Unlocking Expectations – Nourishing virtuous character in times of crisis

Unlocking Expectations – Nourishing virtuous character in times of crisis

As part of our overarching communication theme of “Unlocking Expectations” in times of the pandemic in the second half of 2021, readers of the EEA Newsletter are being presented with a variety of perspectives on and experiences with the topic in several issues of the EEA Newsletter. We are very pleased that Marvin Oxenham has agreed to answer some of our questions. Dr Marvin Oxenham was born to Canadian missionaries in Italy, where he has spent most of his life.  In over 30 years of work and ministry, he has worn many hats, and he is currently faculty member and programme leader at the London School of Theology (www.lst.ac.uk) and Director of the ICETE Academy (http://www.icete.academy). Furthermore, Marvin serves as General Secretary of the European Council for Theological Education (www.ecte.eu), an EEA affiliate and organization responsible for the quality assurance, accreditation, and development of theological schools in 29 different countries in Europe and the Middle East.



How is the topic of character and virtue education reflected in your work and where have you experienced God unlocking your expectations in the last year?


The issue of character and virtue has been a growing motif both in my work and research and in my personal understanding of the Christian walk.   I have taught courses, held seminars and workshops, blogged,[1]developed accreditation standards, written an epistolary novel,[2]and recently created a practical resource website for churches, discipleship groups and formation courses.[3]


Concerning my expectations, they have not been unlocked as much as they have shifted.  As evangelicals, we tend to activism, which can be a good thing.  But we can forget that God cares about who we are, and not just about what we do.  So, my thinking has moved away from thinking ‘How successful was that event?’, ‘What strategic plans can I make to introduce change?’ or ‘Did we cover all the points in our board agenda’?  to: ‘Was I humble as I contributed to that event?’, ‘How could I have been more courageous in my strategic thinking?’ and ‘Was I patient and courteous to my fellow board members during our meetings’?


I have come to understand that what really counts are not my expectations, but God’s expectations of me. And God’s plan it that I should be transformed into the image of his Son. Shifting expectations in this way, from being external to being internal, has been releasing, as I’ve understood that the fulfilment of God’s expectations does not depend on external circumstances.


Why do you consider the nourishment of a virtuous character important? Where do you see the role of a virtuous character in these times within the Church and our witness to the world?


During one of my last trips before the pandemic, I spoke at a conference about the lost treasure of character and virtue. Our culture today has broken away from the tradition of virtue and defines successful human beings in terms of knowledge and skills. The church and theological education have often followed suit, prioritizing knowing and doing over being. And this has a dramatic impact when it comes to church life and leadership.


I recall a theology student I had in class.  He was academically brilliant and graduated with excellent grades.  But his character was a shamble.  He was proud and arrogant. He bordered on cynical. He was perennially late.  He was selective in his friendships, cold-shouldered his inferiors and was likely drinking heavily in pubs over the weekends.   And yet, because of his ability in knowing and doing, he was given a theology degree that ‘qualified’ him to be a leader in a faith community.  Gladly, this story is an exception that dishonours many fantastic theology students.  But I shudder to think of the damage that this kind of leader might do.


Nourishing character and virtue is connected to discipleship and is the essence of what it means to be a Christian. Think in trinitarian terms. In Scripture, God the Father marks failure and success in terms of vice and virtue:  the greed of Achan, the cowardice of Pilate, the lust of church leaders or the uncontrolled tongues that set everything on fire… but also the faith of Abraham, the benevolence of Barnabas and the courage of Gideon.  God the Son has called us to ‘be like Him’ and following Him means growing in the virtues of truthfulness, humility and love of the Sermon on the Mount.  And the fruit of God the Spirit is a list of virtues, meaning that true ‘spirituality’ entails being faithful, self-controlled and gentle.


So, the expectations we need to nourish are not only for more theology.  Not only for more evangelism.  Not only for more social work.  Not only for new techniques to grow churches. Not only for better expository preaching.  We need to nourish expectations of virtuous character because they are central to the missio dei.


