Cultivating Christlike Virtue in a Virtue-Signaling Age

In You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith critiques American evangelicalism for equating knowledge with spiritual maturity. What we think is often prized above all, leading to “bobblehead Christianity.” Like the guy at the gym with big biceps and tiny calves, though, when we have inflated heads and shriveled hearts, our spiritual training needs correction.

As debates rage on in American churches related to COVID-19church openingsracial injusticespolitics, and the government’s power, one symptom of our reverence for rationality but collapse of character shows up in how we engage these issues. We need to examine Scripture on every subject, and we shouldn’t settle for thin thinking. We must cultivate virtue alongside our opinions and convictions.

For example, if we want to respond faithfully to the unjust treatment of minorities or immigrants, in addition to thinking about it through a biblical-theological lens, how might we benefit from considering Jesus’s life? Together, these approaches provide nuanced ways of understanding how biblical truth and wisdom are lived out. A study of Scripture reveals the need to advocate for mistreated image-bearers, but Jesus actually shows us what this looks like in tangible, compassionate acts to the powerless.

We don’t have to choose between good theology and godly virtue. Jesus offers us both.

Jesus teaches us not only what is right and true, but also how to display the beauty of the truth in our words, posture, and deeds. He models how to live righteously and love compassionately alongside how to think deeply.

I have no desire to remove the life of the mind from our Christian faith. But similar to how a spine out of whack damages other muscles, rationality at the expense of character is damaging to the church. Thankfully, we don’t have to choose between good theology and godly virtue. Jesus offers us both.

Thinking and Feeling Like Jesus

Dane Ortlund’s excellent new book, Gentle and Lowly [20 quotes], offers a guide for connecting theology and practice through Christ’s life. Glimpsing his heart in his kindness, empathy, and goodness changes us from the inside-out.

Christ’s heart doesn’t just compel us to draw near to him; it constrains us to reflect him. Jesus’s life doesn’t only achieve salvation for sinners; it models for us the kind of life we should live. We’re told to love our neighbor as ourselves—and, in Jesus, we see what that kind of love looks like.

The Bible’s vices and virtues aren’t generic lists of do’s and don’ts; they’re the character qualities of disciples following in Christ’s footsteps. They’re the byproducts of union and communion with Christ. Abiding in him produces fruit in us.

The Bible’s vices and virtues aren’t generic lists of do’s and don’ts; they’re the character qualities of disciples following in Christ’s footsteps.

Jesus feels indignant against anything that’s “not the way it should be.” We see his sorrow and anger when Lazarus tastes death in John 11. We see his empathy as he weeps with those who weep. When Jesus sees the suffering of the lame and the afflicted (Matt. 20:30–31), or the broken mother who loses her only son (Luke 7:11–17), pity and compassion move him. Such sickness and loss are not the way it’s supposed to be. And when Jesus sees injustice as the poor are taken advantage of (Matt. 5:38–40), he rages with righteous fury against the wrongdoing.

Do we reflect the heart of Jesus when we see oppression and injustice, or are we just glad it’s not happening to us? Do we reflect his heart of concern for others, or are we mainly worried about how things affect us? Do we grumble over little annoyances but feel apathy toward others’ deep wounds?

Philippians 2 points to Jesus as the ultimate example of one who considered the needs and interests of others above his own. Through encountering how Jesus laments with the hurting or advocates for the disadvantaged, we discover how to be with and for others. Grace spilled out of him and landed on others.

One goal in meditating on Jesus’s heart and character is that we’d fall in love with him, but another is that we’d mirror him to others. Again, this will include his empathy for the suffering, compassion for the mistreated, righteous anger for those wronged, the courage to stand up against those who’ve abused their power, and his commitment to speak truth to those who twist truth for personal gain. These are the virtues of Jesus we put on. It’s an essential aspect of discipleship as we follow Jesus in his thinking, feeling, and doing.

If we spent as much time marveling at Jesus as we spent consuming the news, our lives would more reflect the perfect God-man, rather than the empty rhetoric of fallen man.

Reflecting the God-Man

I don’t think this is the typical response when we read the news, scan social media, or enter difficult conversations. Our gut reaction, rather, is to dig in deeper with our tribe or wade into yet another debate—rather than first putting on the virtues seen in Jesus. But our arguments are only persuasive when our character is credible and our posture is gracious. If we spent as much time marveling at Jesus as we spent consuming the news, our lives would more reflect the perfect God-man, rather than the empty rhetoric of fallen man.

*This post originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition

Combine the mind of Christ and the heart of Christ as you clothe yourself with the character of Christ. In an age obsessed with virtue-signaling, let’s dare to give our energy to developing true virtue that makes the whole Christ clear and captivating.

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