Virtues Are Habits by Kim Reisman
[God] will judge everyone according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers. But he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness.
Thomas Aquinas was one of the great champions of developing the virtues in our moral life. He described the two sides of virtue: power and habit. We’ve discussed power, now we turn to the idea of habit.
A habit is the fruit of repetition. The more we repeat a certain act, the more it becomes ingrained in us to do it; so that eventually we do it without even thinking about it. Human beings are creatures of habit. If you don’t believe this, take note of your morning and nighttime preparations. Do you do the same things or is each time different? How do you put your clothes on each morning? Do you put the same leg into your pants first every time?
My husband and son are wonderful case studies of habits. Before my husband, John, retired, he had an apple and a cup of coffee each morning before work, rain or shine. During the week, unless there was something special going on, he ate a turkey sandwich for lunch. He’s done these things for as long as I can remember. Not surprisingly, my son takes after his father. When he was young, it was crucial that Nathan wake up at 7:00am each school day. He didn’t need to leave for school until 8:00am and it only took him about 15 minutes to eat and get dressed, but if he overslept, it was not a good thing. I remember one day when he needed help with a knotted soccer cleat, and when John began to help him get it on, he said, “I don’t like putting this shoe on first. Do the other one first.”
Predictability, routine. We may chuckle at our idiosyncrasies, but our habits can provide us with a sense of security and stability. When they’re healthy and not compulsive, our habits can help to bring order and efficiency to our lives. Like all habits, good and bad, virtues develop through repetition and exercise. While God’s power in the virtues is essential, it won’t be effective in our lives unless we’re able to channel that power through disciplined practice. Moral development is much like a runner in training. God may have blessed the runner with the talent and power to run, but he or she won’t be able to compete successfully without hours of dedicated and rigorous practice.
Our use of the virtues is the same. We have the power from God but we won’t be successful unless we devote ourselves to diligent rehearsal. Developing our moral selves, then, is a day-by-day, step-by-step process of determination. It often involves making hard choices and following “the road less traveled.” In order to strengthen our characters, and move toward the good selves God created us to be, we need both the power of God’s grace in the virtues, and our own disciplined exercise of them. When we experience this combination, we encounter the possibility of the habits of virtue becoming second nature, moving us every closer to our created nature.