They say that “patience is a virtue.” It’s not really hard to figure out what that means—it means patience is a good thing.
But what exactly is virtue? It’s one of those words that everybody knows but probably couldn’t come up with a precise definition of what virtue is.
Virtue—excellence—means hard work and a concerted effort to put your best foot forward in everything you do.
If you look in an English dictionary it will define it as something like “pertaining to high moral standards.” That makes sense, but for a complete understanding of the word—and its bearing on our lives as Christians—we need to dive into the Scriptures.
In one of Paul’s best loved scriptures he wrote: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8 Philippians 4:8Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honest, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
American King James Version×).
In this passage, here’s “virtue” alongside all these other positive descriptors—pure, lovely, just, etc. The English definition we might find gives a glimpse of what it means, but looking at the meaning of the Greek word that Paul used here is insightful. The word he used is arete, and it means “excellence of any kind.” Paul said that if there is any excellence, to think upon it.
It’s a word that was used in many different contexts in ancient Greece. It meant that, whatever a person’s function was in society, they could do it virtuously—they could do it with excellence. If you’re a runner and you train every day and win a race, you practiced virtue. If you’re a writer and you created your best work, you practiced virtue. It means doing the very best you can with whatever it is you do.
This word is used in three books in the New Testament, and each passage helps fill out what it means for us. The other two books where it’s found besides Philippians are both books written by the apostle Peter.
In the first passage, Peter is talking about those God called to Christ: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light … ” (1 Peter 2:9-10 1 Peter 2:9-10 9 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that you should show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light;
10 Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.
American King James Version×, New American Standard Bible).
In this scripture, the word translated “excellencies” is the same word Paul used in Philippians. Part of our job as Christians is to tell the world about how excellent God is; how excellent His work and His plan are; how excellent a future he has planned for all of humanity.
In the second passage where Peter uses this word, he wrote: “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:2-8 2 Peter 1:2-8 2 Grace and peace be multiplied to you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord,
3 According as his divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that has called us to glory and virtue:
4 Whereby are given to us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these you might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
5 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.
8 For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that you shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
American King James Version×).
Peter tells us to add virtue to our faith. In other words, to add excellence to our faith.
When we have faith in God and in what He is accomplishing in us, it’s our responsibility to emulate the way He does things. Back in 1 Peter it stated that we proclaim God’s excellencies. Everything God does is excellent—it’s virtuous. And His greatest work is in you as a Christian—growing, maturing, changing, becoming more like Him.
How can an ancient Greek concept like arete help you to realize your excellent potential?
Think about your life and your duties to God and to other people. Do you seek God’s will in your life with excellence? Do you have excellence in your prayers to God? Do you have excellence in your Bible study?
Are you striving for excellence in the way you treat your husband or wife? Your brothers and sisters? Your classmates and coworkers? Is there excellence in the way you care for other people?
What about your work at school or in your job? We’re told that whatever our hand finds to do, to do it with all of our might (Ecclesiastes 9:10 Ecclesiastes 9:10Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, where you go.
American King James Version×). That’s just another way of saying to seek excellence in every facet of life—not just in spiritual pursuits, but in physical ones as well. We’re called to follow our great God and His Son Jesus Christ in everything we do, emulating Their conduct and behavior. That means pursuing excellence in everything we do in honor of them.
Virtue—excellence—means hard work and a concerted effort to put your best foot forward in everything you do, first in your service to God and Christ, and then in your service to your neighbors: your boss, your spouse, your kids, your friends and every person you interact with every day.
If there is any virtue, think on it and do it. Proclaim the excellencies of God, and then live in a way that you follow His lead in striving for excellence in what you do as well.