How We Can Cultivate Virtue

MODERN-DAY dictionaries define “virtue” as “moral excellence; goodness.” It is “right action and thinking; goodness of character.” Lexicographer Marvin R. Vincent says that the original classical sense of the Greek word rendered “virtue” denotes “excellence of any kind.” Not surprisingly, then, such qualities as prudence, courage, self-discipline, fairness, compassion, perseverance, honesty, humility, and loyalty have been hailed as virtues at one time or another. Virtue has also been defined as “conformity to a standard of right.”

To whose standard of excellence, goodness, and right should we conform? “According to the dominant school of moral philosophy,” said Newsweek magazine, “the skepticism engendered by the Enlightenment has reduced all ideas of right and wrong to matters of personal taste, emotional preference or cultural choice.” But is mere taste or preference a satisfactory way of determining right and wrong? No. For us to cultivate virtue, we need a reliable standard of good and bad​—a standard by which a certain act, attitude, or quality may be judged right or wrong.

The Only True Source of Moral Standards

There is only one true Source for standards of morality​—the Creator of mankind, Jehovah God. Soon after creating the first man, Adam, Jehovah God laid this command upon the man: “From every tree of the garden you may eat to satisfaction. But as for the tree of the knowledge of good and bad you must not eat from it, for in the day you eat from it you will positively die.” (Genesis  2:16, 17) Jehovah God gave the tree that unique name to denote his exclusive right to decide what is good and what is bad for his creatures. God’s standards of good and bad thus became the basis for judgment, or evaluation, of a person’s deeds, outlook, and personality traits. Without such standards we could not correctly distinguish right from wrong.

The command concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and bad set before Adam and Eve a choice​—to obey or not to obey. For them, virtue meant obedience to that command. In time, Jehovah further revealed what pleases him and what displeases him, and he had this recorded for us in the Bible. Cultivating virtue, then, entails our conforming to Jehovah’s righteous standards set out in the Scriptures.

Get Fully Acquainted With God’s Standards

Since Jehovah God has determined the standards of good and bad and has revealed them in the Bible, should we not get fully acquainted with them? The apostle Paul wrote: “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.”​—2 Timothy 3:16, 17.

For example, consider the misunderstanding that Kunihito, mentioned in the preceding article, faced when displaying modesty as his culture viewed it. A closer look at Scriptural standards later helped him to take a more balanced approach. The Bible certainly encourages modesty, and it counsels against overconfidence and presumptuousness. (Proverbs 11:2; Micah 6:8) Yet, when outlining the qualifications for “an office of overseer,” the apostle Paul spoke of “reaching out” for that privilege. (1 Timothy 3:1) This “reaching out” is to be done not only without being boastful or presumptuous but also without needlessly putting oneself down.

What does the Bible say about moral excellence in the business arena? Employing questionable methods or cutting corners on government regulations and tax laws is a common practice in today’s business world. Regardless of what others do, however, the Bible standard is that we are “to conduct ourselves honestly in all things.” (Hebrews 13:18) Hence, we cultivate virtue by being honest and fair with employers, employees, customers, and secular governments. (Deuteronomy 25:13-16; Romans 13:1; Titus 2:9, 10) Honesty certainly promotes trust and goodwill. And putting agreements in writing often prevents misunderstandings and complexities that may arise because of “unforeseen occurrence.”​—Ecclesiastes 9:11; James 4:13, 14.

The matter of dress and grooming is another area in which we need to cultivate virtue. Clothing choices vary according to culture, and pressure may be strong to keep up with the latest styles and trends. But why should we follow every fad or fashion that comes along? The Bible admonishes us to “quit being fashioned after this system of things.” (Romans 12:2) Rather than make up rules, the apostle Paul wrote under inspiration: “I desire the women to adorn themselves in well-arranged dress, with modesty and soundness of mind, not with styles of hair braiding and gold or pearls or very expensive garb, but in the way that befits women professing to reverence God.” (1 Timothy 2:9, 10) This basic standard applies to men and women alike. Of course, there is room for delightful variety in style as a result of cultural preference or personal taste.

The Bible also identifies immoral practices that God explicitly condemns. At 1 Corinthians 6:9, 10, we read the warning: “What! Do you not know that unrighteous persons  will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be misled. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men kept for unnatural purposes, nor men who lie with men, nor thieves, nor greedy persons, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit God’s kingdom.” This scripture helped Maria, mentioned earlier, to see that according to the standard of moral excellence set out by the Creator, her involvement with Juan was wrong and she must put an end to it if she would have God’s approval. Clearly, to cultivate virtue, we need to get thoroughly familiar with Jehovah’s standards.

