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Putting virtue into practice (Part 1)

Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.

– Philippians 4:8

In me last article, we began exploring how the gifts and talents God gives us are to be used within a framework of virtue. What are some practical models of what this looks like? What does a biblical model look like?

Benjamin Franklin offers one of the most famous examples of striving to live within a code of conduct. In 1726, as a young man, he conceived for himself the “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” After a time of introspection, he came up with the following twelve virtues. He wrote them down, along with a short description of how each should be applied.

Although Franklin was a deist, not a Christian, he still drew these virtues from the Bible. Many of the virtues on his list reflect those that Paul writes about in the verse above:

1. Temperance – “Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”

2. Silence – “Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.”

3. Order – “Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.”

4. Resolution – “Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”

5. Frugality – “Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.”

6. Industry – “Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.”

7. Sincerity – “Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.”

8. Justice – “Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.”

9. Moderation – “Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.”

10. Cleanliness – “Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.”

11. Tranquility – “Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.”

12. Chastity – “Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.”

Franklin showed the list to a Quaker friend of his and asked him what he thought. After looking at the list, Franklin’s friend suggested adding “humility.” Franklin quickly added it as the last of his virtues. He wrote, “Humility: imitate Jesus and Socrates.”

Franklin then committed to giving strict attention to one virtue each week. After thirteen weeks he moved through all thirteen virtues, and would start the process over again, continuing to do so for most of his life. He actually tracked his progress by using a little book of thirteen charts, putting a mark next to each virtue for each fault committed with respect to that virtue for that day.

While Franklin, by his own admission, did not live completely by his virtues, he believed the attempts made him a better man. Franklin writes in his autobiography,

“Tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”

In following Franklin’s example, though, we need to be careful. Franklin developed his list of virtues in order to be morally perfect. He did the right things for the wrong reasons. As Christians, we live virtuous lives because we love God and seek to honor him in response to the grace he has shown us in offering his son for our salvation.

There are many other examples of moral codes taken from the Scriptures. The Boy Scout Law says a scout is:

  • Trustworthy
  • Loyal
  • Helpful
  • Friendly
  • Courteous
  • Kind
  • Obedient
  • Cheerful
  • Thrifty
  • Brave
  • Clean
  • Reverent

Next time we’ll look at how to develop your own list of virtues that are rooted in Scripture and help us faithfully use our gifts and talents according to God’s design and desire. After that, we’ll talk about how virtue inspires action.


Five tools for thinking biblically about faith, work and economics

Why is personal vision important?

Discovering your personal vision

Why I Am Not A Plumber

Gifts, Talents, and Virtues

This article originally appeared on the website of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics.

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