Virtues to die for

Virtues to die for

For many, if not most of us, our dreams centre on our achievements. We aim for that ideal job, outstanding qualification, or standout accomplishment, and we work very, very hard to achieve it. But the simple truth is that we were not put on this planet to build a resume. And, as Greg Liston explains, this prioritising of achievement that our society increasingly demands leads somewhere very destructive.

My fifteen-year-old daughter recently sat her Grade 8 clarinet exam with the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). On the off-chance that you (or your children) have never endured the sweet agony of music exams, let me explain. They are incredibly stressful! Nearly one thousand hours of practice (in this case, at least) gets compressed into a single thirty-minute recital which is performed in a blank, sterile room with a lone, intentionally-unresponsive examiner who has recently flown halfway around the world to spend three weeks listening for eight hours a day to musicians bravely (but not always brilliantly) attempting Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The all-too-brief minutes of the exam are spent with your stomach churning, heart racing, knees knocking, knuckles clenching, and nails being bitten. At least, that’s how the parents sitting outside feel! Who knows how hard it must be for those actually performing!

With my nails about thirty minutes shorter, my daughter emerged from the recital room and we began our post-mortem. What went well? What didn’t? About two minutes into this detailed, blow-by-blow analysis, the examiner himself appeared. To be honest, this was rather a surprise. I’ve sat through quite a few of these exams, but I’ve never seen an ABRSM examiner venture outside their evaluative cave before. It was like watching a bear waking from hibernation. Putting aside the shock, I reached my hand out to shake his. “You must be the examiner,” I said. “I’m the dad.”  

“Yes, I guessed as much,” the examiner replied. There followed a few moments of small talk, and then the real reason he had awoken. “I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed that exam. Particularly, I appreciated the way your daughter thanked the accompanist after she’d finished. At the end of the exam she even thanked me. I can’t actually recall ever being thanked at the end of an exam before.” There were a few more pleasantries, and then he turned on his heel and wandered back into the warmth and safety of his evaluative hibernation. 

It’s hard to say just how pleased I was. You see, I am very happy that my daughter is racking up musical accomplishments. As a relatively unskilled (but passionate) musician, I love seeing her achieve where I haven’t. But I am so much more thrilled about the person she is growing up to be—someone who is kind, thoughtful, and instinctively courteous even under stress. Thank goodness she is turning out like her mum!

A few hours later, I was still reflecting on what had happened. As I stroked the memory of the examiner’s words like a cat, listening to them purr, a thought struck me. If my daughter’s character is so important to me (and it is!), then why do I focus so much more on her achievements? Or to bring it even closer to home… what about me? If my character is such a priority, then why do I put so much more time and effort into achieving things than I do into intentionally growing in godliness? 

Eulogy virtues versus resume virtues

David Brooks (The New York Times political and social columnist) helpfully puts words to this inconsistency by contrasting resume virtues with eulogy virtues. Resume virtues are the ones you list on your CV; the ones that make you marketable and attractive as an employee. Eulogy virtues are the ones that get talked about at your funeral; the ones that define your character. Kindness, humility, and courage are eulogy virtues; clarinet playing, computer literacy, and public speaking are resume virtues. Brooks argues convincingly that the most profound cultural shift in western society over the last fifty years is the massive increase in emphasis on resume virtues over and above eulogy virtues. Our education system is increasingly oriented towards marketability and pragmatism, as is our public conversation, and (if we’re honest) most of our individual dreams and expectations. “Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character,” Brooks writes. (1)

The work of the nineteenth century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard allows us to see where this change in emphasis leads. Kierkegaard, in typically dramatic fashion, would have labelled this extreme prioritisation of resume virtues a “sickness unto death”—the essence of sinfulness. Most people, says Kierkegaard, understand sin as breaking God’s law. And of course, breaking God’s law is sinful. But Kierkegaard claims that such an understanding of sinfulness does not go deep enough. What about the Pharisees? he asks. They followed the law fastidiously and yet they were completely lost. Why? Because they built their entire identity on keeping the law. Keeping the law was their primary goal, their ultimate objective, and that is precisely what ended up destroying them. So Kierkegaard brings to light a much deeper understanding of sin: sin is not just breaking God’s law—sin is whenever we take a good thing and make it an ultimate priority. The Pharisees took a good thing—moral performance—and made it an ultimate priority. Our western culture has taken a good thing—resume virtues or achievements—and made them an ultimate priority. According to Kierkegaard, such prioritisation is sin at its deepest and most corruptive. (2)

