That We Might Live with Him: The Theological Virtues
“Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we wake or sleep we might live with him” 1 Thessalonians 5:8b-10
As Christians, we hear a lot about faith, hope, and love whether it be all three together or individually. How do we strengthen our faith? Whom should we place our hope in? How can we love God and neighbor better? These virtues are the foundation of the Christian life. Paul in the above quotation instructs the faithful to put these virtues on as armor for battle, a battle against the dark ways of the world. We are children of the light, children of the day, and his call to action is one that continues to apply to us today. He charges us, “let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (v.6). The world we live in encourages sleepiness and drunkenness: a removal of our awareness, a numbing of our senses, and through this we might not be alert when the Lord asks something of us, or when he returns. We know neither the day nor the hour, and while this should not provoke anxiety, it should instill in us an acute desire to be prepared when he does ask something of us, or when he comes again. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity do just this: they help us to be prepared that “we might live with him.”
What is a Theological Virtue?
The Greek prefix theo means “God” or “divine” and faith, hope, and charity have God at the center of how they are cultivated and acted upon in the heart of man. According to the Catechism, the theological virtues, “adapt man’s faculties for participation in the divine nature….They dispose Christians to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity. They have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive, and object” (CCC 1812). It is faith, hope, and charity which help us to become more like God and help us to maintain our filial relationship with the Holy Trinity. To break down the “origin, motive, and object” language, this simply means that these virtues come from God (origin), we practice them because of God (motive), and these virtues ultimately are meant to help us be closer to God and, with his grace, achieve salvation (object). It is through God’s grace that we receive these virtues as they are “infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life” (CCC 1813).
Faith pertains to how and what we believe, “Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us” (CCC 1814). This virtue fundamentally deals with the truth. God is the Truth, and has revealed the truth about himself to us. Faith helps us to know and accept and believe these revealed truths: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Christ is truly God and truly man, and everything we know and believe as Christians follows from this. As disciples of Christ, knowing the truth about God and about man’s origins and destiny, cannot keep it to ourselves. The faithful are called to “profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it. . . . Service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation” (CCC 1816). This has to do with not only with the salvation of our own soul, but the souls of those whom we encounter. Do we share our faith? Do we engage in conversation with our family members, friends, and neighbors about our faith? Do we pray for faith in times of doubt, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief?” Faith requires us to believe in what we cannot see with our own eyes, but to trust that the One who tells us about Himself tells us the truth.
Hope pertains to the desire for the eternal, “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness” (CCC 1817). Hope is the virtue between the extremes of despair and presumption – it desires happiness and fulfillment with an expectation of its fulfillment based in the promise of the one who says he can and will fulfill it: Jesus Christ. This hope is drawn from his teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven and his desire for man to repent, be baptized, and to be made children of God for life abundant in the New Jerusalem. “The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven” (CCC 1818). We all desire happiness, and God alone can fulfill our infinite desire for happiness. He alone can suffice for the longings in our hearts. Through this virtue of hope, he purifies the desire for happiness in every man to be ordered toward not only material goods and finite pleasures, but to be oriented towards Himself, the infinite and perfect Good, with whom we are called to dwell with forever.
Love, or charity, pertains to our desire to will the good of another. “Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God (CCC 1822). It is love that drives us to desire good for others and to do good for others. Love is the commandment of Jesus that he entrusts to the apostles, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). All the other virtues are upheld by charity, which orders the life of the Christian. The theological virtue of charity “upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it to the supernatural perfection of divine love” (CCC 1827). Through the theological virtue of charity, we are able to love God better, but also to love our neighbor more like God loves our neighbor.
“Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 1 Cor 13:8-13
The theological virtues come from, abide in, and lead to God himself. But the virtues of faith and hope will pass away in eternity. They only pertain to what is needed in this world, a world where we see as in a mirror darkly. We need faith now because we do not yet see God face to face. We need hope now while we await our personal judgment at the end of our life. But there will come a day when faith and hope will no longer be necessary for we will behold God himself. Then we will spend eternity loving and being loved by God.