The Paradox of Vice and Virtue

In a rather interesting exercise, I went back and read a few posts from an older website that I maintained some ten years ago.  As I read these posts over, it became very clear to me why that website failed to gain any readers despite the fact that I paid for advertising.  I did not call the website “The Bitter Christian” for nothing and the posts have a decidedly angry and negative tone to them which I believe to be absent (thankfully) from my more recent writings.

Despite the flaws in these old writings, I have decided to re-post some of them. In comparison with my more recent writings, these older posts illustrate the vital truth that the Christian life is a journey where Christians gradually become more mature over time.

The Paradox of Vice and Virtue – May 1, 2004

This is dedicated to Dave and Diane.

The other day, I had one of the periodic remissions into the near-demonic pride that characterized much of my youth. “Did you see how humble I was being there? I could have made that guy look like an absolute idiot. But I had patience and let him think he was as good as me. Wow! I am so much more humble than I used to be. I bet I am the most humble guy in the whole church!” Lest you think I exaggerate the extent of my prideful past, let me admit that when I was baptized, I came out of the water looking for the spirit of God descending like a dove and a voice coming from Heaven saying, “This is my beloved nephew in whom I am well-pleased.”

While I was contemplating this lamentable relapse of sinful pride, I had the occasion to consider the idea that I was the most humble man in the whole church. Where did *that* come from? What could be more ridiculous? If the greatest lush in the history of civilized man were to give up drinking alcohol after becoming a Christian by the grace of our glorious Lord, he would make no more ridiculous a claim if he thought himself the “most sober Christian alive”. Knowing myself as I do, how could I even entertain such a notion?

As I considered the idea, it occurred to me that my situation was not unique. The most dishonest person I ever met prided himself on his scrupulous honesty. The man I know with the greatest temper thinks he is incredibly reasonable when he is being angry. The woman who had the most sexual experience of any person I ever met prided herself on her chastity. Drunks and smokers pride themselves on their discipline and self-control saying, “I could quit anytime I want.” What in our human experience causes us to make this fundamental error? How do we mistake our greatest vice for our greatest virtue? What is the solution to this paradox?

The first and obvious solution to this problem is that we think ourselves strong in the area of our greatest weakness precisely because we have triumphed over this weakness. What could demonstrate self-control more than beating an addiction to alcohol or drugs? What could demonstrate greater honesty than a card shark intentionally losing a hand? Who exhibits greater chastity than the attractive woman who enjoys sex yet turns down sexual temptation?

Though this idea might at first appear reasonable, it is dangerous to allow ourselves to think that it is true. Alcoholics Anonymous has a rule that an alcoholic must never think of himself as a “former” alcoholic, but always as a “recovering” alcoholic. The reason for this rule is that it is precisely at that moment of resisted temptation that a person has exhibited their propensity toward a given sin. Allow me to illustrate.

Let us consider a tremendously violent individual. While driving to work, he thinks to himself, “I could have run that guy over and watched him die, but I didn’t”. Later on he is getting a coffee at Starbucks and thinks, “I ought to pound that clerk in the face until he screams for mercy, but I am not going to because I am not a violent man”. Later in that same day, he thinks with regard to a coworker, “I should have brought my hunting knife and shut you up permanently”.

Did you notice it? The man thinks he isn’t being violent, but even *having the thoughts* is a sign of his tremendous violence. A man thinking such thoughts all day long deserves to be in a maximum security prison and not on the short list of candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize. It is for this reason that the Scripture’s say, “If a man is angry with his brother in his heart, he is guilty of murder” and “Take every thought captive”. Resisting the temptation to perform a vile act is not demonstrating the corresponding virtue. The truly virtuous person doesn’t have the temptations, doesn’t entertain the fantasies.  (**As I discuss in another post, this is possible by recognizing love as the more excellent way. **)

In this way, we solve the vice/virtue paradox. As human beings subject to constant temptation, we have a tendency to think we are virtuous in the area of our greatest weakness. We make this mistake because we think resisting a temptation to evil is evidence of a virtue, when it is actually evidence of a vice. This is a tragic mistake to make and the only solution is to remember the standard of perfection that is the Lord Jesus Christ.

About Robert V

Former atheist currently living in Toronto.
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