Aristotle, Virtue Ethics, and Sanctification
I love philosophy.
Now, in case you had a weird philosophy professor in community college who looked like a homeless Frisbee golf player that tried to get you to “be one with nature” or “meditate on a tree” or something…that’s not what I mean by “philosophy.” By philosophy, I mean analyzing the soundness of arguments (logic), studying the nature of reality (metaphysics), understanding how we know things (epistemology), thinking about what makes for a just society (political philosophy), and finding out what makes actions good or bad—moral or immoral (ethics).
In his famous work, Nicomachean Ethics, the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, explains how to grow in virtue. Now, why would Christians care about what some pagan philosopher has to say about virtue? Well, his view of growing in virtue (or what Christians might call “holiness”) is surprisingly similar to what the Bible says regarding holiness.
Ethics is important for Christians. We are commanded to put sin to death (Col 3:5), to not let sin reign in our bodies (Rom 6:12), and to practice righteousness (Phil 4:9). We are already declared to be 100% righteous in God’s sight, by grace through faith alone. But we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, then have the ability to grow in holiness in our day-to-day lives. We practically become (partially) what we are already declared to be (fully).
So how do we actually put sin to death? How do we actually love God more? What do Aristotle and Jesus have in common? What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?
Aristotle taught that you can practice righteousness just like you practice a sport or an instrument. The first time you swing a golf club or try to hit a curveball, you will not be very good at it; you have to practice it. You need to know that you won’t be good at it at first, but the more you practice, the better you’ll get. Likewise, the first time you try to play the French horn or the ukulele you will not be very good at it. You may be able to hit a few notes or strum a few chords, but you won’t be selling any records; not without a lot of practice. You shouldn’t expect to be good at it at first. But you can expect that the more you practice, the better you’ll get.
So, Aristotle asks, “Why would practicing virtue be any different?”
Now, to clarify, a lost person cannot practice true righteousness (in God’s eyes), so Aristotle is off a little. Aristotle is not a Christian, so his ethic will always fall short. Only those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit can actually do good in God’s eyes. But Aristotle is on to something that too many Christians fail to see.
Why do we think that we have to practice a sport to be good at it, but we don’t think we have to practice looking away from a beautiful woman so as not to lust? Why do we think that we have to practice playing the flute to be good at it, but we don’t think we have to practice not thinking anxious thoughts? Why do we think we have to practice learning a new language to become fluent, but we don’t have to practice pushing out body-image insecurities that pop into our head?
You see, if we want to pursue holiness, we ought to practice holiness. And the more you practice holiness, the better you get at it—the more you grow in holiness. Let me give an example.
What is courage to Aristotle? Courage is not something you just “conjure up” in yourself before you brashly run into battle. That’s not courage; that’s suicide. Courage is not just taking a shot of “liquid courage” before asking your crush out on a date. Courage is the result of having practiced suppressing fear and doing what is brave so many times before that when you go into battle, you naturally act courageously. You have practiced courage so many times that you have actually become courageous.
Doing the same action over and over again reshapes who you are. Someone who is not a guitar player becomes one through practice. The same is true with virtue.
The Secret to Growing in Holiness
What we as Christians often want to do is to just wake up one day and no longer struggle with whatever habitual sin we struggle with; we keep praying that one day we will wake up and not lust anymore, or wake up and not be anxious anymore, or wake up and not be depressed anymore, or wake up and not be angry anymore, or wake up and not be proud anymore.
But that’s ridiculous.
Would you do that with anything else? Would you do that with sports? Would you just pray that one day you will wake up and be able to hit a major league fastball? Would you do that with musical instruments? Would you just pray that one day you will wake up and be able to play the flute? Now…don’t get me wrong, God could grant you the ability to do something (he can do what he wants). But that is not typically way that he does that. He probably won’t answer your prayer by just granting you the magic ability to have some unpracticed skill; rather, he will sustain you and give you all that you need in order to glorify him as you practice scales on the flute or practice with your batting coach.
