What Virtue is Primary?

By | April 8, 2011

Christianity is known in large part for belief in certain virtues. Among them are love, grace, mercy, honesty, truth, peace, integrity, purity, etc. (While many people may not think of these things when they think of Christians, they think these things are what Christianity is about. Many do not have positive opinion of Christians, precisely because they feel most Christians don’t practice these virtues.)

Real life gets messy at times. In these situations, virtues can seem to be pitted against one another. When this happens, which one wins? Is it more important to demonstrate mercy or purity? Honesty or peace? Love or integrity? (Understand, I’m not saying that these virtues are at odds, but that they can seem to be in certain situations.) It is an important question to consider, because I believe we will all find ourselves at times in situations which require discernment.

Our answer to this question will be determined by what we believe Christianity is about at its core. For many believers, Christianity is primarily about morality: it’s about getting people to do good/right actions and not do bad/wrong actions. For others, it’s acceptance: let’s make sure everyone is welcome no matter what. For others, it’s about honesty: let’s get everything out into the open no matter what. For others, it’s about defending and fighting for the “truth”: we have to make sure everyone believes the right things. For others, it’s about service.

To get a clue as to what you hold as the core of Christianity, fill in the blank in this question: “How can someone be a Christian if they _____ (or don’t _____)?” or alternatively, “They can’t be a Christian because they _____ (or don’t _____).” This ought to be a revealing exercise.

What a person believes Christianity to be primarily about will directly influence their actions—even if they aren’t consciously aware of their choices. Unfortunately, I’m convinced that Christians too often have gotten their priorities mixed up. Christians support all kind of good beliefs, ideas, causes, etc. The problem is when they put more importance on these things than they should. People elevate their pet thing to a level where it intrudes upon more important matters. This is what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for in Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42.

I believe that love is the foremost virtue. (Click here to read my definition of love, and here for some more background.) I read the following quote recently, which I really resonate with:

A mark of sin is that it produces unnecessary pain in the lives of others. Sin and love are the exact opposites. Love is benefiting others at the expense of yourself. Sin is benefiting yourself at the expense of others. Sin is selfishness; love is selflessness. Love is a greater force than sin – God’s life is more powerful than Satan’s nature – and “love covers a multitude of sins.”

I heard another pastor say in the past, “It’s sad that Christians are known more for what we’re against rather than for our love.” He’s right. When we think that Christianity is mostly about having the right beliefs, we’ll argue and divide endlessly over all matter of ideas (Protestantism anyone?). If Christianity is a matter or morality, we’ll make sure to separate ourselves from everyone who isn’t as moral as us (“the world”) and make sure that they are aware of their sin. (Of course, no one is perfect, so we have to choose some sins as a bigger deal than others (and maybe even make sins of things which aren’t sins) such as abortion, homosexuality, divorce, sex outside of marriage, cussing, smoking, drinking, and gambling.) People can only join Christianity once they get their act cleaned up. You may not think about this, but I guarantee many non-Christians do.

Most of the biggest criticisms from outside the church are actually on target, and are caused by us getting our priorities out of whack. Unfortunately, many Christians feel that any criticism of church or our practice of Christianity is somehow sacrilegious, must be wrong and must be squelched. (For an example, read my review of the movie “Saved!”.) We’ve got to get our priorities straight. Otherwise, though well intentioned, we’re very much in danger of doing more harm than good.

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