Sometimes I feel conflicted when I think about the idea of being a virtuous person, or more specifically, a virtuous Christian. For most of my adult life I have been steeped in language and theology rooted in God’s grace. I have absorbed the messages, teachings, and scriptures that remind me of my need to be rescued by Jesus as much as those whose actions I abhor; that my community needs to be rescued by Jesus as much as those with values that differ from mine; that my political party, faith denomination, or any other group I align myself with need to be rescued by Jesus as much as those with whom I disagree. I believe in the truths of God’s grace, in part, because they make sense to me. They line up with my lived experience.
So, when I encounter the subject of virtues, the song that plays on repeat in my head tells me I can’t do anything to make myself more acceptable to a holy and perfect God because Jesus already accomplished all that needed to be done. I can’t do anything to make myself a better Christian because there is no such thing as a better Christian.
The Bible includes these words:
For this very reason, you 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 (2 Peter 1:5–7 NRSV).
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:8 NRSV).
But whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:5–6 NRSV).
As I hear these verses preached and quoted—many times in ways that fail to demonstrate the grace of God—I’m left with a complicated relationship with the idea of what it means to be a virtuous Christian.
Does Virtue Matter?
Thank goodness Amy Peterson’s latest book, Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy, meets me in that tension and offers a framework for exploring various virtues. She writes about lament, kindness, hospitality, purity, modesty, authenticity, love, discernment, and hope with a humble acknowledgment that she isn’t perfect and that those who have distorted what it means to be virtuous aren’t horrible. She explores each virtue with a sort of curiosity that invites readers to exercise their own curiosity, striking a nice balance in writing about her own experiences, other people, and examples from scripture.
Peterson opens with a chapter on lament that sets the tone by describing some of her own experiences. She writes, “Lament is the practice of mourning what is wrong in the world and calling on God to repair it.” This sentence may well sum up the book because I believe it is, as a whole, an act of lament for Peterson. As she walks through each of the nine virtues, she points out what’s wrong with the way we’ve interpreted them and shows how God is repairing our perspective.
But the book is also a movement toward hope. Growing up, Peterson admits that she thought of hope in terms of finality—something springing from the truth that Jesus will rescue us from this doomed earth and take us to our eternal home, whereas everyone who rejects Jesus will spend eternity in hell. Over time, her thoughts about hope evolved such that now she sees it as expecting that “Jesus will do what he said he would do: he will return to earth—this earth—and he will marry it to heaven.” This hope requires more than waiting around for rapture. It invites us to participate by anticipating the coming of Jesus’s kingdom. “Practicing hope means seeking justice, caring for the earth, making and celebrating beauty, awakening others to curiosity about their lives, and proclaiming through these actions that God is God, that death and corruption don’t win, that despite all evidence to the contrary, every part of this world is precious, and rescue is on the way.” This is the hope I want because it satisfies my longing for more than simply escaping hell.
Rooting Virtue in Grace
One of my favorite chapters, “Authenticity,” begins with Peterson describing what it meant for her to be “real” as an evangelical teenager growing up in the south. It was a tension-filled environment where everyone desperately wanted to be authentic but craved even more the comfort that came with hiding their true selves. Her assessment of the contemporary understanding of authenticity shows there hasn’t been much improvement. She finds the current state of authenticity best illustrated by well-known examples like people “speaking their own truth,” a spontaneous president who revels in backlash, and a rejection of liturgical prayer formulas in favor of more modern patterns littered with the phrase “Lord, we just” and several utterances of “Father” thrown in for good measure.
To be an authentic disciple today, argues Peterson, means inhabiting Christ and being inhabited by Christ in unique ways. We are formed into disciples through habits like studying scripture, praying prayers that remind us our identities are defined by who we are in Christ, and moving toward rituals, symbols, and ceremonies that help us know and believe the gospel. Comparing the kind of authenticity she knew as a teenager to the authenticity she desires to embrace today, she writes:
What can move authenticity from being an adolescent virtue to a mature one is understanding that to be authentic is not to tap some inner well of individuality and spew emotion from there; to be authentic is to practice playing the role I’ve been given in God’s drama until I inhabit it fully—the role of disciple, of one who is in Christ, one who is clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Col. 3:12). I will inhabit it differently than anyone else, but I don’t seek to be unique; I seek to be conformed.
These are the kinds of explorations that help readers consider what it means to be a virtuous Christian. The final words of this chapter speak to my heart, my soul, and my confusion about how virtues intersect with the grace we receive from God through Christ. Peterson tells her readers this: “The most authentic Christian is the one who is every day practicing her lines for the role she has been given: sinner, saved by and growing in grace.” Amen.
I’m still pondering the ways grace and virtues are entwined. My grace-based theology tells me any hint of virtues evident in my life are the result of the grace and love I receive. Since I became a Christian twenty-five years ago, I have been transformed by the power and presence of God in my life. I have become more aware of the power and presence of God in the lives of others and in world around me. And I have become more of who I was created to be, which means I am more virtuous than I was before. Reading Where Goodness Still Grows makes me want to be more virtuous. Especially since it’s my response to God's invitation that Peterson happened to deliver to me through her book and her words.
Cover image by S. Laiba Ali.