“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love.” (2 Peter 1:5-7)
A list can be a real lifesaver, can’t it? In the midst of our multi-tasking, information overloaded, frenetic lifestyles, we need something to keep us on track and lists, at least sometimes, can be just the thing to do that. They serve as reminders, prioritizers, safeguards, and other important things.
To the ancients who lived with a scarcity of books, lists had another important function. They briefly and succinctly encapsulated important truths. They were easier to commit to memory than lengthy discourses, sets of instructions, or voluminous commentary. Today when we come across some valuable information we can buy it, copy it, or download it. The ancients didn’t have these options. Books were hand written and therefore rare and expensive. Copying something was an option but you needed access, time, and writing materials. Downloading was what you did when you took the hay off a wagon.
Lists were one of the ways the ancients compensated for the slowness of their information flow. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that the Scriptures are filled with lists of all different kinds. There are lists of genealogies, kings, resurrection witnesses, fruits of the Spirit, works of the flesh, sins, and so on.
There are also quite a few lists that focus on character development. These lists were common in the first century world. Any self-respecting philosopher had his own list of virtues that he deemed essential. Some of our self-help books today cover the same territory. However, when we come to these lists in Scripture, I think we’re standing on different ground. I think they clarify the nature of true virtue by removing it from the realm of speculative philosophy or self-help and rooting it in the character of Jesus (God).
As we look at Peter’s list in 2 Peter 1:5-7, a couple of things stand out. First of all, like many other lists, it focuses on what we might refer to as spiritual formation. Its intent doesn’t just seem to be to list virtues, but to move us from where we are to a greater likeness of Christ. The second aspect worth noting is that this list begins with faith (v. 5), and ends with love (v. 7). Faith is the reaching hand of the flawed man. It is the central response we make in coming to God and receiving His grace. For a list of spiritual formation to begin with faith makes sense. For it to end with love makes an equal amount of sense, since love is the supreme virtue.
What then are we to make of the six characteristics that are mentioned between faith and love? It’s hard for me not to think that these things represent some of the meaningful specifics of how faith blooms into love. There are a number of passages that mark faith and love out as two of the dominant characteristics of the disciple (2 Timothy 1:13; 2 Thessalonians 1:3; I Thessalonians 3:7). That being so, we tend to (rightly so), give plenty of attention to these two things. It seems to me though that they can become wandering generalities if we don’t connect them with some of the lesser qualities mentioned in these verses.
If we want our faith to grow into love, it makes sense that we have to pay attention to the details.