We hear it all the time – throughout our childhood, during Sunday school, from the pulpit during Sunday Mass, each time we prepare for our first reception of a Sacrament. We hear it from our parents, teachers, priests, and other religious. Throughout our lives, there’s a constant focus on sin, the avoidance of it, and its consequences. I don’t want to downplay the reality of sin, nor the result of increasing our separation from God because of it. Obviously, sin is a very real part of our lives and we need to avoid it and all temptations. However, oftentimes, we focus so much on sin and its avoidance that we forget our other calling – to a life of virtue. Furthermore, it’s virtue – and grace – that helps us to beat back sin, temptation, and evil. We are not just called to avoid sin, but also bear witness to our Faith and live out our Faith; part of doing this is practicing virtue.
Our Father calls us to avoid sin, grow closer to Him, and practice virtue. But why else should we practice virtue? Why isn’t avoiding sin just enough?
#1 It Helps Us Fight off Temptation and Sin
Our human inclination is to think that avoiding sin and fighting off temptation comes from our own mental and psychological strength. Some of us are able to fight off temptation easier than others, although we still might have that tendency that makes it difficult to not sin – our own cross to bear. The Grace we receive from the Sacraments also gives us this strength as does prayer. Virtue is often forgotten or even ignored when it comes to the fight against evil. It’s forgotten or ignored because oftentimes it’s easier to avoid something than it is to proactively do something.
The Catechism tells us that “virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to do the good,” allowing us to not only do good but give the best of ourselves. It’s the pursuit of the good by choosing and doing concrete actions that are good.
Practicing virtue is proactively warding off temptation and sin – many times before the temptation even arises. Just as someone trying to lose weight is advised to avoid certain foods, they’re also advised to practice healthy habits like physical exercise. Practicing virtue is the physical exercise for the soul, strengthening our muscles to fight sin and temptation and helping us lose the desire for that temptation.
#2 We Bear Witness to Our Faith
Not very many people know when we successfully fight off sin and temptation. In fact, in today’s society, the very reality of sin and temptation has been twisted into relativism and subjectivism. So, what we know to be sinful is just a preference to someone else. We know this is not Truth, but to the vast majority of our culture, sin is merely a preference to a certain way of life. This is why, now more than ever, practicing virtue is so crucial to bearing witness to Christ and evangelizing. To practice virtue is to live in truth and each and every one of us is called to live in truth.
Our vocation is to bear witness to God, Who is the Truth and wills the Truth. Truth is goodness, justice, and uprightness in action and speech. If we do not act in Truth, represent Truth, or speak Truth, we fall into hypocrisy. It’s the hypocrisy of the faithful that turns many people away from the Faith. The outward practice of the cardinal virtues – prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance – help us profess and evangelize the Truth and also live as an outward witness of the Truth.
#3 Virtue Forges Character
Aside from the direct implications towards living out the Faith when it comes to practicing virtue, it also has an impact on every aspect of our lives. Bringing others to the Faith is not always a direct pronouncement of the Faith, but rather leading others to Truth through example. Practicing virtue threads its way through every aspect of the virtuous person’s life – from friendship to leadership to even being a good employee. It forges the character by creating good traits and habits. A person who is described as having a good and upright character are often described with such adjectives as smart, reliable, dependable, loyal, controlled, responsible, joyful, and happy. The reliable and responsible person is prudent and temperate. The dependable and loyal person is just and strong – or has fortitude. The joyful person has love and hope. These are qualities and characteristic that attract people to ourselves, leaving a lasting impression on them which could eventual attract them to the Faith or at the very least have an openness towards Truth.
Fight Temptation, but Practice Virtue
In fighting temptation, we only have so much strength before we’re worn down. This is why practicing virtue, receiving the sacraments, and having a good prayer life is so essential to living a good Christian life. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8)