Vices mistaken for Virtues
The Old Adam is a very “spiritual” person. And the greatest of his “spiritual gifts” is self-justification. Yet, striving to justify oneself through works of genuine morality is quite exhausting. It’s far easier, and far more self-satisfying, to excuse and defend our favorite vices by rationalizing them as virtues. Gregory the Great points this out in his Pastoral Rule: “There are many vices that appear as virtues. For example, greed disguises itself as frugality and wastefulness is thought to be generosity. Often laziness is accounted kindness and wrath appears to be spiritual zeal. And excessive haste is confused with the efficiency of promptness, while tardiness is taken for serious deliberation” (p.76).
This danger is real for every Christian, in every station in life. But Gregory is writing for pastors, and he makes special note of wrath appearing as spiritual zeal. His concern is that pastors are tempted to excessive and personal anger when rebuking sin in the lives of their people. Here’s Gregory:
It should also be considered that when the mind of the teacher is engaged with the correction of subordinates [laity], it is very difficult for him to keep in those things that he should not say. And it often happens that when one corrects the sin of the laity with excessive invective, the teacher is drawn into using an excess of words. And when this reproof burns immoderately, the heart of the sinner sinks into despair. Therefore, it is necessary that whenever the director [pastor] becomes agitated, he recognize when he has smitten the mind of the layperson more than he should have. For he must always recognize his fault and repent so that he can obtain pardon in the sight of the Truth by his lamentation (even though it was through his zeal that he sinned). This is what the Lord figuratively inscribed through Moses, saying: “If a man goes simply with his friend into the forest to cut wood and the handle of the axe flies from his hand, and the iron of the blade strikes his friend and kills him, he shall flee to one of the previously mentioned cities and live there. Otherwise, the relative of the man who was slain, while his soul percolates, might follow him and seize him” (Deut. 19:5-6). For we “go into the wood” with a friend as often as we direct our attention to the sins of the laity. And “we chop wood in simplicity” whenever we piously extract vice from sinners. But the “axe flies from our hand” when correction becomes burdensomely excessive. And the “iron leaps from the handle” when the words of correction are too harsh. And a “friend is struck and killed” because an excessive reproach gets in the way of the spirit of love. For the mind of the one who is corrected will turn quickly to anger if it is judged by immoderate reproof. And the “one who cuts wood carelessly so that he kills his neighbor must flee to the three cities” so that he may live safely in one of them. And if, through lamentation, he turns to the life of penance, his acts will be concealed by hope, faith, and love in the unity of the sacraments, and he will not be held accountable for the homicide. Therefore, “the relatives of the slain man will not kill him,” even if he finds him, because when the strict Judge comes, who joined himself to our nature, he will not seek anything for that sin because the man conceals himself in faith, hope, and love (pp.82–83).
Let us strive for real virtue and seek forgiveness in the strict Judge who joined Himself to our nature.
Quotes from Gregory the Great, The Book of Pastoral Rule. Translated by George E. Demacopoulos. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007.