“An’ noo, for a’ oor wrang-duins (wrong-doings) an’ ill-min’ins (misjudgments), for a’ oor sins and trespasses o’ mony sorts, dinna forget them, O God, till thou pits them a’ richt.”
— The Prayer of an Old Scot, George MacDonald’s David Elginbrod
Benjamin Franklin aspired to become a good man, and accordingly drew up a list of 13 virtues he deemed “necessary and desirable,” including with each a short explanation.
1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i. e., waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleaness in body, clothes, or habitation.
11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
12. Chastity. Rarely use venery (sexual indulgence) but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
Franklin’s intention was to make a habit of these virtues and thus he determined to fix on one character trait at a time. When he had mastered it, proceed to the next, until he had mastered them all.
“I made a little book,” he wrote, “in which I allotted a page for each of the virtues. I rul’d each page with red ink, so as to have seven columns, one for each day of the week, marking each column with a letter for the day. I cross’d these columns with thirteen red lines, marking the beginning of each line with the first letter of one of the virtues, on which line, and in its proper column, I might mark, by a little black spot, every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.”
In the end, Franklin gave up: “I was surpris’d to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined,” he wrote in his diary. So it is: “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good,” C.S. Lewis said.
“In vain you make yourself beautiful …” Israel’s prophet concluded. (Jeremiah 4:30). We cannot adorn ourselves. All we can do is come to God with our lofty ideals (along with our “wrang-duins an’ ill-min’ins”) and ask him to make us braver, stronger, purer, less selfish and more loving. God himself is our cure. All progress toward a better version of ourselves is based on that premise.
Paul, who loved a good synthesis, put it this way: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12,13). “For” (because), not “although” or “and.” God does the work in us and we enjoy the freedom to will and to do those things that please him.
When British author F. B. Meyer was a very young man, he attended a meeting in the house of emancipationist William Wilberforce. Those gathered were discussing their struggles against impatience and other forms of selfishness. An elderly gentleman listened for awhile and then related this incident: “I was speaking to a number of children last Sunday afternoon; and finding that the flowers and birds outside were attracting them, and they wanted to get away, and that I was fast losing my patience, I turned to Christ and said: 'Lord, my patience is giving out; grant me yours, and, for that moment he gave me patience. I could stand the noise and confusion.’”
Meeting Dr. Meyer the next morning, Mr. Wilberforce said: "What did you think of that?” Dr. Meyer replied: "It has changed my life. From now on, instead of refusing, resisting, struggling against temptation, I shall ask, in the moment of impatience, for Christ’s tranquility, in the moment of impurity, for his purity, in the moment of anxiety, for his direction and wisdom.”
Setting ourselves right is not self-accusation and resolution, but simply becoming aware of our flawed and failed condition, and putting ourselves in God’s hands for his cure — in that moment or in due time. Put another way, “Ask what you will, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.