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Virtue and Absent Vice

  • Tony Woodlief WORLD Magazine
  • 2011 10 Oct
  • COMMENTS
Virtue and Absent Vice

(WNS)--I recently had the chance to speak with a classroom full of young people studying business. The topic I was asked to address was humility. I warned them that asking me to do that was like asking the devil to lecture on chastity, which itself came off like false humility, which was precisely my point.

All the same, humility was the question of the day, namely, what is it and how much does it matter in business? The latter question was and is the easiest with which to dispense; everyone agrees it matters, if only because we all despise co-workers and bosses who don’t have a shred of it.

Defining it was a tougher matter. The text we were using seemed to define it by its opposite, namely, as a lack of observable arrogance. But this wasn’t very satisfying to any of us because we all thought there has to be something more to virtue than the absence of vice. One student paraphrased C.S. Lewis to the effect that humility is the realistic understanding of what one can and can’t do. We worked on that a bit, adding that it involves constant self-assessment, open acknowledgement of our flaws, and a willingness to hand over authority when someone else can do a better job.

In other words, humility, like all virtue, has an active component. Of course, this notion of virtue as being more than the absence of vice isn’t new, but for some reason it got me thinking about my early training as a Christian, how so much of the community life to which I was exposed seemed to be based on the opposite assumption, that virtuous living is simply vice-free living.

Think about it. For example, the primary focus of the men’s accountability group is a weekly recounting of one’s infractions and temptations. You’ve had a good week when you were less lustful, a bad week when you lingered too long past the lingerie section in Walmart.

Of course, one can hardly live a virtuous life when one is reveling in vice, and sin certainly sickens us to the point that our understanding becomes darkened (Ephesians 4:18). But as I think on the many men I know who fall again and again, I wonder how much this is due to a mentality that is about cultivating the habit of not sinning rather than cultivating a habit of loving God, which has always been active in the living out of love toward one’s brother, neighbor, enemy.

How many of us, having poured ourselves out even for only one solid day in service to others, have found much time or energy to sin at the end of it? On the other hand, how often do we struggle minute-to-minute not to have a drink or look at a wicked video or do something far worse when our entire day is occupied primarily with not doing evil?

It puts me in mind of my brother, who has told me on more than one occasion that he hates going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings because all anyone talks about there is drinking. It’s hard to not do something you find pleasurable when all you think about is how you ought not be doing it.

Maybe it all boils down to the old saw that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. But I wonder sometimes if in our rush to form accountability groups, discuss the latest Christian living book, and otherwise occupy ourselves with rising above sin, we aren’t missing a simpler, more effective alternative, which is to spend more of our time thinking about someone other than ourselves, and something other than that sin we aren’t supposed to be committing.

Tony Woodlief writes for WORLD Magazine.