What Really Matters?
By: Thomas E. Brewton
With turmoil in our foreign policy, a new Congress in session, and the prospect of higher taxes to finance an expansion of the secular welfare-state, what should be our personal priorities? The Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia refocuses us on the most important things in our lives.
Sunday’s sermon at the Long Ridge Congregational Church (non-UCC) in North Stamford, Connecticut, was delivered by Capt. Brian Thomas, leader of our local Salvation Army mission.
Our nation is beset with enemies. Our government and our society are moving at an accelerating rate further into moral degradation. Most of us can do little about that as individuals.
What we can do is order our lives to embody the Apostle Paul’s desiderata in his letter to the church at Galatia. Living more helpful, more courteous, and less self-centered lives not only makes us feel better, but also brightens the lives of those around us. Living that kind of life is a witness that may bring others to God.
Capt. Thomas’s text came from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatian church:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
How do we do produce that fruit in our lives?
It takes more than just going through the motions, Capt. Thomas noted. It takes focused, meaningful practice, every day. The difference between athletic champions and the ordinary person is the focused and meaningful way they practice, not just how much they practice.
Qualities such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are skills. That concept of moral virtues as skills is found, not only in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also in Greek philosophy. Both the Bible and Greek philosophy, at least that of Plato and Aristotle, are focused upon the same thing, albeit from slightly different angles.
Plato, prominently in the Republic, addresses moral virtue as a skill. In fact the Greek philosophical term for virtue – arete – is a compound of goodness, excellence, and skill. Plato’s philosopher-kings were to be educated and trained from early youth to know and practice arete. The object was to create a political society that placed moral virtue and justice at the top of its priority list.
Plato recognized that crafting laws and social structures for that purpose necessitated skill – arete – that could be acquired only by hard and continual study and daily practice. (Note, in passing, that this concept of virtuous society held no place for governing on the basis of opinion polling of uninformed citizens. For Plato, opinion was the opposite of virtue.)
The most fundamental aspect of the Judeo-Christian life is love. All our virtues must arise from the proper spirit of mind if we are to do the right thing and to be helpful to others. Nothing is gained, for example, if we do good things as a way to preen our own feathers and look good to others. Love is directed outward, not inward toward the self-satisfied ego.
Paul told the Galatians that mechanical works alone, just ritualistically following the Mosaic law, avails nothing.
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:6)
How does this translate into our personal lives?
Just as a champion athlete sets goals for himself and practices to accomplish them, we must first define what kind of person we want to be. Then we have to establish our road map to that destination.
Joyfulness and happiness fill our lives if, all day long, we thank God for the many blessings we have. The gratifying thing is that by doing so we become aware of our blessings and we become more aware of others’ travails. When we look outside ourselves, the Holy Spirit gives us the little intuitions of what helpful things we can do for those individuals we know who are experiencing illness or hardship.
With joy and thankfulness in our lives, other things become easier.
Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given himâ€”for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his workâ€”this is a gift of God. He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart. (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)
Sweetness and civility require us to confront our bitterness and to forgive those who have wronged us. Those we forgive may never know it, and they may never change their ways. But forgiving them confers real benefits upon our souls. We feel better and find it easier to deal justly and courteously with others.
No matter how hard we practice, however, we will discover that we can’t do such things on our own. We need God’s help. An essential part of practicing Paul’s virtues is continually, all day long, praying to God for His guidance and help.
It is given to few people to make great differences in society. But every one of us has it in his power, through the Holy Spirit, to make a happy difference in our own lives and in the lives of those with whom we deal.
Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets. His weblog is THE VIEW FROM 1776 http://www.thomasbrewton.com/
Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.