In a recent discussion on how to develop virtuous habits to combat negative ones connected with sexual sin, I was introduced to the four cardinal virtues, which are prudence, courage, temperance, and justice.
Each of these virtues can help us live moral lives. Following the discussion, I continued to ponder what I liked about my discussion as well as what, quite frankly, I found missing about them.
Prudence can be defined as “the ability to discern the appropriate course of action to be taken in a given situation.” This virtue is tied very closely to what I have believed and taught for decades: “Do the next right thing.”
It replaces the negative habit of doing what I want, when I want, because I want. While this virtue and the behaviors connected with developing it are helpful, attempting to “do the right next thing” alone wasn’t enough to lift me from the pit of my compulsive and addictive behaviors with porn and masturbation.
Courage can be defined as the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation. Certainly, one of the character defects that drew me to my addictive behaviors was my desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings like fear. Whether we turn to pornography, food, alcohol, drugs, or anything else, we are often trying to avoid feelings that we are ill-equipped to manage.
Therefore, we seek to distract ourselves from these feelings. In 12-step language, it takes courage to admit we are powerless over our addictive behavior. Courage is required to begin.
However, courage in and of itself can be like the seed scattered onto rocky soil in the parable of the sower from Scripture. You may recall that Jesus spoke of this seed taking root quickly, but the plant was never able to bear fruit. Its growth was short-lived.
Often, after a fall or slip, we vow to never go down that rabbit hole again and give in to fear, only to find ourselves falling again later down the road. Again, courage is important, but it’s not enough alone.
Temperance is the practice of self-control, abstention, discretion, moderation, and tempering one’s appetite. Those of us who have fought addictions often wonder why we can’t control our appetite. We see others who can drink socially. We see others who can enjoy only a couple of cookies. We see others who can view sexuality the way God designed it and be content with it.
However, those of us who fight addiction seem to hunger for more and more when we get a taste. If we were truly able to demonstrate temperance by ourselves, then we wouldn’t engage in our addictive behaviors.
Justice is “fairness” or “righteousness” and it’s identified as the most important of the cardinal virtues. When I think of justice, I think of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” To be just is noble, but without God’s mercy, we are still left wanting.
The Necessity of the Three Theological Virtues
While practicing and growing in each of these virtues is a worthy goal, the reason these were identified as the cardinal virtues is that they were seen as the basic virtues required to live a virtuous life.
Because of my addictive behavior, I was plagued with guilt and shame. And I believed I deserved damnation. This thought is never fun to sit with.
So, I would distract myself from the resultant uncomfortable feelings by turning to my addictive behaviors for the momentary fix. My inability to practice these virtues well kept me stuck. In other words, these virtues alone weren’t enough to pull me out of my addiction.
But when we add to these virtues the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, the whole game changes!
That’s why Step One is so essential: we must come to terms with the fact that we are powerless. Of our own resources, we are truly hopeless. And with Step Two and Step Three, we come to believe in a power greater than ourselves who could restore us to sanity, thereby demonstrating the virtue of hope. And specifically in Step Three, we make a decision to turn our will and lives over to that higher power, which marks our faith.
When we release control of our will and lives, we open the door to let God’s grace pour in. This is the true game changer! When Jesus declared from the cross, “It is finished,” he was declaring victory over sin and death.
It’s impossible to fully explain the virtue of love. However, it makes all the difference in our victory. The first piece of love is receiving it from God. During my Consecration to Divine Mercy, I was introduced to the notion that the origin of all sin is that we don’t trust in God’s unconditional love for us. Therefore, we believe that we have to take matters into our own hands.
Receiving God’s Grace First and Foremost
Thankfully, God’s ways are not our ways. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. And the more I opened myself up to receive God’s grace, the more the power of each of these three theological virtues—faith, hope, and love—was unleashed in me.
Having experienced this, I now strive to invite others into this same experience. Without God’s grace first and foremost, we are doomed. However, with God, who is the embodiment of love, all things are possible.
I continue to grow more confident that God will complete the good work that he has started in me. While the four cardinal virtues are worthy and helpful in our cooperating with God’s grace, we must ultimately accept the freely given grace of God to ever find true healing and freedom.
Jim Gorski is a 57-year-old father of four children who has been married to the same woman for 35 years. He completed his master’s degree in social work in 1984 and has directed church music groups for the past 41 years. He remains a grateful child of the most high God and strives to trust in God’s loving mercy and His ability to provide for Jim’s every need.