Thursday, March 19, 2009

Lesson on Virtue


If we try to define honesty, we can likely agree upon a definition rather quickly. Same with faith, or with knowledge. But what if we try to define virtue? Virtue seems to be a bit more intangible, a tad ambiguous.

Webster’s defines virtue as a conformity to a standard of right; a particular moral excellence; an order of angels; a beneficial quality or power of a thing; manly strength or courage; a commendable quality or trait; a capacity to act, or chastity.

Not crystal clear, is it? The Bible Dictionary offers less direction; virtue isn’t even an entry! The Topical Guide offers the following synonyms or suggested study topics: chastity, cleanliness, goodness, holiness modesty, purity, and sacred.

Aristotle weighed in on virtue, explaining, ”Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e. the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while virtue both finds and chooses that which is intermediate."[1]

It’s not getting any easier!

President Faust explained that part of the reason that virtue is so difficult to grasp is that it has several definitions. He said, “Virtue has many definitions, such as moral excellence, right action and thinking, goodness of character, or chastity in women.”[2]

Thankfully, Preach My Gospel gives us one concise definition that encompasses virtue. It ties it all together rather well, I think. Under the heading of virtue, it reads, “Virtue originates in your innermost thoughts and desires. It is a pattern of thought and behavior based on high moral standards.”[3] We’ll use that as our guide for discussing virtue today.

Recently, the Young Women added a value: virtue! As women (albeit, young only in heart, perhaps), we, too must “come to accept and act upon” the value of virtue. In October 2008 General Conference, Sister Elaine Dalton, General Young Women President, called for a return to virtue. But before we can return, we must know what it is!

The value of virtue did not originate with Sister Dalton or even with Young Women. It was around long before then. Proverbs 31 gives a description. It appears a virtuous woman is nigh unto perfection. Proverbs lists the following traits of a virtuous woman:
Dependable (verse 11)
Abounds in good works (verse 12)
Industrious (verse 13)
Resourceful (verse 14)
Wise (verse 16)
Physically strong (verse 17)
Charitable (verse 20)Kind (verse 26)
Exercise faith in God (verse 30)
From the sounds of it, virtue looks like something rather desirable. So why aren’t we hearing about it everywhere? Why isn’t everyone talking about it?

President Hinckley discussed, “Can there be any doubt that a great sickness has invaded our land, and that healing is desperately needed in our hearts and in our homes? Our value system is deteriorating and crumbling before our eyes. Secular self-sufficiency has replaced worship in the lives of many. That is the bad news. As we enumerate all our ills, the situation may appear hopeless. But there is great reason to have hope, for there is a remedy. Our sickness is not difficult to diagnose, nor is the remedy complicated to prescribe. Healing in our hearts and in our homes, and subsequently throughout society, will begin to occur when we individually and collectively return to the code of ethics and the cannons of divine truth that our honored forefathers lived by.”[4]

As President Hinckley suggests, many claim virtue is old fashioned and not relevant for today. We’ve slowly moved away from the ideal of virtue. How did we get there? In her talk “A Return to Virtue”, Sister Dalton suggests it has been a gradual process.[5] She sites an example in The Book of Mormon to show how little by little, just a gradual shift can lead towards destruction.

In Alma 47, we read about Amalickiah, who wanted the Lamanites to join his army. He knew that to accomplish his goal, he would have to remove an obstacle: the leader of the Lamanite army: Lehonti. Lehonti was gathered with his men on top of a hill. Amalickiah began laying in wait. When Lehonti did not come down from the hill, Amalickiah sent a messenger up the hill to beg Lehonti come down. Three times, Amalickiah sent the messenger, and each time Lehonti refused. Finally, Amalickiah went part way up the hill, close to the Lamanite camp. Again he sent the messenger, this time with the message that he was already part way up the hill – and that Lehonti was welcome to bring his guards. Lehonti only had to come a little way down. Lehonti consented. He met Amalickiah, just a little way down the hill. It appeared they had a friendly chat. It appeared that all was well. But all was not well. As the “friendship” continued, Amalickiah continued forward with his plan. In verse 18 we read, “And it came to pass that Amalickiah caused that one of his servants should administer poison by degrees to Lehonti, that he died”.

Every compromise Lehonti made to Amalickiah was part of the “degrees” by which he died. Where do we see this in our own lives/in our own society? How are we entrapped? Certainly there are many areas where our virtue is attacked, including messages about the role of women, the changing of family dynamics, an increased emphasis on our own lives, or on our image, and a stress on self-sufficiency, rather than leaning on God.

How can we escape these snares and follow the imperative to return to virtue?

President Monson counseled, “you be the one to make a stand for right, even if you stand alone. Have the moral courage to be a light for others to follow. There is no friendship more valuable than your own clear conscience, your own moral cleanliness—and what a glorious feeling it is to know that you stand in your appointed place clean and with the confidence that you are worthy to do so.”[6]

So how do we make our light of moral courage shines bright? We must stand for virtue. Sister Dalton offered the following suggestions for us to focus on:
Have pure thoughts. D&C 121:45: “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong.”
Keep your covenants. D&C 25:13: “Wherefore, lift up thy heart and rejoice, and cleave unto the covenants which thou hast made.”
Stand in holy places. D&C 45:32: “My disciples shall stand in holy places, and shall not be moved.”
Repent. Mosiah 4:10: “Believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you.”
Keep the commandments. D&C 20:77: “Keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them.”
Seek good. Article of Faith 13: “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”

Let’s return now to Proverbs 31. It suggests that our worth is great if we live virtuously. Verse 10 states that a virtuous woman’s “price is far above rubies.” Why rubies? Most scholars agree that the original intent of the word, before translation was jewels. However, when the Bible was translated by King James’ scribes, the ruby was the most valuable of all jewels. Many qualities were ascribed to the ruby, and it was exceedingly rare. The scribes, who we believe were inspired, wanted to connote the great worth of the value of virtue. Interesting.

As sisters in the gospel, when we live virtuous lives, our worth – individually, and collectively – is great, even more than that of rubies.

Once, during Christ’s ministry, we find it recorded in the scriptures that he was touched by the multitude. We read in Luke 6:19: “The whole multitude sought to touch him: for there went virtue out of him, and healed them all.” We can substitute the definition of “strength, from moral excellence” here. Christ’s, and our, strength, is found in the moral excellence of virtue.

Virtue is our strength in an amoral world. It is what sets us apart. While it may be difficult to define – the word itself proves to challenge us, the concept of virtue is tangible. While virtue cannot be seen, it can be felt.

As Christ felt his virtue – or his inner strength – go out of him, we too can use our virtue to strengthen and bless others, to raise their sights on the meaning of life. It is through virtue, that we raise ourselves, and change the world.

[1] Aristotle. "Nicomachean Ethics.” [Online] 24 February 2009. <>.
[2] James E. Faust, “How Near to the Angels,” Ensign, May 1998, 95.
[3] Preach My Gospel, 2004, 118.
[4] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Standing For Something: 10 Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes” (Random House, Inc.: New York: 2000) xxi.
[5] Elaine S. Dalton, “A Return to Virtue, “Ensign, November 2008, 78-80.
[6] Thomas S. Monson, “Examples of Righteousness,” Ensign, May 2008, 65–68.

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