Gospel hope is a vision and a promise of transformation. The transformation of habits. The restoration of relationships. Christian hope is an invitation to live differently, in an alternative reality of flourishing and shalom. It is hope is against the present patterns of fear, practices of greed and violence, and the assumptions of being in control; it is for a new order of freedom, how to live well, and how to become a human being. Gospel hope is a transformation of heart, mind, and body. A recalibration of behavioral practices, emotional patterns, and thought templates recognizable as God’s image within us.
Much of the church in its zeal to stress the absolute seriousness of sin has swung the pendulum so far that even just the idea of any sort of real or lasting hope has been lost. Sean Palmer states:
“In short, because we only talk about “sin” (and its avoidance), we have nothing further to offer the world for our betterment. We submit no process for discipleship. And worse, we have no means to critique ignobility or behaviors, patterns, and policies that injure the vulnerable or debase the image of God in others. Instead, all we have is a management plan for—maybe—avoiding sin. This is far from the gospel Jesus proclaims: the good news of transformation and new life.”
The lack of character transformation in the body of Christ belies the power and hope of the Gospel. The transformation of feelings, thoughts, and behavior is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the glory of God and the sake of others. Spiritual formation is the development of a Christ-like character. Christ-like formation involves cultivating virtues and rejecting vice, not just the avoidance and management of sin. As the church has lost the language of virtue and vice, a lack of transformation in the body of Christ has developed.
So, what are virtues? One way to describe virtues is the image of God manifested in and through our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Virtues are gospel hope realized. The power of the gospel trumpeted through the transformation of vice to virtue. Virtues are what holiness looks like. Virtues are about becoming more loving, humble, and resilient.
Smith describes virtues as
- character traits that become woven into who you are so that you are the kind of person who is inclined to be compassionate, forgiving and so on. Virtues are different than moral laws or rules, which are external stipulations of the good. A virtue is a disposition that inclines us to achieve the good for which we are made. In other words, a virtue is a good habit that inclines us towards the telos that is best for us.
How might virtue be formed?
Intentionality – The Apostle Paul exhorts us to continually, intentionally to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12-13).
Practice, daily habits, and rhythms – Virtues are inscribed through rhythms, routines, and rituals that implant a disposition to an end (telos) that becomes a character trait – default orientation “without thinking about it. What are your daily liturgies (habits and rhythms)?
Imitation – Imitate exemplars of theological virtues such as faith, hope, and love. Hope is when we choose to set aside false narratives that keep freedom and wholeness from everyone. Rather, embrace the hard work it takes to understand and welcome those we do not understand or agree with. The virtue of faith guides what we do and how we live. It fuels our imagination for God’s restoration project, despite evidence to the contrary. Model the primary virtues such as justice, courage, and self-restraint. Awaken the quiet virtues of contentment, generosity, and discernment. And follow the path of those who model the Christlike life.
Reading Good Books – Author and scholar Karen Swallow Priorbelieves that reading great literature well has the power to cultivate virtue. Reading well requires one to practice numerous virtues, such as patience, diligence, and prudence. And learning to judge wisely a character in a book, in turn, forms the reader’s own character.
This discussion about virtue formation and character transformation … is it really so works oriented? Do this. Don’t do this? … Smith left me wondering if virtues are cultivated and developed from the inside out … or outside in? What is the relationship between “outside-in” and “inside out” of character formation?
There are compelling and persuasive arguments coming from both sides. Richard Rohr believes, “we do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” As a community, we have read and discussed how the recalibration of the heart is through the body.Outside in. The Apostle Paul instructs Christ-followers to clothe oneself in virtues of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. (Colossians 3:12). Paul continues this train of thought in Romans 8 “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5). The way we live shapes our thinking. Paul is suggesting that the way we live is shaped by our habits and our loves more than by our ideas.
There is the parable of the leaven: “Imagine a woman preparing a loaf of bread. The kingdom of heaven is like the leaven she folds into her dough. She kneads and kneads until the leaven is worked into all the dough” (Matthew 13:33). Jesus tells us that all things grow from the inside out. Jesus also tells us “it’s what grows out of the hearts of people that leads to corruption: evil thoughts, immoral sex, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wicked acts, treachery, sensuality, jealousy, slander, pride, and foolishness.All of these come from within (Mark 7:21-23a). Inside out. Paul later expands the argument, “Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind.” (Romans 12:1-2).
Virtue and character formation.
A paradoxical relationship
Somehow virtue is wrapped in…movement.
The movement that is inside out is mysterious, guided by the Holy Spirit, and invites a response of surrender, submission, releasing, letting go.
The movement … outside in is intentional, formed by concrete practices, and wrapped in liturgies of culture, home, and vocation.
Creating something wholly new.
This is Gospel hope.
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper
Les Miserable by Victor Hugo
DeYoung, Rebecca Konyndyk. Glittering Vices: a New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2009.
Prior, Karen Swallow, and Ned Bustard. On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2018.
Smith, James K A. You Are What You Love: the Spiritual Power of Habit. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016.
Spencer, Gregory H. Awakening the Quieter Virtues: Discernment, Innocence, Authenticity,
Modesty, Reverence, Contentment, Generosity. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP
 James K A. Smith, You Are What You Love: the Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016), 89.
Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: the Gift of Contemplative Prayer, rev. and updated ed. (New York: Crossroad Pub., 2003), 201.
 Ibid, 85.:12