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Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Foundation for a Better Life

          The Foundation for a Better Life has a series of television commercials which encourage basic civic virtues.  I am inspired by the one where the little boy wanders onto the stage just before the virtuoso gives his piano recital. The little boy sits at the grand piano and pecks out a simple tune. The maestro walks up behind him and whispers in his ear - "Keep playing." Then he joins his masterful skill with the little boy's tune.  "Encouragement - Pass it on."
          Another commercial portrays Alex, a basketball player in the championship game. Alex is defending when the ball is passed and knocked out of bounds.  Alex's coach calls time-out. Alex walks up to the huddle and confesses to the coach, "I touched the ball, Coach.  I touched it last."  Alex's team-mates don't want to hear that!  It's the championship game! As Alex walks back into the game, his coach calls him from behind, "Alex! Good call."  So, with his coach's permission, Alex goes to the referee and confesses that the ball was out on him.  "Sportsmanship - pass it on."
           Sportsmanship is one manifestation of the greater characteristic called virtue or moral excellence as some translations give it.
             Moral excellence is a rare trait. If it is possessed to the degree in which we see it exhibited in Alex, it comes through as naturally as it does for Alex.  You can't help but be virtuous, if you are.
            Peter tells us in 2 Peter 1:3 that we are granted everything relative to life and godliness through the knowledge of God, who called us according to His own moral excellence (aretē). The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament defines it as "eminence".  "It can refer to excellence of achievement, to mastery in a specific field, on the one side, or to endowment with higher power on the other, or often to both together" (Bauernfeind, 458). According to Bauernfeind, in Homer it referred to human achievement exhibited by what we would call "manliness." In non-biblical writings, it became equivalent to righteousness.
             The Greek concept of virtue ("heroic self-aggrandizement") is not God's concept.  The focus of the Bible is not on man's accomplishments but on God's works.  God called us to moral excellence through His virtue and goodness.
             Paul writes in Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence [virtue, p.h.], if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (ESV).
            When we think about the war that is raging around us - relativism, materialism, hedonism, nationalism, individualism - we can understand how important it is to add moral excellence or virtue to our lives. When we do, it will - as Jesus' virtue did - spill out at the most opportune times.
             Like Alex, when our morality comes to be tested at the most trying times, our virtue or moral excellence will flow from our inner being.  We cannot contain it.
--Paul Holland

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