Usually, when I see a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote somewhere, I either want to puke or wish I was blind for a five-minute stretch so I didn’t have to read it. This might sound like an overstatement, but geez, you would think the guy’s writing everything in the hopes that some desperate high-school valedictorian would read his quote the night before graduation and give some flowery speech about “changing the world.” Seriously, “Hitch your wagon to a star.” Really, Ralph? What does that mean, anyways? Really.
I was surprised a bit last night though when I saw a Ralph quote on an item known for ridiculous quotes; a box of tea. The puke reflex kicked in at first, and I was able to hold off on it long enough to read the quote. While the fullness of the quote is typical Ralph, I was struck by the first half of it. The quote in full is;
The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.
That friend stuff? Bleh. But I admit the first part had me frozen and considering for a bit. “The only reward of virtue is virtue.” I like that, I really really like that. It reminds me of John Piper’s powerful proclamation that we don’t love God for what he can give us, we love and treasure God for who he is. I would add we love God simply because we were created to, and that satisfies us.
There’s definitely some symmetry between Emerson and Piper’s quotes, since both strike at the root of a twisted idea and restore it to its proper place. Anyone who’s done serious thinking on virtues knows that the heart of a virtue is seeking it in all circumstances, so much so that it becomes second nature. As an example, there’s a bunch of folks who think the virtue of generosity is a good idea. And some folks even take the step of wanting generosity enough that from time to time they give because it gives them a good feeling. But very few take the big step to seek generosity because it has its own reward; that we so deeply live into the path of generosity that it becomes second nature. We don’t care whether we “benefit” or “suffer” from being generous in terms of immediate results; we’re simply generous. Anything short of this, and greed and personal gain is still at the heart of our life and efforts. Therefore, “the only reward of virtue is virtue.” It’s the move from virtue and human goodness being a window dressing to the heart of who we are.
Piper’s proclamation is powerful in this area as well. He asks, “Why do we love God?” We can search the reasons why. Is it because of the rewards that come from it? Peace? Happiness? Heaven? If we love God in order to have rewards, our love is not pure, but God is just a means to an end, a giant Sugar Daddy in the sky, a cosmic slot machine to serve our purposes. It’s not a pure love, as greed and personal gain are still at the heart of our life and efforts. But if we simply love God because we were created to, and simply obey because we were created to, then we don’t go through all the questions of “Well, that thing he asks seems to be impractical; what would happen to me?” or “Do I really have to do that when I WANT to do something else more? I mean, because I’m already ‘saved’ anyways, right?” We just love and obey because it is the only thing that gives us satisfaction.
I guess this is a little bit of my brain spilling over as I try to process through what I am told I should pursue in life. People have all kinds of dreams for what the “good life” is, and I’m more and more disenchanted with most of those dreams I’ve been fed. I have gotten to the place where I want virtue for virtue’s sake now, and want to love God not for what I can get, but because I’ve been created for it. Most of Christianity I see is an “easy way out” perspective, a way to remove oneself from the struggles of life because “Jesus paid it all.” Folks seem to say, “Jesus suffered so I don’t have to.” I don’t buy that. That perspective smacks of laziness and some twisted individualistic approach to life. The Jesus I see confronted injustices in the world, put himself in the midst of hopelessly messy situations, seemed to have an almost reckless disregard for his personal safety, and called his disciples to do the same. And he did it with the belief that God was doing something bigger than other folks could imagine, along the way providing a vision that has the potential to transform the world if his disciples would seek it…but, his followers very quickly traded that vision in for something more stable, more “secure,” more comfortable. They began to justify away Jesus’ teachings and make Christianity into a movement based on what God can give rather than a movement based on selfless giving. I don’t want that, and thankfully I don’t think the Bible presents that image.
I want to be virtuous, to love God, because I’m supposed to. I want to want them more than I want who I am now, which I am increasingly more uncomfortable with. There seems to be a joyful simplicity in this way of life.