The great St. John Vianney on true and false virtue:
“By their fruits you shall know them.” —Matt. vii, 16.
SYNOPSIS.—Good and bad Christians known by their works. A false and superficial virtue will manifest its true nature.
I. A Christian should not be contented with the performance of good works; he should be careful how to perform them.
II. It is not enough to be virtuous in the eyes of the world; we must be so in our hearts.
I. Good works must proceed from the heart. St. Gregory. Our actions should be only the medium to express our intention. Our works must be perfect, unselfish. Hypocrisy. Jeroboam. The poor widow’s mite. Perseverance.
II. Have you the true virtue? Conclusion.
Jesus Christ could not have given us a plainer or surer mark whereby we might know the difference between good and bad Christians than by telling us we should know them, not by their words, but by their works. “A good tree,” He says, “can not bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.” Yes, dear brethren, those who possess only a false piety, a hypocritical or only a superficial virtue, will, in spite of all the precautions they may take, be unable to prevent the true condition of their heart from sometimes manifesting itself outwardly, either in words or deeds. Nothing, my dear brethren, is so prevalent as this pretended virtue, or, in other words, this hypocrisy.
So as to give you the right idea of the unhappy state of those poor souls who will, perhaps, be damned, although doing good, just because they do not good the right way, I will show you:
I. A good Christian should not be contented to perform good works; he should know how to perform them properly.
II. It is not enough to be virtuous in the eyes of the world; we must be so in our hearts.
I. Now, if you ask me, dear brethren, how can we know whether a virtue is real, and whether it will lead us to heaven, the answer is: that in order to make an action pleasing to God, the following conditions must be fulfilled: First, the action should be sincere and perfect; second, it should be humble and without selfishness; third, it should be steadfast and enduring: If these conditions are found in everything you do, then you may be sure that you are working for heaven.
(1) We have said that an action must be sincere; it is not sufficient that it shows itself only outwardly. It must come from our hearts, and love of God must be its prime cause and its beginning, for St. Gregory tells us that everything which God requires of us should be founded on the love which we owe Him. The action, therefore, should be nothing more than a sort of medium to express our intention. Words and actions that do not come from the sincerity of the heart are no more than hypocrisy in the eyes of God.
We say, further, our virtue should be perfect. That means, it is not sufficient for us to practice only those certain virtues to which we may be naturally inclined, but we should embrace them all; that is to say, all virtues the practice of which is possible for our state. St. Paul says that we should prepare a superabundant provision of all kinds of good works for our salvation.
(2) We said, also, that our virtue should be humble and free from selfishness. Jesus Christ tells us that we should never perform our actions in order that we may be praised by men. If we desire a heavenly reward, then we must hide the good which God works in us as much as possible, for fear that the devil of pride may rob us of the merit of those good works. But, perhaps, you will say, the good that we do, we do really for God, and the world has no benefit of it. My friend, I am not so sure about it. There are many who deceive themselves on this point. It might be easy to prove to you that your religion is largely on the outside only, and not founded in the soul. Tell me, would you not, rather than not, have people know that you observe all fast days? If you give money to the poor, or to the Church, would you not like to have this known by your neighbor? Does not that feeling make hypocrites of us?
The saints did exactly the contrary. And why did they? They knew their religion, and they sought to humble themselves to obtain the mercy of God. What poor Christians are those, whose religion is one of mood, of habit, and nothing else! You will, perhaps, think that these are rather strong words. Yes, without doubt, they are rather strong, but they are the strict truth. It must be my endeavor to produce in you a horror of the sin of hypocrisy. How many people, alas, although they do good works, will be lost because they do not know their religion thoroughly! Many people say a great many prayers, and even go frequently to the Sacraments; but they still keep their bad habits, and die in them, because they strive, at one and the same time, to be friends of God and friends of sin. Look at that man, who appears to be a good Christian. Just give him to understand, even if you have the right to do so, that he has wronged some one; point out his faults to him, or any wrong which he has been guilty of in his heart, and he will fly into a rage at once, and hate the sight of you. Hatred and ill-will spring up in his head. Look at another one. You can not have much of an opinion of his piety, for he answers you haughtily, and will not make up with those that have offended him.
The following example will show us how severely God punishes false virtue, which is so great a sin: We read in Holy Scripture that King Jeroboam sent his wife to meet the prophet Ahias, in order to ask advice about the sickness of his son, and he made her to disguise herself in the garb of a poor and pious person. He had recourse to this artifice because he feared that, if his people knew that he asked advice of the prophets of the true God, they would come to the conclusion that he had very little confidence in their idols. But he could not deceive God. When this woman entered the abode of the prophet, the latter cried out, before even having seen her: “Wife of Jeroboam, why dost thou seek to appear other than thou art? Approach, hypocrite. I have bad news to give you from the Lord our God. Bad news, indeed. Listen: The Lord hath commanded me to tell thee that he will send down all kinds of misfortune upon the house of Jeroboam; he will annihilate it, even unto the animals; those of his house that die in the fields will be devoured by dogs. Depart now, wife of Jeroboam. Go and acquaint thy husband with this. And at the moment when thou settest thy foot within the city, thy son shall die.” Everything occurred just as the prophet had foretold; not one of Jeroboam’s house escaped the vengeance of the Lord. You see, then, dear brethren, how God punishes this cursed sin of hypocrisy.