The same is true regarding holiness.
If you practice anxious thoughts all day, guess what? You will become an anxious person. You create almost a spiritual “muscle-memory” that defaults to anxiety. But if you renew your mind, if you take thoughts captive, if you think about Christ and the gospel and how you are forgiven and how you are loved, you will become a person who is far less anxious.
If when a beautiful woman walks by you look lustfully at her, guess what? The next time a beautiful woman walks by it will be easier for you to look at her lustfully—because that’s what you’ve practiced. Conversely, if you practice looking away when there is a beautiful woman, it will be easier to look away the next time there is a beautiful woman—because you have practiced righteousness.
Reversing the Order of Heart and Action
Most of us have gotten the order backwards. We want our actions to follow our heart instead of our heart following our actions. We think, “I’ll read my Bible when my heart feels close to God,” or, “I’ll be more faithful to attend church when God takes away my depression,” or, “I’ll pray when I feel like I’m not a hypocrite anymore.”
But that’s backwards. You don’t read your Bible when you feel like God is close; you read your Bible to teach your false feelings that they are liars and that God actually is close. You don’t humbly serve other people only when you are not feeling proud; you humbly serve other people to teach yourself not to be proud. You don’t wait until you are well to take medicine. You take medicine to make you well.
What many of us do is try to just wait for our hearts to magically change, and we wonder why we are not growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. It’s because we are not going about sanctification the way the Bible commands us to.
You see, Aristotle’s insight doesn’t really belong to Aristotle; it belongs to God:
We are commanded to practice righteous qualities (2 Pet 1:10), to renew our mind (Rom 12:2), to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ (Rom 6:11), to practice correct doctrine and ethics (Phil 4:9), to put on Christ (Rom 13:14), to take every evil thought captive (2 Cor 10:5), and we are told that righteous people practice righteousness (1 John 2:29). To say it another way, biblically, we are commanded to practice virtue just like we would practice anything else in which we desired to grow.
You may have heard a pastor jokingly say that you shouldn’t pray for patience. Why? Because if you pray for patience God will not grant you patience. Rather, he will grant you difficult situations that teach you how to grow in patience. Why would it be any different regarding lust, or insecurity, or depression, or anger, or pride? If you pray to be delivered from any temptation, God often doesn’t just take the temptation away; he gives you difficult situations that teach you how to practice resisting these temptations. We often want to be completely “free” from some type of struggle instead of realizing that freedom has already been purchased and we have to take small baby steps of faith in fighting our sin each day.
We need to realize that it is the process of fighting sin—by practicing righteousness—which produces a changed heart. Your heart will be conformed to what you do and what you think about the most.
What actions are you practicing? What thoughts are you thinking all day? If nobody talks to you more than you, what are you telling yourself?
But Zach, I don’t feel like I’m very good at being holy. I try to take thoughts captive but sometimes I fail. I try to get rid of the thoughts I have about insecurity and body image issues but they keep coming back. I try to push out thoughts about feeling condemned but they keep coming back.That’s OK.
That is growth.
When you first start trying to hit a golf ball you won’t be very good at it. Especially if you have been practicing a bad golf swing for most of your life. It will take a long period of practicing the correct swing to see progress. In the same way, if you have been practicing thinking wrong thoughts for most of your life, it will take a long period of practicing righteous thoughts to see much progress.
If someone had played the flute incorrectly for 30 years and then they were shown how to play it correctly, it would take a while before their muscle-memory changed. In the same way if you have been practicing wrong thinking or wrong actions for 20, 30, 40, or 50 years, that won’t change overnight. You have to actively do what your heart doesn’t want to do until your heart learns that it is not in control.
But remember—the battle is already won. You are already declared to be perfectly righteous. You are not doing these things to make God love you. He already loves you. You are practicing righteousness only because you are growing in what you have already been declared to be: righteous.