenty of fresh air and was strong and happy.

One day at breakfast Dick’s Please felt that he must have some fresh air even if he had to run away, so out he ran, out of Dick’s mouth and took a long breath. Then he crept across the table and jumped right into John’s mouth.

The Please who lived there was very angry. “Get out,” he cried, “you don’t belong here, this is my mouth!”

“Oh, I know it,” replied Dick’s Please. “I live over there in that brother’s mouth, but alas, I’m not happy there. I’m never used. I never get a breath of fresh air. I thought you might be willing to let me stay here for a day or so until I felt stronger.”

“Why, certainly,” said the other Please kindly. “I understand. Stay, of course, and when my master uses me we will both go out together. He’s kind and I’m sure he would not mind saying please twice. Stay as long as you like.”

That night at dinner John wanted some butter and this is what he said. “Father would you pass the butter, please, please?”

“Certainly,” said Father, “but why so very polite?”

John did not answer he was turning to his mother and said, “Mother, will you give me a muffin, please, please?”

His Mother laughed, “You shall have the muffin, dear, but why do you say please twice?”

“I don’t know,” answered John. “The words seem just to jump out somehow.”

“Katie, please, please, some water.” This time John was almost frightened.

“Well, well,” said Father, “there’s no harm done. You can’t be too pleasing in this world.”

All this time little Dick had been calling, “Give me an egg! I want some milk! Give me that spoon!,” in the rude way he had. But now he stopped. He listened to his brother. He thought it would be fun to try to talk like John. So he began, “Mother will you give me a muffin, mmmm?” He was trying to say please but how could he? He never guessed that his own little Please was sitting in John’s mouth. So he tried again and asked for the butter. “Mother, will you pass me the butter, mmmm?” That was all he could say.

So it went on all day and everyone wondered what was the matter with those two boys. When night came they were both so tired and Dick was so cross that their mother sent them to bed very early.

But the next morning, no sooner had they sat down to breakfast than Dick’s Please ran home again. He’d had so much fresh air the day before that now he was feeling quite strong and happy. And the very next moment he had another airing, for Dick said, “Father, will you cut my orange, please?” Why the word slipped out as easily as could be. It sounded just as well as when John said it. John was saying only one please this morning.

And from that time on little Dick was just as polite as his brother.

Now, isn’t that a great little story? It’s not only fun to read and to listen to, but don’t you just feel a little bit more like saying please next time around? Here is literature which makes use of your imagination to help develop virtue.

Here’s a little poem called “Results and Roses” by Edgar Guest.

The man who wants a garden fair,
Or small, or very big,
With flowers growing here and there
Must bend his back and dig.
The things are mighty few on earth
That wishes can attain.
What e’er we want of any worth
We’ve got to work to gain.
It matters not what goal you seek,
It’s secret here reposes.
You’ve got to dig from week to week
To get results or roses.

There’s a little three stanza, twelve line poem that probably wouldn’t be too hard for your children to memorize.

This one is a little bit longer written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called “The Village Blacksmith.” Longfellow said that he wrote this poem in praise of an ancestor, and it was suggested to him by a smith beneath a Horse Chestnut tree at his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Here is the character of a true, honest, willing laborer. It’s surely one of the most appealing images in American verse,” Bennett writes in the introduction to this piece. I’ve read this in the past and was very taken with it because not only does it sounds nice, it also has a wonderful encouragement. I’ll only read a portion of it to you, but I think you’ll get the point.

Under a spreading Chestnut tree
The village smithy stands.
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands,
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
His hair is crisp and black and long.
His face is like the tan.
He earns what e’er he can
And looks the whole world in the face
For he owes not any man.
Week-in, week-out, from morn till night
You can hear his bellows blow.
You can hear him swing his heavy sledge
With measured beat and slow
Like a sexton ringing the village bell
When the evening sun is low.
He goes on Sunday to the church
And sits among his boys.
He hears the parson pray and preach
And hears his daughters voice,
Singing in the village choir,
And it makes his heart rejoice.
Toiling, rejoicing, sorrowing,
Onward life goes.
Each morning sees some task begin,
Each evening sees it’s close.
Something attempted, something done,
Has earned a nights repose.
Thanks, thanks to thee, my worthy friend,
For the lesson thou hast taught.
Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought.
Thus on it’s sounding end wilt shape
Each burning deed and thought.

You see, ladies and gentlemen, I’m not talking about clear thinking. I’m talking about sound living. You want to be skilled at life? It takes more than being able to manage your finances, or keeping your home in order, or making sure there’s food on the table. It means being able to manage yourself. In fact, if you can’t manage yourself then you probably won’t be able to do the other things very well either. I think the best way to learn self-management is to teach self-management.

A good way to develop virtue is through the inspiration and examples of others, and also by using literature to harness the imagination for the purpose of moral training. I can think of no better book to do that than The Book of Virtues by William J. Bennett.