The Danger of Virtue

Pastors understand that overt sins, such as drunkenness, anger, sexual immorality, are the easy ones to diagnosis and work on. Overt sins are easier to see and often the one committing the sin is aware of what they are doing.  But the temptations that come with doing righteousness are not so easy to diagnosis.  They are harder to see and the person committing them does not understand that he is sinning. Because he is doing something righteous on one level he does not see the sin he is committing on a different level.

Gregory the Great wrote the first great pastoral care manual. It was the standard work in this field for centuries. It is filled with pastoral wisdom.  Part One is about what men ought to come to rule as pastors. Part Two is about how the pastor ought to live. Both these sections are filled with gracious, but hard words for ministers of the Gospel. They would reward repeat readings throughout a pastor’s life. Part Three is about how the minister should counsel his flock. This section is gold. Gregory has a grasp of the human condition and how to apply the Scriptures to that condition. What is interesting is that Gregory does not just counsel the overt sins. He sets up opposites and advises on how to counsel these opposites. For example, he tells the minister how admonish the rich and the poor, slaves and masters, the healthy and the sick. These make sense to us. They are different stations and therefore require different attitudes and present different dangers.

But he also tells the pastor how to admonish the impatient and the patient, the joyful and the sad, the taciturn [those who are quiet] and the talkative. Why would the patient need to be admonished? Isn’t patience a virtue? Why would the joyful need to be admonished? Isn’t joy a virtue?  Admonish does not mean encouraging those folks to keep doing the same. Gregory does not tell the joyful to just keep going. He warns them. He recognizes that virtue brings its own temptations. Here is one quote, where he admonishes the generous. We might assume that because generosity is a virtue someone who practices it does not need to be admonished, but Gregory knew better. Here is what he says:

Wherefore it is necessary for them to take careful thought not to distribute unworthily what is entrusted to them: not to give to those who ought not to be given anything or fail to give to those who should receive, or again, give much to whom little should be given, or little when they should give much; not to be in haste or bestow unprofitably, nor by being dilatory [slow to act], torment or harm those who ask. The expectation of receiving thanks must not creep into their action, for the desire of transitory praise will extinguish the light of their giving, nor should accompanying moroseness [sadness] invest the bestowal of the gift, should the mind rejoice more than is befitting, and when they performed their duty aright, they should not give any credit to themselves and so lose all they accomplish.

Gregory warns the generous to be careful in how they give, to watch their motivations for giving, and to guard their hearts after they give.  Being generous is not an automatic good. If fact, one can “lose all they accomplish” if they seek praise for their generosity. He does the same thing with fasting when he says:

Because the flesh is worn by abstinence [fasting primarily] more than is necessary, humility is displayed outwardly, but inwardly there is grievous pride on account of that very humility. And unless the mind were sometimes puffed up by abstinence, the arrogant Pharisee would not have carefully enumerated among his great merits saying: I fast twice a week.

The  humble act of fasting can be a source of pride. Andrew Purves in his excellent book Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition puts it this way, “Thus a pastor must be able to discern virtue from vice, and to suspect that a virtue openly displayed may hide a corresponding vice.” Satan does not stop working when we decide to do a good deed. In fact, he works harder. But the work will be under the surface. Therefore often the hardest sins to confront and work on are those that piggyback on righteous living.

What are your virtues? We all have good deeds we do that we parade before our minds. It might be reading your Bible, submitting to your husband, disciplining your children, working hard in the office, not looking at porn, keeping your house clean, not worrying about being too holy, giving, saving, fasting, not being too legalistic about food, being peaceful, knowing your Bible, memorizing Scripture, being patient, watching your speech, preaching a sermon, going to church, praying, etc. None of these are sins. But they open the door to subtle, hidden, sins that we ignore. Overt sins are like a cut artery. We can all see the blood and the person cut knows there is a problem. Sins that come with virtue are like cancer. They eat at us, hidden, slowly growing without our knowledge until they destroy us.

Do you understand that every good deed, every growth in sanctification comes with new temptations? Do you assume that if you doing righteous works then all is well with your heart? Are you blind to the temptations that come with holiness? Do you believe that because you are not a drunkard or sexually immoral or angry or lazy that somehow you heart is free from the sins of pride, thanklessness, bitterness, anxiety, or lack of love?  Do you believe that if all looks well in your life then all is well? If this is you then I must warn you. Just because your garden is bearing fruit does not mean there are no snakes. To stare at the fruit and ignore the snakes is perilous to your soul.