I read an article today on the subject of cultivating virtuous habits. The main arguments were interesting, but what stood out to me the most was this claim made almost in passing:
“Virtue is not the absence of desire for sin — it is the absence of sin despite the desire to sin!”
Maybe when he wrote “desire for/to sin,” the author meant “temptation.” In that case, I would agree with him, because it isn’t a sin to be tempted.
But even so, how are we defining “sin”? If “sin” were just a wrong action, this would be a true statement. However, sin isn’t just an action that can be seen. Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
There are sins of the heart, sins that nobody sees, sins that don’t seem to affect anyone else. But they can devastate just as much as the visible sins, and have the unpleasant side effect of often leading to visible sin.
And these “virtuous habits” that the author recommends we thrust our willpower and self-control into developing? They can’t just be outward “virtuous habits” either. Avoiding unkind words in our conversations is a worthy goal, but what does it matter, how can it last, when our thoughts are harsh and self-serving? Being discerning about what and how much media we consume is wise, but what about what we let our minds fixate on? Going to church is a good habit to get into, but does it mean anything if we aren’t serious about our relationship with God?
They say that what you do when no one is watching shows who you really are. I say that it’s more than that. I say that it’s not just what we do in the quiet of our homes; it’s what we do in the quiet of our hearts.
But our hearts aren’t naturally good, and our feelings aren’t trustworthy, and we can’t change this through sheer willpower and self-control. At least, we can’t start the change that way. Knowing God starts it. Letting Him in starts in. Believing and receiving and living on and in the purest, most sacrificial and most amazing love that ever was … that is the beginning.
Self-control is continuing to walk in that love when the feelings fade and the routine sets in and the vision gets fuzzy. Self-control is letting the truth set you free rather than being enslaved to self and sin. Self-control is choosing what brings life, not what brings death.
That’s why I don’t want to expend all my energy on pursuing self-control in ways that regulate the patterns of my body without regulating the patterns of my heart.
“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).