There is no event that compares to the birth of a firstborn child. That mixture of fear and excitement and joy when experienced for the first time is unrivaled by even the best rides at Disney World, that acme of American institutions whose aims are to produce those emotions through artificial means. This shouldn’t be a surprise—it is difficult to compete with witnessing a miracle—nevertheless, most people feel that it is a bit of a surprise, as the emotional impact is far more than they expected.
We have another chance at being a part of the birth process. Jesus told us that we must be born again, and whether we have some great conversion experience or we have been Christians since infancy, we have a chance to experience and participate in that process. For whether our faith is new or old, the reborn soul has many opportunities to give birth to virtues.
In his book On Ascetical Life, Isaac of Nineveh challenges us to consider all of the Christian virtues. Then he asks us to compare them with those that we possess in our own lives. Those that we do not have, he argues, can be considered as abortions. They are virtues that Christ conceived in us but that we never brought to fruition, those to which we never gave birth.
That this seventh-century monk and bishop would use the graphic imagery of participating in an abortion is telling. Isaac considered the development of the spiritual life to be the responsibility of each Christian. Those who ignored this could be compared to a young mother who chose not to give birth. In both cases, that which God miraculously conceived within them was purposefully annihilated for the sake of comfort and convenience.
Adding virtues to our lives is like having children. They won’t be brought up without a great deal of time and effort. They both require constant attention. The continual changing of soiled clothes during potty training is like the countless failures we make in attempting to add virtues that were not there before. It is difficult work, often resulting in much anguish and strife. It almost never happens quickly and requires many, many hours of attention. But the glorious rewards far outweigh the toil required.
The Apostle Peter reminds us that our Lord calls us to glory and virtue. Peter says that our Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness: he has made us partakers of the divine nature. Peter then admonishes us to be diligent to make our calling and election sure. If bearing virtues seems difficult, Peter assures us that God has given us the power and strength to get the job done.
We need to rekindle the joy and fear and excitement of the new life in Christ. This is all the more important if it doesn’t seem so new. We need constantly to work to “put on the new man,” to use Paul’s words, for we are “new creatures.” We need to labor to give birth to those virtues that were conceived within us when the Holy Spirit entered into our lives. This is the exciting adventure that God has set before us: an opportunity to be transformed into a new being. Try that, Disney World!
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
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“Bearing Virtue” first appeared in the March 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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