Is holiness possible on our own?  Is holiness a matter of character.  Is any human character inclined to goodness?  Diane Leclerc writes;

The truly virtuous character knows the good and does the good for the sake of virtue itself; not out of the internal pressure of guilt, nor the external pressure of a fear of punishment, or even a promise of reward.  The virtuous person acts in complete harmony with the knowledge he or she possesses, out of an internal desire for good, for good’s sake. . . . How sad that so many in our tradition, who suffered under a more legalistic model of holiness, missed the true happiness that comes from living a truly holy life described here as the virtuous character.

(“Being Whole”  in Spiritual Formation, p 55-56)

This sounds so nice, I wish I believed it. I’m in my seventh decade of life and sadly my character hasn’t evolved into this state.   If a decent upbringing, a good education, followed by a responsible and fulfilling career and many years in church would make you virtuous then I should be virtuous and good.  I’m just not.

The Bible tells us; “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”  (Jeremiah 17:9)  Can a heart with effort, practice and good influences be trained to become good. The Bible tells us about a rich young ruler who approached Jesus asking; “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) Jesus replied; “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” (v. 18)  The young ruler didn’t have a virtuous character because he didn’t want to leave his wealth and follow Jesus;  “You know the commandments, Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother And he said to Him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these things from my youth up.’ Looking at him, Jesus felt a love for him and said to him, One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’ But at these words he was saddened, and he went away grieving, for he was one who owned much property.” (v. 19-22)  The rich young ruler lived properly and acted good but only looked virtuous.

Jesus tells us a lot more in this parable.  We can often equate doing good with being good.  Jesus doesn’t.  He quickly set us and the rich young ruler straight on what human character is all about – ‘No one is good except God alone’!  The Bible is very clear on this point.   Paul tells us; “Are we any better? Not at all! We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.'” (Romans 3:9-12)  Consistent acts of goodness, like the rich young ruler don’t make you good or virtuous.  Although for guys like me and the rich young ruler,  looking good can make us very self-righteous in thought, word and deed; “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit” (Romans 3:13)

Can there be happiness based on habitual goodness?  Does a humanistic virtue light the way to fulfilment and happiness?  Some think so; “So, understanding or knowledge is balance with sustained and consistent action (ethical virtue).  This is the truly ‘happy’ person.” (Diane Leclerc, “Being Whole”, Spiritual Formation p.56) The rich young ruler didn’t find fulfilment or happiness in his habitual goodness (Mark 10:22).  John Wesley wrote; “In using all means, seek God alone. In and through every outward thing, look only to the power of His Spirit, and the merits of His Son. Beware you do not get stuck in the work itself; if you do, it is all lost labor. Nothing short of God can satisfy your soul. Therefore, fix on Him in all, through all, and above all…Remember also to use all means as means-as ordained, not for their own sake..” (How to Pray)   Diane Leclerc argues that;  “Wesley equated this kind of happiness with holiness! Wesley’s work shows deep indebtedness to this Aristotelian ethical paradigm.” (Ibid p.56).  I don’t believe John Wesley equated the happiness of consistent ethical virtue  with holiness.  For Wesley these things were ‘means’ not to be used for their own sake and couldn’t satisfy or bring happiness. Only God could do that.

John Wesley wrote; “You cannot find your long-sought happiness in all the pleasures of the world. Are they not ‘deceitful upon the weights’ Are they not lighter than vanity itself? How long will ye ‘feed upon that which is not bread?’  — which may amuse, but cannot satisfy? You cannot find it in the religion of the world; either in opinions or a mere round of outward duties. Vain labour! Is not God a spirit, and therefore to be ‘worshipped in spirit and in truth?’ In this alone can you find the happiness you seek; in the union of your spirit with the Father of spirits; in the knowledge and love of Him who is the fountain of happiness, sufficient for all the souls he has made.” (Spiritual Worship, Sermon 77)  Consistent ethical action has the tendency like all human works to become ‘a mere round of outward duties’.

John Wesley would not have considered Aristotle happy; “. . . this happy knowledge of the true God is only another name for religion; I mean Christian religion; which, indeed, is the only one that deserves the name. Religion, as to the nature or essence of it, does not lie in this or that set of notions, vulgarly called faith; nor in a round of duties, however carefully reformed from error and superstition. It does not consist in any number of outward actions. No: it properly and directly consists in the knowledge and love of God, as manifested in the Son of his love, through the eternal Spirit. And this naturally leads to every heavenly temper, and to every good word and work.” (Spiritual Worship, Sermon 77)

Aristotle didn’t believe in Jesus and so was not happy in the way John Wesley defines happiness.  So the path to Wesleyan  holiness certainly isn’t found on a road to any kind of ‘Aristotelian happiness’ by virtuous character. The Bible doesn’t support this idea nor do I think John Wesley would either.  Jesus cautioned those who sought to be His disciples to ‘count the cost’; “Now great multitudes went with Him. And He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it'” (Luke 14:25-28)  What a sobering thought that takes you far from the worldly  happiness of Aristotle’s virtuous life.

Jesus told us about the blessings the road to holiness and the unworldly kind of happiness it brings; “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  (Matthew 5:10-12)  Jesus didn’t expect we would have worldly happiness as His disciples; “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Happiness for a true Christian is an acquired taste for something not of this world.

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