So, whither virtue?
As we have seen, the Romans associated the word with “being a man,” and the Greeks with excellence. What of the Hebrews? Virtue is not a word that appears frequently in the Bible. The few references directly translated as virtue, point to a sense of power, often miraculous. What does appear instead, particularly in the Old Testament, is the word “wisdom.”
So, taking these concepts, and putting them together, we might describe virtue as power applied in a wise and excellent way.
Ancient writers were fond of creating catalogues of particular “virtues,” and Paul, in particular drew from this practice in his epistles. He gives several lists, giving attributes we ought to be striving for, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Subsequently the Church established seven “cardinal” virtues, to balance the seven deadly sins.
So let’s take a brief look at these virtues, and explain how they might be used in a men’s ministry context. Bear in mind that the lists vary somewhat, but most of the points remain the same.
Justice: A virtuous man is just. That is, he demonstrates fairness to others. He shows mercy where warranted. He will speak and act for the weak, and those who would not otherwise be heard.
Temperance: Thoughts of Carrie Nation aside, temperance is about self-discipline and self-denial. Do nothing rash. Be not hasty. Eat sensibly. Practice thrift.
Wisdom: Since this is the Hebrew beau ideal, biblical examples of the wise man abound. Wisdom combines learning with experience, humility, and common sense. Reading through Proverbs, what strikes me about the wise man is how little he speaks.
Courage: This is perhaps the key contribution of classical paganism. Most of the other three attributes could be covered by the three specifically “Christian” virtues that follow, as courage is what pushes us forward to love, to hope, and to have faith. Courage is the willingness to step forward, to press on, to make things “real,” in the face of circumstances. It took courage to love Gomer, it took even more courage to take her back.
Faith: In a Christian context, this is perhaps self-explanatory, since we are supposed to be living a life of faith, as they say. We trust, we believe. Not in an unknowing way, like buying a used car, sight unseen, but grounded in certain knowledge. “I know whom I have believed.”
Hope: “In this world, you will have many troubles. But fear not, for I have overcome the world.” The Christian life is grounded in hope, the hope of everlasting life, of triumph over the three great enemies of man: sin, death, and the devil.
Love: I have saved this for last, and I will do my best to refrain from directing you to I Cor. 13, since that road is already so well traveled. Instead, I want to direct your attention to a much lesser known passage, of particular application to men, Joseph in Matthew 1. Here is a man with a problem. His betrothed is pregnant, and not by him. As a good Jew, he cannot marry Mary. The Law is very clear about this. He would also have some obligation to be very public about this. He doesn’t. He intends to “put her away quietly,” lest he completely ruin her. Then, convinced by the angel that he must take Mary as his wife, he does all that is in his power to shield and protect her, frequently at great cost to himself. There, gentlemen, is love.
This is just a brief outline, but I believe that it offers a much broader base from which the church can minister to men.