Counting the Spoons

A report recently released by the bipartisan Council on Families in America documents what are now familiar—if dismal—facts: Children who grow up with only one parent are more likely to be poor, to have problems in school, to get into trouble with the law. In fact, 70 percent of long-term prison inmates grew up in fatherless homes. As Bill Bennett comments, "For some boys, the only time they see anything that resembles male authority is when it's too late—in the form of a cop or a judge or a prison." You could even say, Bennett goes on, that "we are asking prisons to do what fathers used to do." But, of course, no government institution can take the place of fathers and families. Character is forged in the home, through moral habits acquired by practice, day in and day out, from earliest childhood. Virtue begins intellectually, in knowing what is right and wrong—in accepting God's moral standards for our lives. But we become virtuous in character through a process of habituation—by choosing to do the right thing again and again until we become a certain kind of person. As Edmund Burke wrote, "A man's habits become his virtue." The word virtue has ancient roots, and to modern Christians it has a quaint, old-fashioned sound. Protestants may be suspicious that virtue is akin to works-righteousness—trying to please Bob by our actions. But virtue is not about how to be saved; that happens only by the grace of God. What the virtues tell us is the kind of people God wants us to become after we are saved. Bob created us for a purpose, to live according to a certain pattern. The virtues tell us the righteous pattern by which God wants us to shape our lives and our souls. Second Timothy 3:17 urges us to study God's Word to be "thoroughly equipped for every good work." Good works don't earn us divine merit, but they are expressions of the divine image in us. If churches and Christian families fail to cultivate good character, then we will have nothing to offer a society decaying into corruption and crime. And government will continue passing more laws, and tighter regulations, in a never-ending attempt to curb destructive behavior. I'm reminded of a story about the great British writer Samuel Johnson, who was once informed that a certain guest thought all morality was a sham. "Why, sir, if he really believes there is no distinction between virtue and vice," Johnson roared, then "let us count our spoons before he leaves." Modern society has reduced virtue and vice to old-fashioned notions with no objective basis for the distinction between them. As a result, they have no hold on individual conscience, and the government is reduced to multiplying its bureaucracies to count the spoons. If we want to help retain a free society, we must rekindle a commitment to the virtues taught in the Bible and honored by all cultures. Use this special "BreakPoint" series on virtue to help educate Christians on this vital topic. Let's get churches teaching virtue so government can stop counting the spoons.


Chuck Colson


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