Moreover, I must tell you that it is not the size and greatness of deeds which give them merit, but the pure intention with which they are undertaken. The Gospel gives us a beautiful example of this. The Evangelist St. Mark relates that Jesus Christ, on entering the temple one day, beheld how the people cast money into the receptacle for offering, and He saw that many that were rich cast in much. Then He saw how a poor widow approached the receptacle humbly, and cast in two mites. Thereupon, Jesus Christ, calling His disciples, said to them: “Behold, many persons have cast considerable alms into the almsbox and see there also a poor widow who has only cast in two mites. What do you think of this difference? To judge by appearances, you think, perhaps, that the gifts of the rich have more merit; but I tell you that this widow has cast in more than all of them; for the rich cast in of their abundance, but she of her want hath cast in all she had. Most of the rich sought glory before men, and to be thought better than they were, while this widow hath given to please God alone.” A beautiful example, dear brethren, which teaches us with what pure intentions and with what humility we should perform all our actions, if we desire to be rewarded for them. Certainly, God does not forbid us to perform our works before men, but He desires that they should be done for His sake alone, and not for the sake of the glory of the world.
(3) We have said, the third necessary condition for true virtue is perseverance. We must not be satisfied to do good for a certain length of time, such as to pray for a while, to mortify ourselves at times, to renounce our self-will, to bear with the weaknesses of others, to combat the temptations of the devil, to bear patiently contempt and calumnies, to watch over the movements of our hearts. No, dear brethren, we must persevere until death if we wish to be saved. St. Paul says that we must be firm and steadfast in the service of God, and that we should work at the salvation of our souls every day of our lives, knowing well that our labor will not be rewarded unless we persevere until the end. He says: “Neither riches nor poverty, neither health nor sickness, should induce us to neglect the salvation of our soul, and to separate ourselves from God: for we know that God will only crown that virtue which perseveres until death.”
We see this in a remarkable manner in the Apocalypse in the person of a Bishop, who led such a holy life that God Himself lavished praises upon him: “I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear evil men; and thou hast tried them who say they are apostles and are not, and hast found them liars; and thou hast patience, and hast borne for my name, and hast not failed. But this I have against thee: that thou hast become negligent in the practise of these virtues. Be mindful, therefore, from whence thou art fallen, and do penance as thou didst before, or else I shall reject thee, and punish thee.” Tell me, dear brethren, should not we be seized with fear when we hear how God menaced even a Bishop who had been negligent? Alas, what has become of us ever since our conversion! Instead of making progress daily, what tepidity, what indifference, is ours! No, God can not bear this perpetual inconstancy with which we turn from virtue to vice, and from vice to virtue again. Tell me, dear brethren, is this not your manner of living, too? Is your life anything else but an intermingling of sins and virtues? Do you not confess your sins, and the following day commit the same faults again? Or, maybe, even on the same day? How many there are who, for a certain length of time, seem to love God with all their strength, and then again forsake Him! What is it that you find so hard and difficult in the service of God that you are so soon discouraged, and return again to the world? And yet, at the moment when God allowed you to know your condition, you sighed, and you perceived how much you had deceived yourself! The reason of this misfortune is because Satan is angry at having lost you, and he works till he gets you back again, and hopes to hold you forever. How many faithless persons are there who have forsaken their religion, and yet they bear the name of Christians!
II. Now, you will ask, how can we know if we have virtue in our hearts, that virtue which remains ever true to itself? Now, listen, dear brethren, and you will perceive whether you have that virtue on account of which God will receive you into heaven. A person who is truly virtuous does not waver in the least; he is like a rock beaten by the storm in the midst of the sea. Whether you are blamed, or calumniated, or mocked at, or regarded as a hypocrite, or treated as a prude, none of these things should be capable of robbing you of your peace of soul. You should be just as well disposed toward your enemies as if they had spoken well of you. You should not fail to show them kindness, although they have spoken badly of you. You should say your prayers, go to Confession and Holy Communion, and attend Holy Mass, with disregard of anything the world may say. Our virtue, also, to be true should be steadfast. That is to say, we must be just as resigned to the will of God and zealous under crosses and ill-fortune, as at the time when nothing disagreeable comes in our way. This is how the saints acted. Look at the great multitude of the martyrs who endured everything that the frenzy of a tyrant could think of, and who, far from neglecting God, were, on the contrary, drawn closer to Him. Neither torments nor persecutions inflicted upon them caused them to waver.
Let us, then, conclude, dear brethren, by remembering that our virtue must have its source in the heart, in order to be fruitful and pleasing to God. We must hide our good works. We should also be well on our guard so as to neglect nothing in the service of God; on the contrary, we should grow and increase in the knowledge and love of God. In this way the saints assured themselves of eternal bliss, the blessing which I wish you all. Amen.