Let me also say something about our witness to the world. I believe that we need to reconsider the connection of our witness to the world to the central Christian doctrine of the atonement. How would you answer the question ‘Why did Jesus die for us’? Is it just to ‘get us to heaven’ and ‘get others into heaven’? Or is it also to ‘get heaven into us’? Is not the atonement deeply transformative?  Does it not generate an internal evolution in our being even before we move into service and action? Does the atonement not entail freeing us from the bondage of sin, making us servants of righteousness (= virtue) and transforming us into virtuous and flourishing human beings? And if so, is that not what impacts society most deeply, glorifying God, as our transformed character shines as a light upon a hill?


What challenges and what opportunities does Covid-19 present for the development of our character? How can nourishing a virtuous character help us “unlock” our expectations in times of Covid-19?


Two thoughts here.


First of all, Covid-19 has caused many of us to recognise our own powerlessness. We have faced so much that we simply cannot know or do, compounded by personal tragedy and grief for what and whom we have lost.  This can make us feel stalled in our Christian walk and hopeless, not even knowing how to pray.   When we think of character and virtue, the good news is that we are not stuck or stalled, because the transformation of character is independent of external circumstances.   On the contrary, it is often the difficult external circumstances that can throw us out of our comfort zones and lead to powerful character change.  Difficulties can break us, but they can also be the context that makes us.


This difficult moment of history can also teach us to pray differently.  Not that circumstances will change, but that we will be transformed in those circumstances into the image of Christ.


Further, the circumstances of pandemic give us opportunities to grow in some specific virtues.


The pandemic calls us to develop the virtue of prudence that enables us to understand what is needed in life’s unpredictable circumstances.  In the novelty of all that Covid-19 has brought, prudence helps us see what peculiar kind of character is needed. It also helps us discern specific vices to avoid, such as the vice over-simplicity that applies the same recipes and remedies to every situation, as well as familiar virtues that need to be exercised in new ways, such as patience and self-control.


Covid-19 gives us an opportunity to nourish the virtue of courage, as we respond to new fears not with recklessness, but learning to tame the will to continue doing what is right – despite our legitimate fears.   This may mean simply continuing to commute to work (with all the necessary precautions) or overcoming fears of doing volunteer work among socially disadvantaged groups that are at high risk of infection.


Opportunities might also be seen to nourish the virtue of justice, as we respect the laws in our countries related to travel and social distancing, whether we fully agree with them or not; or the virtue of temperance, as we tame our impulses against the excesses of panic and obsessive sharing of statistics through our social media.


What might be done practically to cultivate character and virtues?


This is a huge question for such a brief interview!


I suggest that we start recognising that, as evangelicals, our discourse around virtue is often shallow and rare.   We need to learn more about virtue, for if we do not have words, we will not have the concepts. If we do not have concepts, we will not have a conscience. If we do not have a conscience, we will not have a practice. And if we do not have a practice, our character will never flourish, and virtue will not be nourished.


So, a good start is to understand what virtue is, how we can grow in virtue, and what expectations we can have as Christians in regards. The internet is full of excellent materials about virtue, and there are many great books and resources.  Studying what the Bible teaches on virtue can also be a fantastic discovery.  I have developed a free online tool in www.virtueducation.net that is designed for faith communities and discipleship groups that wish to work together on character and virtue. The site leads through four stages, features a virtue test, an 18-week leadership guide and a set of resources.   It is available in 6 different languages.  Feel free to visit it and to contact me if you’d like further help.


Covid-19 has shaken many traditions in our faith communities, and this is a kairos moment for change.   Maybe this is the time to renew and refocus our efforts to ‘add virtue to our faith’ (2 Peter 1:5).


[1] https://charactereducation.blog


[2] Character and Virtue in Theological Educationhttps://www.amazon.com/Character-Virtue-Global-Theological-Education/dp/1783686979


[3] https://virtueducation.net

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