I stumbled upon something Gregory the Great wrote warning how vices often masquerade as virtues.* It made me pause and reflect. Here are some of his words:
Often, for instance, a niggard passes himself off as frugal, while one who is prodigal conceals his character when he calls himself openhanded. Often, inordinate laxity is believed to be kindness, and unbridled anger passes as the virtue of spiritual zeal. Precipitancy is frequently taken as efficient promptitude, and dilatoriness as grave deliberation.
Ok, yes, this language is a little outdated. And the first vice he names sounds awfully close to a racial slur, which it is not to be clear. In modern terms:
• The stingy person masks himself with the virtue of prudence.
• The extravagant person hides under the portrayal of liberty and lavish grace.
• Those who negligently don’t take a stand when something needs confronting comfort themselves by their politeness.
• The verbally abusive think their outbursts are for a righteous cause.
• Those who act in haste appeal that they are the capable ones who get things done.
• Those who drag their feet feign wise consideration.
How easy it is to try and give our sin a new facelift, as if there is such a thing as respectable sins (HT to the title of a Jerry Bridges book). Gregory the Great is advising pastors. But its call to us all, first, for self-evaluation, and second, to be discerning of others. Do we know the difference between vice and virtue? Or do we build false dichotomies? Can we do the hard work that true valor requires of us? The above are only a few examples, but in looking at them, do we have what it takes:
• To be generous and good stewards?
• To be grateful for all things and notice and tend to the needs of others?
• Rebuke, either gently or boldly as need be, in love?
• Treat others with dignity, meekness, and humility, even when we fear they’re wrong?
• Exercise prayerful patience and seeking counsel before rushing to slice an ear?
• Do hard things in taking a step in faith when it’s clearly time to act?
Too often, we don’t. But we have Christ, who does. In him we are empowered by his Holy Spirit to do this hard work in faith and dependence on him. Each day we are invited to confess and turn away from our sins and weaknesses in repentance and to put on Christ. And we need to promote this in our brothers and sisters as well. As Gregory warned pastors:
Wherefore, it is necessary that the ruler of souls discern with care and vigilance virtues from vices, lest niggardliness take possession of his heart while he exults in appearing frugal in his outlays, or when prodigally wasteful, he boasts of his liberality as if it were compassion, or by passing over what should be castigated, he drag his subjects to eternal punishment, or when he mercilessly smites offenses, he himself offend more grievously, or when his action could have been performed with rectitude and gravity, it became spoiled by unseasonable anticipation, or by deferring a good and meritorious act, it became changed into an evil one.
*Ancient Christian Writers – The Works of the Fathers in Translation – St Gregory the Great: Pastoral Care, by Johannes Quasten
**Originally published on Jan 22, 2020.