Practicing (Obeying) Virtue (the Commandments)

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

In some of my previous posts, I’ve connected the counsel of Church leaders to that of the ancient concept of eudaimonia (flourishing). Lately, I’ve been going through a couple books on the topic of virtue ethics. One of them is philosopher Julia Annas’ Intelligent Virtue, which argues that virtue can be learned as one would a skill. One can continually progress and become more dynamic in their use and application of virtue, just as they can with an acquired skill. This is not unconscious habit, but knowingly applied mastery. Given my interest in developing a theology of work that draws on studies in organizational theory and positive psychology, I was excited to see her compare the state of virtue with the concept of flow.1 This virtuous state described by Annas reminded me of Christ’s Beatitudes in Matthew 5. As one pair of biblical scholars explains, “[W]e often interpret [Matt. 5:9] to mean, “If you are a peacemaker, then God will bless you.” But this isn’t what Jesus meant. Jesus meant, “if you are a peacemaker, then you are in your happy place.” It just doesn’t work well in English.” This is because “happy sounds trite…”2 The Greek makarios conveyed much more than a mere psychological state: “In the wider Greek world that sets the background for biblical use makar- was used of the gods, who were above all the vicissitudes of life, of the dead, who had left it all behind, and of people who were thought to be in a good situation and were deemed to have reason for being happy: wealthy, having family, being wise or famous or an honored citizen, and so on.”3 In essence, one could say that makarios was the divine life. The idea of living the divine life–of flourishing–through the practice of virtue is something that pops up again and again throughout this session.4

Richard L. Evans starts it off by explaining that far from needing to be “rewritten,” the commandments need to be “reread.” The reason for this is because “the experience of the ages has proved the need for them, and has proved what happens if they are ignored.” According to Evans, the commandments are for our benefit. “Essentially,” he says, “this is what the gospel is: counsel from a loving Father who says to his children, “You have limitless, everlasting possibilities. You also have your freedom. It’s up to you how you use it. This is what you can become if you take my advice—and this is what will happen if you don’t. The choice is yours.”” Evans declares that “there is a law of compensation that is built into life,” one that echoes the words of Alma: “…the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful” (Alma 41:13). Obedience for the sake of obedience is not inherently virtuous. Embracing and doing “the good” because it is good is what brings about more good. Obeying the commandments is practicing the skill of virtue.

ElRay L. Christiansen continues this trend by noting, “Man’s progress is to a great degree dependent upon his willingness to remain steadfast and immovable, especially when faced with opposition and adversity.” To choose virtue in all situations leads one to become truly virtuous and obtain “that which is most precious and desirable—peace, liberty, and salvation” (italics mine). The lack of virtue leads to “crime and contention” and “crises and violence.” It is likely a similar recognition that led Bernard P. Brockbank to say, “The Lord personally gave commandments that would help mankind to grow and develop his Godlike attributes.” The commandments (specifically the Ten in Brockbank’s talk) are not arbitrary. Rather, they are “a basic part of God’s way of life and a basic part of the gospel of the kingdom.” And what is the foundation for God’s way of life? According to Milton R. Hunter, “The central theme and the most dynamic force of the gospel of Jesus Christ is love.” This is because ” [o]ur Eternal Father and his Only Begotten Son both have intense, comprehensive, and full love for us. They have much greater intelligence and understanding than we have, and so their feelings of love go far beyond our capabilities to love. The attribute of love is so highly developed in these divine Beings that the scriptures state: “God is love.” (1 John 4:16.) In fact, Deity’s transcendent love is above and beyond our deepest feelings and keenest conception. At times of great spiritual experience when we feel an abundance of the Spirit, we have a greater realization of the magnitude of God’s love.” Quoting President David O. McKay, he states, “Homes are made permanent through love.” (Pathways to Happiness [Bookcraft], p. 114.)” This is because “[l]ove should also characterize the center of the family life. Each child should be made to feel at all times by his parents that he is of great importance in the family. Parents should express their love to their children and show them in numerous ways that they love them dearly. Then the Spirit of the Lord will reside in the home. The family will be love-centered and thereby God-centered. The children in turn will reciprocate the love to the parents and strive to please them.” As I pointed out in a previous post, “Family life is the context in which the good life is found.”

Finally, S. Dilworth Young gives us an idea of the spill-over effect of this virtuous living:

The revelations given to Joseph Smith on this subject are numerous and were among the early ones. To care for the poor is one of the first and early obligations. To help the needy and those who mourn follows close behind. All of us have some time, but those who are not given great responsibility in the organizations have more time to seek out the poor, needy, and helpless. And this help is badly needed. All about us are those in need of encouragement, assistance, and help—help of a kind we can all give, not money, but time and attention and personal encouragement, especially to those who must bear great responsibility for loved ones and who cannot pass it to others for the simple reason there are no others to whom to pass it.

He continues, “There are many lonely people, people whose loneliness is hidden. We need to seek them out and relieve them. There are those who feel they are not accepted, who need to be built up in spirit and helped to find themselves.” We flourish as we establish connections with each other, building quality relationships. The commandments are pro-social in nature. They are meant to build Zion, to establish families, and make us of “one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18).

Let’s start with practicing them.5

The other posts from this week’s installment of the General Conference Odyssey are:



6 thoughts on “Practicing (Obeying) Virtue (the Commandments)”

  1. Glad to see you reading some virtue ethics (though MacIntyre’s much better than Annas! and he’s more commonly cited in org theory journals–see here vs here… :-) ).

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