My dear brother,
Your dad asked me to write up some thoughts about life for this big birthday of yours. The sort of things I wish I’d known when I was 13, but didn’t get to till later. Cool—we can do that. But first, I have to be honest: the school of (sanctified) hard knocks is the only school there is.
There are no shortcuts in the way of the cross. There will be suffering ahead. You will be called upon to do hard things. Sometimes, you will be afraid. But you have nothing to fear. Because you have God. If he is for you—and the gospel promises he is—what if the whole world is against you?
There are no shortcuts in the way of the cross.
Now, as one sinner-saint to another, I want to share a bit about three stages a man passes through in his pilgrimage to the City of God.
First, when the chap realizes—for whatever reason—that he needs to pursue virtue. (For me, it was reading a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer about cheap and costly grace.) Virtue is an old Latin word, virtus, which means “power” and is linked to the word for man, vir. To become a real man is to become strong in virtue. Money, sex appeal, sports, career success: none of that makes a vir. Just virtus.
There are four cardinal virtues you must obtain: wisdom, justice, courage, and self-possession.
Wisdom is the power to see past appearances to what’s real, and to make sound judgments on the basis of that vision of things. The Bible says, once and again, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. That’s because God is the most real thing there is, and the fear of God is what happens when a man recognizes the sheer reality of the Lord God, and the amazing puniness of his self—and falls to pieces before him. Get that fear, and you will become wise.
Next is justice: the power to do the right, to give to all persons what is owed to them because of your deep respect for their personhood. The things the world tires itself out striving to possess don’t matter at all. What matters is that you become just, upright, good, faithful, true, a man of integrity, who swears to his own hurt and does not change. Let the world take away everything you have if it must, let it take away your very life, but never, ever give up your grip on justice.
Third, courage—the power to do the right thing when you know you will suffer for it. Not fearlessness. Foolish men are fearless. Wise men fear, because they know how weak they are, and how dangerous the world is. But they fear God more. Because they fear God more, they are wise to perceive the way of justice. And because in their wisdom they treasure justice more than possessions or status or life itself, they are willing to suffer loss for the good.
The last virtue is self-possession. Without it, a man is like a city broken into and left without walls. The power to rule yourself, to overrule your emotions and impulses—this virtue is the wall around your soul. Do not let your natural desires for food or drink or woman or revenge rule over you. If you let them, they will be your masters and you will be their slave. No: you must rule over them. You must obtain self-control, so that you may possess your self. For it is only as you possess yourself that you are able in freedom to give yourself in love.
From Virtue to Grace
The second stage in the path is the “conversion”—as Martin Luther put it—from virtue to grace. Under the sun, there’s nothing better than virtue. You must strive for it. But you can’t obtain it on your own. In fact, the harder you fight for it, the more you realize your inability to achieve it.
Your sins are great, because sinfulness runs deep: too deep for self-help, however ancient or sophisticated, to—well, help. But it’s not just sin that’s the problem. Even your moral virtue has a spiritual cancer inside it. Even your goodness is marred by the evil of pride. Your best performances betray the pathology of a self that doesn’t want God to be God. For you are a son of Adam, the man who wasn’t content being a man, tried to ungod God, abandoned virtus, and stopped being a vir. Me too.
No matter. You have something better than virtue: you have Christ. You have been baptized, and you have the promise of the gospel, that God loved you so much that to redeem you he gave his Son.
- When you recognize your folly, take refuge in Christ: he is your wisdom.
- When you recognize your injustice, take refuge in Christ: he is your righteousness.
- When you recognize your cowardice, take refuge in Christ: he, and he alone, is the Lionheart.
- When you recognize your enslavement to lust, take refuge in Christ: his blood atones for your every sin, and his Spirit is strong to overcome the flesh and make you holy.
When you really blow it, and realize that for all your striving after virtue you are shot-through with vice, lift up your heart to our Redeemer, and rejoice. He is the Second and Last Man, the friend of sinners like me and you. The sooner you realize your powerlessness, the sooner you become strong—not in yourself, but by virtue of your union with Christ. Christ, the power of God. Christ—the Vir. “Behold the Man,” said Pilate, on the day our Adam undid the disaster by his obedience unto death at the tree of the cross.
The Greatest of These
Ripped out of the first Adam and ingrafted into Christ by grace, we begin to learn the art of arts: love. Love is the one thing that matters ultimately.
Why? Because “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and he is the most real thing there is.
Love is the one thing that matters ultimately. Why? Because God is love.
Someday you need to pick a trade or career, something to do: and that matters; great good can come from it. Hobbies are fine, hunting is fun, reading books brings wisdom as well as pleasure. But in the end, there are only two realities that count for much: Persons, and the love they share. God is Love, “God in three persons/blessed Trinity.” This God who is love rescued you in order to remake you into an image of himself—into love.
What is love? Love is God’s Son becoming man, that Adam’s sons might become children of God. Love is the King of kings stripping himself bare to wash his disciples’ feet; to wash the feet of Judas. Love is this God-man laying down his life for his bride, dying that she may live. Learn to live for others, learn to give yourself up for others, learn the way of sacrifice, and you will find joy.
“Be watchful, astand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Cor. 16:13–14). You are well on your way, my friend. Stay the course—and help me along the path too.