You see, sin is a whole lot more pervasive and subtle than we normally realise. It is not just the temptation to do ‘bad things’ that can lead us from God’s desires for us. Some people are lost not because they are very bad but because they try so hard to be good. The higher something is—the more important or the more significant something is for us—the greater the temptation to prioritise it. Personally, I don’t think I have a great temptation to make things like alcohol, P, or money the ultimate thing in my life. But prioritising my church work, my kids’ success, or my research comes very naturally. These things are very important to me and so the possibility of them becoming my ultimate ambition is significant indeed. As C.S. Lewis puts it: “Brass is mistaken for gold more easily than clay is. …It’s not out of bad mice or bad fleas you make demons, but out of bad archangels. The false religion of lust is baser than the false religion of mother-love or patriotism or art: but lust is less likely to be made into a religion.” (3)

How to live with the end in mind

Here’s the truth. There is only one good, and that is God. Everything else is good only when it submits and points to him, and is bad when it usurps or leads from him. (4) So our lives, ultimately or even partially, are not about stacking up accomplishments. This is so contrary to what our western culture tells us that it is worth saying again. We were not put on this earth to build a resume! Listen to the Apostle Paul stutter and stammer when he is forced to list off his resume virtues: “But whatever anyone dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death” (2 Corinthians 11:21-23). So if it is not to build a resume, then what are we put on this earth for? Paul explains after another ‘mock’ listing of his resume: “More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

Putting “knowing Christ” at the centre of all that we are and all that we do can bring a beautiful simplicity to how we go about living. Instead of seeing life as a string of achievements—even good, helpful achievements—we can begin to see life as a gift to be embraced and enjoyed. Pastors who get this can be transformed from incredibly stressed humans who are constantly counting conversions, Sunday attendances, and offerings (baptisms, bums, and bucks!), to humans who realise that the pastoral work they do is not their ministry at all, but a sharing in the continuing ministry of Jesus Christ. Parents who get this can go from a place where their emotions oscillate wildly with the “slings and arrows of [their children’s] outrageous fortune,” (5) to a place where they can genuinely enjoy their children as the blessings from God that they really are. And teenagers who get this can move beyond the incessant need to measure themselves against others, to instead enjoy discovering the beautiful wonders (and limitations) of who God has created them to be. 

The bigger picture 

Let me be clear: I am not saying that resume virtues are intrinsically evil—clearly they are not. But it is because our western culture values them so very highly that we are in such danger. The culture we live in could not be more mistaken. We were not put on this planet to build a resume—we were put here to know Christ and to enjoy him. If our pursuit of accomplishments gets in the way of us knowing Christ—if our resume virtues become our ultimate ambition—then they have become corrupt, and our pursuit of them becomes one of the most deceptive and pervasive forms of evil that we will ever encounter. 

How do we survive in a world that has got it so terribly wrong? Well, there is an alternative. You see, all those wonderful achievements and resume virtues are actually a part of Jesus’ plan for us, but we must seek that these things come through him rather than as a result of our own effort working for him (or for ourselves). Achievements—even spiritual achievements—that merely bolster our self-belief are ultimately self-defeating. “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well,” Jesus said in Matthew 6:33. Turns out he meant it. 

Story: Greg Liston 

Greg lectures in systematic theology at Laidlaw College and attends Mt Albert Baptist Church. He has one beautiful wife, two incredible children, and thinks that listing other accomplishments here would be counterproductive to the purpose of this article. 

TAKE OUTS:

  1. Where has your attention and effort gone over the last week? How much has gone into achievements, and how much into character growth?
  2. How do the reflections from Kierkegaard add to your understanding of sin?
  3. What would it mean for you to make “knowing Christ” your ultimate ambition? How would centering your life on this goal work practically?
  4. Why are achievements that merely bolster our self-belief ultimately self-defeating? How does working through Christ look different from working for him?

Reference 

1. David Brooks, The Road to Character (London: Allen Lane, 2015), ix.
2. Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death (Start Publishing LLC, 2013).
3. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (London: Fount, 1977), 88-89.
4. Ibid.
5. William Shakespeare, Hamlet (3.1.1751)

Photo credit: Furtseff/istockphoto.com

Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

 

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