The Greatest Virtue of All
There is a reason virtue signalling has become a common term in our culture. It is the product of valuing virtue and the ability to curate the parts of our lives we display to the world through social media. We can showcase our virtue, participate in a cause, join with the side society values as good without ever getting out of bed or leaving the house.
As Christians, we see this as problematic. Virtue requires action, and attempting to appear virtuous without actually being so is hypocritical. But we have our own problems with acting virtuously; namely, we don’t have a proper definition for it. Many Christians think the same about virtue as the world does: be good, don’t be bad, and love others. Those are good things for society, and we should be happy society values this kind of virtue, but it’s too simplistic and undefined; it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.
Paul gives the Corinthian church what we often think of as the hierarchy of virtue. “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). We take it to mean the greatest virtue of all virtues is love. However, Paul is in the middle of addressing gifting in the church; there are different levels of gifts, but without love, they are all useless. Also, his point is hope and faith are valuable only in this life and, for the most part, individually applied; love always involves others and is eternal. That is the point Paul makes. Nevertheless, we are content with this as the final say about virtue, but we have not really defined love in a way the Bible defines it, nor have we found the motivation for it in the lives of believers.
Paul gets to the heart of love in his letter to the Philippians. He writes,
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:1-8 emphasis added)
How do we love others? According to Paul, it is by becoming humble. Humility is the foundation, the fountain, of love. Indeed, humility is the fountain of all virtues. Why? Because humility gets to the heart of the matter, it strikes dead the fountain of vice and sin, namely pride. And if we look back at Paul’s practical definitions of love in 1 Corinthians 13, we find them to be perfectly functional definitions of humility.
Humility is patient and kind;
humility does not envy or boast;
it is not arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Humility bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love is humility in action, and true humility is found in Christ because only in Christ are we cleansed from pride and given the power to defeat it daily. All the ideas of love this world offers (and many Christians as well), fall dead at the feet of humility. There is no room for the kind of ‘self-love’ where we retreat into ourselves for ‘self-care.’ There is no room for loving others only when it’s guaranteed they will love us back. There is no room for loving only the pleasant.
Humility is different, and it is the better way. It requires supernatural fuel because it runs contrary to our nature and this world. The reason it’s the better way is that it truly cares about others; it truly works to build up those around us and make their lives better.
In practical matters, humility does not allow us to be pushed aside or stepped upon by others in matters of the truth. Humility is tied to the truth, so wherever truth goes, humility goes. Biblically, humility binds us and conforms us to truth, so it is not the route of humility to agree with, praise, and accept the various lifestyles of sin this world praises and accepts. Humility belongs to the saints, to the called-out ones, to those cleansed and sanctified by Christ. Humility is radically different from pride. It is pure virtue. It is the greatest virtue of them all.