Learn With the Heart

Virtue is not a passive avoidance of what is bad. It has moral power. A virtuous person has goodness. “Virtue,” says one professor, “needs to be learned with the heart as well as the head.” Cultivating virtue, then, entails more than a thorough acquaintance with God’s Word. It calls for meditation on what is written there so that our hearts get filled with gratitude for Jehovah and we are moved to apply Scriptural principles in our lives.

“How I do love your law!” exclaimed the psalmist. “All day long it is my concern.” (Psalm 119:97) And King David wrote: “I have remembered days of long ago; I have meditated on all your [God’s] activity; I willingly kept myself concerned with the work of your own hands.” (Psalm 143:5) We too should make prayerful meditation an integral part of our study of the Bible and Bible-based publications.

True, making time for diligent study accompanied by meditation can be a challenge. But the pursuit of virtue requires that we buy out the time from other activities. (Ephesians 5:15, 16) Aaron, age 24, buys out such time every day by waking up 30 minutes earlier than he once did. He relates: “At first, I just read the Bible for the entire half hour. Only recently have I come to realize the importance of meditation. So now I use about half of that time to dwell upon what I have just read. This has been truly rewarding.” Meditation can be done at other times. In a melody to Jehovah, David sang: “During the night watches I meditate on you.” (Psalm 63:6) And the Bible relates: “Isaac was out walking in order to meditate in the field at about the falling of evening.”​—Genesis 24:63.

Meditation is invaluable in cultivating virtue, for it helps us to feel the way Jehovah feels and to make his views our views. Maria, for example, knew that God prohibits fornication. But to ‘abhor what is wicked and cling to what is good,’ she needed to meditate on key Bible texts. (Romans 12:9) She was helped to see the need to make changes after reading Colossians 3:5, which urges us to ‘deaden our body members as respects fornication, uncleanness, sexual appetite, hurtful desire, and covetousness.’ Maria had to ask herself: ‘What kind of sexual appetite must I deaden? What should I avoid that might arouse unclean desires?  Are there changes I need to make in the way I treat those of the opposite sex?’

Meditation includes considering the result of an action. Paul urges Christians to abstain from fornication and to exercise self-control so that “no one go to the point of harming and encroach upon the rights of his brother.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7) Good questions to ponder are: ‘What damage would I do to myself, my family, or others by committing this act? How would I be affected spiritually, emotionally, and physically? How have things turned out for others who have violated God’s law in the past?’ Such contemplation made Maria stronger at heart, and it can do the same for us.

Learn From Examples

Can virtue be taught in a classroom? This question is one that has perplexed thinkers for millenniums. The Greek philosopher Plato leaned toward thinking that it can. Aristotle, on the other hand, reasoned that virtue is gained through practice. A journalist summed up the debate on the issue this way: “In short, an ethics of virtue cannot be learned alone. Nor can it be taught from textbooks. Good character comes from living in communities . . . where virtue is encouraged and rewarded.” But where would we find truly virtuous individuals? While most cultures offer some examples of virtue, at least in their mythological heroes and stories, the Bible contains abundant true examples.

The most outstanding example of virtue is Jehovah. He always acts in a virtuous way and does what is righteous and good. We can cultivate virtue by becoming “imitators of God.” (Ephesians 5:1) And God’s Son, Jesus Christ, ‘left us a model for us to follow his steps closely.’ (1 Peter 2:21) Moreover, the Bible contains accounts of many faithful individuals, such as Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Ruth, Job, and Daniel and his three Hebrew companions. Not to be overlooked are the examples of virtue among modern-day servants of Jehovah.

We Can Succeed

Can we really succeed in doing what is virtuous in God’s eyes? Having inherited imperfection, at times there may rage within us a fierce battle between the mind and the flesh​—between wanting to do what is virtuous and following our sinful tendencies. (Romans 5:12; 7:13-23) But the battle can be won with God’s help. (Romans 7:24, 25) Jehovah has provided his Word and Bible-based publications. By diligent study of the Scriptures and prayerful meditation on them, we can become pure in heart. From such a pure heart can come forth virtuous thoughts, words, and actions. (Luke 6:45) Based on the examples of Jehovah God and Jesus Christ, we can build a godly personality. And we can certainly learn much from individuals who are faithfully serving God today.

The apostle Paul exhorted his readers to “continue considering” virtue and other praiseworthy things. Doing this is sure to result in God’s blessing. (Philippians 4:8, 9) With Jehovah’s help, we can succeed in cultivating virtue.

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Make meditation a part of your Bible study

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Build a godly personality by imitating Christ Jesus