There’s a word within the Church that we use frequently—one I think too often goes misunderstood: virtue.
But it’s easy to understand why. Society in general uses this word in so many functions and to mean so many things—it’s hard to pin down.
Take this sentence as an example: The virtuous woman realized that patience was a virtue by virtue of her own determination.
No wonder we’re all so confused.
However, virtue is an essential characteristic for those who are worthy to go to the temple. Virtue is required for us to return to our Heavenly Father.
So why do we still misunderstand it?
In order to help us realize how important virtue is for each of us, here are four common virtue myths debunked as well as the truth behind this crucial principle.
Myth 1: Virtue means the same thing as chastity and purity.
Often we use the word virtue almost interchangeably with the word chastity.
While virtue definitely encompasses purity and chastity, we cheapen virtue by saying it’s synonymous with those things.
Why would we even need virtue if it didn’t add anything new? The word itself would become pointless if that’s all it meant. But in our culture, we can get hung up on this one facet of virtue because we understand how dangerous and destructive sexual sin and addiction can be.
But virtue can help us in so many other areas of our lives if we only understand it.
In fact, being virtuous means you try to uphold all virtues, like honesty, morality, integrity, humility, charity, accountability, civility, patience, compassion, cleanliness, dignity, faith, generosity, forgiveness, gratitude, repentance, self-reliance, etc.
No wonder it can become overwhelming or confusing.
But here’s something to help us focus our understanding of virtue: virtus, the Latin root of virtue, means strength. Virtue is a strength that comes as a result of how we live our lives in the small moments—our day-to-day thoughts and actions. “It is the accumulation of thousands of small decisions and actions” (“Virtue,” lds.org).
Virtue builds strength and power because it allows us to take control of our own lives by living free from addiction and free from the negativity and frustration that make us feel like pawns.
Instead, virtue gives us the courage to take charge of our own life and fill it with optimism and goodness at every chance.
Myth 2: It’s especially important for women to be virtuous.
Don’t misunderstand me when I say this. I’m not trying to argue that women don’t need to be virtuous—they most certainly do. But when we fashion a statement like that, it seems to suggest virtue is only for women, not necessarily men.
Though Sister Elaine Dalton and other female Church leaders have been rallying under the charge of having a “return to virtue,” this call includes men.
In a world that constantly demoralizes men—in every meaning of the word—it’s crucial for men to remain virtuous.
In fact, virtue works hand in hand with the power of the priesthood. Frequently in the scriptures when Christ performs a miracle, the words “virtue went out of him” accompany this event. It’s through the power of virtue Christ healed the woman with an “issue of blood” or the blind man or a number of other people.
In Doctrine and Covenants, virtue appears frequently in connection to the priesthood. For example “by virtue of the priesthood” is used often.
A number of other words could have been used in these verses, but virtue is so fitting, because it demonstrates that it is through virtue men and women use the priesthood and exercise the full power of the covenants they have taken.
Myth 3: Virtue is about what we don’t do.
Oftentimes in our anxiety to live God’s commandments, we focus on trying to remain pure and everything we should avoid to stay that way.
But this tendency can become dangerous because we start to look at life like the Pharisees, who fixated so much on staying uncontaminated that they quantified everything, focused on outward purity, and turned commandments into a measuring stick.
We should not look at the gospel as a series of limitations.
Instead, we should see the gospel how Christ sees it, looking for all the good we can do and all the great change we can make.
Of course we will fail. And often, our falls will be more painful because we’ve been reaching for a greater height. But we were all put here on this earth to be broken at times. Even Jesus Christ was broken. But that’s what made his Atonement and his triumph over death so utterly remarkable.
This reaching for something more reminds me of the parable of the lost sheep, but a version I heard when the parable got entirely flipped on its head.
Think, for one moment, about that one lost sheep and the 99 safe in their pasture.
Now reverse their roles and realize that the only sheep who wasn’t lost was the one who went off searching for the shepherd, for something more.
Sure, when the good shepherd finally found the sheep it was probably cut and frightened and cold.
But here’s the thing—while all those other sheep were complacently in their pins saying, “Boy, aren’t you glad we’re not lost right now?” the one struggling sheep is the only one to be lifted up on the shepherd’s shoulders.
He’s the only one to be carried home.
He’s the only one to be celebrated over.
So, while the rest of us are in the pasture thinking, “Boy, I’m glad I didn’t mess up that bad,” we miss the whole point. It doesn’t need to be some sin we commit that helps us realize our dependence on our Savior, but one way or another we need to realize we are all lost. We may see glimpses of the Good Shepherd from time to time in our lives, but we haven’t returned home yet. We’re still on our pathway to being found.
And that means we need virtue—Christ’s power and love—at every moment. Discipleship is never a one-and-done thing.
So stop fixating on all we can’t do or all we have to do in the Church, and instead focus on the good you can create and on how the gospel increases our potential to do good.
Myth 4: Virtue is something I can lose or something that can be taken from me.
According to theNational Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18.
Now, my intention is not to scare people, to make parents paranoid, or to bring up hard memories for some who may have experienced sexual abuse. But I think it is important for us as a Church to have empathy and to know how to help those who have experienced these challenges.
After Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped and raped,she thought, “‘No one is ever going to want to marry me now: I'm worthless, I'm filthy, I'm dirty.’” She continued, “I think every rape survivor feels those same feelings, but having that with the pressure of faith compounded on top—it was almost crippling.”
It was then she recalled some chastity metaphors she had learned at church that, while good-intentioned, told her that she was broken beyond repair and incomplete now.
For those who have experienced sexual violence, know you are pure. Know your Heavenly Father loves you.
Know that no one can take your virtue, your power, your purity, and your agency away from you.
The Atonement is there for you. Not because you need to repent, but because you need to heal.
No matter what the circumstances, you are in no way incomplete or imperfect because of the violent acts of another.
And for those who have made mistakes and sinned in any way, you are not incomplete or broken beyond repair. Through the power of the Atonement, you can continue to grow in virtue and strength.
To say you will never be complete again is to cheapen the power of Christ’s Atonement, which is real and all encompassing.
That applies to any mistakes, any addictions, and even the apathy you might be feeling toward the gospel right now.
The Atonement can help. Through virtue, Christ’s power, and His grace, you will continue to overcome and continue to find light.
For “wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light” (D&C 88:40).
In fact, it is only by accessing the power of the Atonement and using it daily that we can understand what virtue truly is.
AsMary N. Cook noted, “Remember, it is the cleansing power of the Atonement that makes it possible for us to be virtuous.”
5 Truths About Virtue
While I’ve given you so many myths or misconceptions we tell ourselves about virtue, I want to leave you with a few truths:
- Virtuous men and women are desperately needed in our world today.
- Virtue impacts every aspect of our life and should be strengthened continually.
- Virtue is a power and strength in daily living that helps us discover the divinity within us.
- Christ is the ultimate example of virtue.
- And Christ is the ultimate giver and the pathway to virtue.