Cultivating the virtues, transforming character…

After You Believe - N. T. Wright

After Virtue is a book title that is descriptive of the time in which we live.  In our day, “The language of morality is in [a] … state of grave disorder,” writes Alasdair MacIntyre.  In other words, we live in a time beyond virtue—a time when moral judgments have been reduced to attitudes or feelings that can be considered neither true or false.  Interestingly, the loss of virtue and objective morality in the broader culture has been paralleled by a lack of discussion of virtue in the Church.


N. T. Wright seeks to correct this deficit in After You Believe:  Why Christian Character Matters.


Many Christians have so emphasized the need for conversion, for the opening act of faith and commitment, for the initial statement of that faith (‘believing that Jesus died for me’ or whatever), that they have a big gap in their vision of what being a Christian is all about.  It’s as though they were standing on one side of a deep, wide river, looking across to the further bank.  On this bank you declare your faith.  On the opposite bank is the ultimate result—final salvation itself.  But what are people supposed to do in the meantime?  Simply stand here and wait?  Is there no bridge between the two?  What does this say about faith itself?  If we’re not careful … this opening act of belief can become “simply a matter of assent to a proposition (Jesus in Son of God, etc.), with no need for transformation.”


Wright goes on to explain that the bridge across this divide is character, which is built by cultivating various virtues under the guidance of and by the power of the Holy Spirit.


Virtue, in this strict sense, is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t “come naturally” – and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required “automatically”, as we say. …


Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices have become ‘second nature’ . . . Those who follow Jesus can begin to practice, in the present, the habits of heart and life which correspond to the way things are in God’s kingdom—the way they will be eventually, yes, but also the way they already are because Jesus is here . . . But virtue is always the result of work and cost. …


The dynamic of “virtue,” in this sense—practicing the habits of heart and life that point toward the true goal of human existence—lies at the heart of the challenge of Christian behavior, as set out in the New Testament itself. This is what it means to develop “character.” This is what we need—and what the Christian faith offers—for the time, “after you believe.”


When we approach things from this angle, we are in for some surprises. A great many Christians, in my experience, never think of things this way, and so get themselves in all kinds of confusion. Virtue, to put it bluntly, is a revolutionary idea in today’s world—and today’s church. But the revolution is one we badly need. And it is right at the core of the answer to the questions with which we began. After you believe, you need to develop Christian character by practicing the specifically Christian “virtues.” To make wise moral decisions, you need not just to “know the rules” or “discover who you really are,” but to develop Christian virtue. And to give wise leadership in our wider society in the confusing times we live in, we urgently need people whose characters have been formed in much the same way. We’ve had enough of pragmatists and self-seeking risk-takers. We need people of character. …


[W]hat we’re “here for” is to become genuine human beings, reflecting the God in whose image we’re made, and doing so in worship on the one hand and in mission, in its full and large sense, on the other; and that we do this not least by “following Jesus.” The way this works out is that it produces, through the work of the Holy Spirit, a transformation of character.


This transformation will mean that we do indeed “keep the rules”—though not out of a sense of externally imposed “duty,” but out of the character that has been formed within us. And it will mean that we do indeed “follow our hearts” and live “authentically”—but only when, with that transformed character fully operative, the hard work up front bears fruit in spontaneous decisions and actions that reflect what has been formed deep within. And, in the wider world, the challenge we face is to grow and develop a fresh generation of leaders, in all walks of life, whose character has been formed in wisdom and public service, not in greed for money or power.


The heart of it—the central thing that is supposed to happen “after you believe”—is thus the transformation of character.


These quotes are taken from N. T. Wright’s After You Believe:  Why Christian Character Matters and from “What to Do After You Believe,” an excerpt that was published in Relevant Magazine.




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