I was recently listening to a talk given by N.T. Wright in which he made the following statement:
“Our culture prefers effortless spontaneity with occasional divine intervention in emergencies rather than working with God on developing the muscles which will meet those emergencies with a God-given second nature which appears spontaneous but is in fact the result of thinking and choosing and practicing.”
Hearing this inspired me to actually shut off my iPod and ponder what I had just heard. It was one of those moments where a profound truth seemed to be lobbed out of the ether and strike me in the face.
Aristotle taught that moral virtue could come about by following the right habits. In essence, moral virtue is a muscle that could be developed and strengthened by making certain choices. It could be hard initially, but over time a person would develop a habit that would be second nature. When I first started to play guitar, I didn’t know chords and I could barely hold the strings in place for more than a few minutes at a time. Through repetitive practice I developed calluses on my fingers, which blocked the pain, and my fingers soon learned to form chord shapes by a mere mention or sighting of a symbol. Musicians also learn scales, which let them see how notes fit in relation to one another. These rarely come naturally, and even those with inborn talent must develop it to achieve a certain level of skill. This is the essence of Aristotelian virtue: thinking, choice, developing habit. Habit leads to action as a second nature.
I occasionally struggle with both anger and depression. I’ve written about it elsewhere, and perhaps will post some of those thoughts here one day. But eventually I learned that much of what caused my anger was giving in to emotion without thought. I felt, but I did not choose how to respond to those feelings. Over the months since that realization I have tried to make the conscious choice to not act upon impulses that are inspired by the anger, whether treating a person with rudeness or even just sitting and stewing over the emotions I feel. Instead, I have tried to make reminds or tokens that I could take with me into situations where I am most-likely to become angry (usually work) and the very presence of these tokens reminds me that I have a choice to denigrate the person in my mind, or focus on other things. Philippians 4:8 is an excellent resource as it tells us “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” So, instead of focusing on the anger I feel or the ignorance or insensitivity of the person I must interact with, I can focus on another truth. I can remind myself of the good things in my life. This is illustrating another concept Paul wrote about in 2 Corinthians 10:5, which reminds us to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” It is a muscle that must be developed and exercised. It is discipline.