What Is the Quality of Your Virtue?
THE pearl of virtue is little prized today. The pursuit of pleasure and self-gain has relegated virtue to the background in the lives of the vast majority of people. The Bible, however, sets forth virtue as one of the basic requirements of Christians. It tells them to “supply to your faith virtue, to your virtue knowledge,” and counsels them to keep considering “whatever things are true, . . . chaste, . . . whatever virtue there is.”—2 Pet. 1:5; Phil. 4:8.
Virtue is defined as “moral practice or action: conformity to a standard of right; . . . moral excellence; uprightness of conduct.” And, again, we are told that virtue is “moral goodness” and “the opposite of vice.” In the Christian Greek Scriptures the word rendered virtue is a·re·teʹ, which is defined by Greek scholars as “intrinsic value, moral goodness, virtue, . . . any particular moral excellence.” Virtue also has inherent in it the thought of moral strength, manliness, as can be seen from the fact that the English word “virility” comes from the same Latin root. Virtue might, therefore, be likened to a strong metal such as iron, which by repeated heatings and coolings can be tempered so as to become steel, making it not only stronger but also tougher, far less likely to crack under strain.
Some people consider themselves virtuous because they do not appear to be breaking any of the Ten Commandments. But is not such a negative virtue, at best? Besides, even this kind of virtue has varying degrees of merit. For example: A person may not steal only because of having inherited great wealth. There would not be much virtue to his not stealing. Neither would there be for the one who did not steal simply because of not having any opportunity to do so.
Then, again, persons might not steal because of taking inordinate pride in being “better” than other people. Such call to mind the Pharisee of Jesus’ parable who prayed: “O God, I thank you I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give the tenth of all things I acquire.” But did this man appear virtuous in the eyes of God? Jesus said, No.—Luke 18:9-14.
Or, the fear of the consequences, punishment or disgrace might be the sole deterrents to one’s stealing. While these are a proper basis for virtue, virtue based on these alone is not of the highest quality. Such virtue might be said to be chiefly enlightened self-interest and to belong more to the field of policy than to that of principle. Underscoring this point are the words of the apostle Paul in his counsel for Christians to obey the laws of the land, not only because of wrath or the fear of punishment, but “also on account of your conscience.”—Rom. 13:5.
A still higher quality of virtue is that based on our love for our Creator, Jehovah God, and the fear to displease him. As the inspired psalmist expressed it: “O you lovers of Jehovah, hate what is bad.” Yes, we ought to have a love for what is right and actually to hate what is bad, wicked, what displeases God. Jesus Christ had this kind of virtue when on earth, even as we read of him: “You have loved righteousness and you hate wickedness.” That love of what is right and hatred of what is bad enabled him to weather all the attacks that the Devil was able to bring against him in the way of temptations and persecution.—Ps. 97:10; 45:7; Heb. 5:8.
This love of righteousness, this fear of displeasing one’s Creator, not only will aid one in avoiding what is bad, but will also impel one to become positive in his virtue; for, after all, strictly speaking, virtue means more than the mere absence of vice. Yes, often referred to in the Scriptures as righteousness, virtue is more than a negative goodness. Jesus showed this when he summed up the law of Moses in a positive way, saying: “All things, therefore, that you want men to do to you, you also must likewise do to them; this, in fact, is what the Law and the Prophets mean.”—Matt. 7:12.
That is why a young child might be considered innocent by reason of its tender years, but it could not be considered virtuous. Actually, it would have to be a very young child to be considered innocent because of its years alone, for today we read of six-year-old murderers. One deliberately killed his father with a shotgun; another deliberately shot a playmate with a rifle. Such children pose problems for the police and the courts, as there is no legislation covering such youthful crimes!—New York Times, October 24, 1967; New York Sunday News, November 19, 1967.
Underscoring the positive side of virtue are the words of Jesus to a rich young ruler who had come to him asking what he must do to inherit everlasting life and who evidently was quite satisfied with himself because of keeping the largely negative aspects of the law of Moses. But Jesus pointed out to him what he was lacking: a positive goodness or virtue. “Give to the poor . . . and come be my follower.” But he was not interested in that high quality of virtue and so “he grew sad at the saying and went off grieved.”—Mark 10:17-22.
Clearly there are varying kinds of virtue; it is not all of the same quality. There is a negative virtue of merely refraining from wickedness or harming others, and there is a virtue that is based more on policy than on principle. Concerning such Jesus Christ said: “If your righteousness [or virtue] does not abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter into the kingdom of the heavens.” (Matt. 5:20) To keep the pearl of virtue and to reap its reward, everlasting life, we must safeguard its quality, seeking ever to improve it. Never may we take a complacent attitude toward virtue. We must ever heed the counsel: “Let him that thinks he is standing beware that he does not fall.”—1 Cor. 10:12.