Developing Christlike Attributes: The Virtue Paradox

Lao-tzu, a Chinese philosopher and the founder of Taoism, proposed a phenomenon called the “paradox of virtue,” suggesting that when we consciously strive to become more virtuous, we actually diminish our virtue. For example, if we serve others because we want “to be a good person” then our motives are not truly selfless, and therefore we’re not actually becoming a good person.

If Lao-tzu is correct, how is it possible for us to intentionally become more virtuous?

Six years ago, I attended a religious service in which the speaker challenged the congregation to study and develop a different Christlike attribute each month. The speaker explained that as he prepared his remarks, the Holy Spirit revealed to him a list of promised blessings to those who fulfilled the challenge. (That list is included at the end of this post.)

Ever since that experience, I’ve attempted on and off to fulfill the attribute challenge, though I’ve never been consistent for more than a couple months at a time. One of the reasons I struggled is that I didn’t feel like I was seeing results. Perhaps this was due to the virtue paradox. For example, when I studied humility, I struggled to become more humble because I didn’t know if I was just acting humble for the sake of being humble. (In other words, I was proud of my humility, which defeated the purpose.) Christlike attributes are completely selfless in nature; each attribute exists for the sake of something else, and that’s why you can’t improve in one specific attribute by focusing on it.

However, I’m learning that the trick to overcoming the virtue paradox is to consistently move on to other attributes rather than being stuck on just one. This is because when I strive to develop an attribute, I end up developing different attributes instead.

For example, studying humility did not increase my humility, but it did increase my faith. The more I studied humility, the more I realized how much I lacked humility, and the more awe and admiration I felt for Christ’s humility. Thus, my faith in Christ’s divinity increased.

Studying the attribute of knowledge did not increase my knowledge, but it did increase my patience. I became aware of how many things I don’t know and how much knowledge I lack, and thus I realized I need to be patient with myself as I learn a little bit more each day.

Studying the attribute of charity did not necessarily increase my charity, but it did increase my humility. As I pondered the people in my life whom I needed to show more charity to, I became more aware of how much I have in common with them and how I have no reason to feel superior to them.

If I do the attribute challenge for long enough, eventually things come full circle, and I develop the original attribute without realizing it. That’s why I can’t stop after only doing the challenge for a month. And that’s why I want to commit to doing better at choosing a different attribute each month indefinitely. For those of you who would like to do the same, allow me to share some additional insight and resources.

Ideas for Choosing an Attribute

The speaker who originally extended the attribute challenge to me specifically recommended the attributes listed in chapter 6 of Preach My Gospel (the missionary teaching manual for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). That list includes faith in Jesus Christ, hope, charity and love, virtue, knowledge, patience, humility, diligence, and obedience.

The list in Preach My Gospel is a good place to start, and the chapter includes great suggestions and insight and scriptures to help. After doing each of those nine attributes once, it’s a good idea to start over and cycle through those same ones again. Or, if you feel like branching out, there are many other worthy attributes to choose from. I found this website the other day that lists 40 different attributes:

How to Apply Your Chosen Attribute

The hardest part of doing the attribute challenge is to remember that you’re doing the attribute challenge. You’ll need to figure out a way to remind yourself that works for you, plus a way to pick yourself back up and rise again if you’ve neglected it for a while.

It’s also important not to feel like your chosen attribute is just another thing to check off of your already overcrowded to-do list. One way to make things easier is to weave the attribute challenge into other things that you’re already doing. For example, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been asked to study the “Come Follow Me” readings throughout the week. As they do those readings, they could try to notice instances in the scriptures when Christ and others exemplified their chosen attribute.

Here are a few additional ideas:

  • Find a quote or power statement about that attribute that you can easily recall throughout the day. (This power statement could come from a scripture or other resource.)
  • Share and discuss your chosen attribute with others.
  • Think of someone you know who is good at exemplifying that attribute and ask them for their insights about it.
  • Write your thoughts about the attribute in your journal.
  • Read various articles and resources about that attribute, like a General Conference talk or chapter 6 in Preach My Gospel.

Probably the best advice I can give is to pray/meditate and receive inspiration on what goal or action is best for you with each specific attribute. For example, in my case, my study on humility is what led me to decide to blog again. (Because God had been reminding me to blog for some time, and I needed to humble myself enough to stop making excuses.)

Teaching Children

One of the reasons I’ve felt more motivated to do the attribute challenge than ever before is that I’ve recently become a mother, and I’ve started feeling the weight of responsibility to teach virtuous attributes to my children. Public school will teach them all the secular knowledge they need, but how will they learn to build character and to recognize positive virtues unless such things are constantly discussed and modeled in the home?

I found a cute website the other day that lists children’s books that can be read in connection to specific virtues each month. Since there are an overwhelming number of things to teach children, it’s nice to know I can kill two birds with one stone by teaching them reading comprehension skills while also teaching them about Christlike attributes:

Measuring progress?

How can you measure your progress in each attribute you develop? You can’t. At least, not specifically. As we’ve discussed with the virtue paradox, trying to quantify how much you possess a certain attribute can actually decrease that attribute. Another reason it’s difficult to measure progress is that Christlike attributes are more likely to be bestowed as gifts, rather than developed solely through our own efforts (see Moroni 7:47).

What you can do, however, is look for the fruits of those attributes. I would recommend that after studying and developing a different attribute for a few months, study the list of promised blessings below and marvel in awe at how those blessings have started showing up in your life.

List of Promised Blessings for Acting on the Attribute Challenge:

  • The greatest joy will be yours.
  • Your power to do and become will increase.
  • You will develop self-mastery.
  • You will find peace and comfort.
  • Loneliness will leave you.
  • You won’t be discouraged.
  • You will be a better student.
  • You will have success in your employment.
  • You will find direction and purpose in your life.
  • You will be a better mother, father, son, and daughter.
  • You will have strength to overcome sins and weaknesses.
  • Everyday life will have more meaning.
  • You will be able to meet trials and challenges with greater strength and understanding.
  • You will have the companionship of the Holy Ghost in greater abundance.
  • The Holy Ghost will be your constant companion.
  • You will draw nearer to God and He to you.
  • The Heavens will open in your behalf; you will receive revelation upon revelation, commandments upon commandments.
  • You will understand God’s thoughts and his ways as never before.
  • You will receive answers to your prayers.
  • You will overcome the natural man.
  • You will desire to repent and seek perfection.
  • Your power to resist temptation will increase.
  • Your love of God and all people will increase.
  • Your confidence will increase in the presence of God.
  • You will feel greater worthiness.
  • You will qualify yourself for the Celestial Kingdom.
  • Ultimately you will qualify yourself for eternal life.
  • You will draw nearer to God and Jesus Christ.
  • You will come to know God and Jesus Christ.
  • You will become more like Him.
  • You will find yourself.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jeremy Madsen says:

    Excellent post!

    Another factor that may contribute to the “paradox of virtue” is that when we start consciously focusing on a virtue, we become aware of all the ways we don’t live up to that virtue. For example, if I’m studying patience, I’ll become more aware of all the times that I get frustrated. The actual number of times I get frustrated may actually be decreasing, but my awareness of those times has increased.

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