Wednesday, October 6, 2010

When virtue becomes "Second Nature"

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 45 (Halfway there!)

Read: Psalm 135:1-Proverbs 6:35

Verse that stood out:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline - Proverbs 1:7

In his excellent book, After you Believe, N. T. Wright recounts the story of Captain "Sully" Sullenberger. You remember the story. Captain Sullenberger is the pilot who successfully landed his powerless Airbus A320 upon the Hudson river. Most people called the event a miracle. Wright concedes they may have been correct, but adds, "The full explanation is, if anything, even more interesting and exciting [than simply calling it a miracle]" (page 18).

The fuller version of events includes all the details of those chaotic moments, details Captain Sullenberger carried out with precision, in almost a second-nature kind of way. How was he able to keep his calm, make key decisions in a timely manner, and then execute those decisions without hesitation? Because he had practiced his practice for decades. He'd trained and trained and trained and flew and flew and flew until the skills and decision making required for such a moment became for him, "second nature."

Wright says that you could call this "the power off right habits" or "character." The book of Proverbs calls it wisdom. Wright settles on the word "virtue." His definition is insightful

"Virtue, in this strict sense, is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn't 'come naturally' - and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what's required 'automatically,' as we say. On that thousand and first occasion, it does indeed look as if it 'just happens'; but reflection tells us that it doesn't 'just happen' as easy as that" (page 20-21).

Virtue is what the writers of Proverbs are after. They call it wisdom, but the life described in the Proverbs is almost exactly the same as the life Wright labels virtuous. In each case, the life described, one that not only knows what is right, but does it without fail, takes effort, discipline, and commitment. Righteousness doesn't come naturally but can become 'second nature' for those who trust in the Lord and daily practice walking in his ways. Most of us want that kind of life, but when we look at the end result of virtuous life, we're intimidated. Looking at the end of the journey, we're tempted to think, "That could never be me, I have so far to go." And yet, we should remember, Captain Sullenberger's first flying lesson didn't start with emergency river landings, but probably something closer to, "Welcome to class, this is an airplane . . ."

Wisdom can't be obtained in one day, but any day can be the day we start down wisdom's path.

1 comment:

Stan said...

OK, so the Psalms do get better toward the end. I wonder if they are arranged chronologically. They seem to record a journey toward faith and maturity, with less whining and self-centeredness and more trust and praise as they progress.