The Gravitas Character Formation course is comprised of short, daily lessons with accompanying assignments. Most of these are designed to be completed in less than 20 minutes, to accommodate students’ daily schedules. Below are some representative samples of the lessons in the course. These lessons build on one another, so it’s common for one to pick up where the previous lesson left off, or to reference the content or assignments from past lessons. The course is like a slowly unfolding conversation, and the samples below will drop you into the middle of some of the discussions that take place in the course, to give you an idea of what they’re like. We hope you’ll join us for the full conversation!
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The dominant way of thinking about virtue in the Judeo-Christian tradition gets its foundations from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle thought that everyone wanted to be happy, but not everyone understood the way to achieve this. To be truly happy, we first have to consider what it is to be human.
Aristotle believed that every living thing has a nature, and this nature determines the conditions for its flourishing: that is, the conditions for its living well or thriving. And this, he thought, was the secret to happiness: we have to understand human nature and the conditions for human flourishing.
To discern our nature, we have to think about what distinguishes human existence from other forms of life. What’s distinctive about humans, Aristotle thought, are their rationality. In order to live flourishing lives, we have to live in accordance with reason. Aristotle concluded that the highest human good is “activity of soul in accordance with virtue.” By living virtuously, we attain our purpose in life; we become who God intended us to be, and thereby attain true and lasting happiness and fulfillment.
Reflect on the following questions and discuss possible answers to them: Is there such a thing as human nature? If so, what is it? Is there a connection between human nature and virtue? If so, what is the connection?
Advanced assignment (optional): Reading
Read Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Chapter 7 (see Class Resources for link)
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It might have seemed that over the last few lessons, we got off topic. We were talking about virtue, and then suddenly we were talking about the biblical commandments to love God and to love one another. But in fact, these aren’t separate topics at all. To become virtuous is to become more loving. In the Christian tradition, this is the very essence of virtue. All of the virtues can be thought of as different facets of loving God and loving one another well.
Let’s put it all together. God is love. And we are made in His image. To grow in virtue is to become more and more what you’re meant to be: a person who loves God and loves other people. To be fully human is to be the kind of person who loves like God.
In the Christian tradition, just as much as in the ancient Greek tradition, virtue is the fulfillment of human nature. But in the Christian tradition, becoming virtuous is a matter of becoming more and more loving. And this is a process of becoming more and more like God!
Assignment: Meditation on Scripture
Practice Lectio Divina with the following passage (review instructions on Lectio Divina from Day 13 if needed):
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” (2 Peter 1:3-7, ESV)
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We previously identified several different types of injustice that involve situations where some people are denied the good things that are owed them simply by virtue of being human—that is, by virtue of their status as fellow creatures who bear the image of God.
Perhaps the most common form of injustice of this type is neglect, where a person or group is denied fundamental goods because those with the means to provide these goods simply ignore those in need. Understood in this way, neglect is a practice that is often permitted by our laws—at least, wherever the person in need is a stranger to you. But it’s not permitted in God’s law:
John [the Baptist] answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” (Luke 3:17, NIV)
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17, NIV)
If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18, NIV)
These verses again raise the question of whether we truly have a desire for justice. Perhaps we like the idea of using someone else’s money and resources to provide for those in need, but do we really desire that the needs of others be met out of the abundance of our own possessions?
Think about someone you know in your community who is presently in need, and something you could do for them or give to them that would help. Perhaps you could visit someone who is lonely in a nursing home (giving of your time), or take a meal to someone who is homebound (giving of your means), or mow the lawn for someone who is disabled (giving of your abilities). Contact this person and let them know that you would like to serve them in this way and ask them for their permission to do so.
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We noted in the previous lesson that the temperate person is someone who desires pleasure only in the right ways and to the right degrees. This connection between character and desires is not limited to temperance, however. In general, the virtuous person is the person who desires the right things in the right ways and to the right degrees. We could say that such a person has desires that are rightly ordered. The vicious person, by contrast, is the person who has disordered desires.
The things that you desire—including the things that you value and the things that you delight and take pleasure in—reveal a great deal about your character. A person who enjoys helping other people is, in that way at least, a good person. Likewise for a person who is genuinely happy to see others succeed. By contrast, a person who finds it funny (a form of delight) when someone is publicly humiliated is cruel. A person who takes pleasure in making other people suffer is vicious.
To be virtuous is to have the right desires. And the same is true of emotions—or “passions,” as they were once commonly called. To be virtuous is to feel the right things, to have the emotions that are proper to the circumstances.
Virtue requires having the right desires and the right emotions. For this reason, reflecting on your desires and emotions is a good way to assess your present character—and to identify areas where change is needed.
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Yesterday we identified prayer as a way that you can allow God to work within you to root out vicious desires and to form virtuous desires. Today we’ll consider a second way.
Begin by recalling an important verse that you learned on Day 19:
“work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12b-13, ESV)
We noted that the pursuit of virtue in the Christian life is not a matter of trying to earn salvation, but rather a matter of striving to become what God made you to be: a person who loves like God loves. We noted that this striving is not a matter of trying to change yourself through exertions of moral and spiritual effort, but rather a matter of being receptive to the transformative work of the Holy Spirit within you.
Let’s now add one further idea: that moral and spiritual effort, rightly conceived, is a way of inviting God to change you and form you, and a way of participating in the work that God is doing to save you.
It’s very easy to get confused about this. So, for good measure, let’s repeat a couple of important points. In the Christian life, moral and spiritual effort is not a way of trying to earn your salvation. And it’s not a way of trying to save yourself. You’re commanded to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” because this is one of the ways that God “works in you.” Your efforts to grow in virtue are best conceived as a way that—along with prayer—you invite God to form your character. And it’s a way that you willingly participate in your salvation. More precisely, it’s a way that you participate in the work that God is doing to form you into the person you’re meant to be.
Continue your practice of breath prayer, which you learned on Day 74—this time with a new verse:
“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.” (Psalm 127:1a)
Begin by memorizing this line, and then practice it as a breath prayer for at least five minutes.