Josef Pieper writes about strenuous effort versus free spontaneity in living the virtuous life with God:
The strain of self-mastery, which for us countrymen of Kant is inseparable from any concept of upbringing and moderation and is generally tied to and fused with the concept of virtue, is an accompanying phenomenon only of less perfect and beginner stages, whereas authentic, perfected virtue, by dint of the very definition of the concept, bears the happily radiant seal of spontaneity, of freedom from constraint and of self-evident inclination. (From A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, p. 10)
I love the way Pieper highlights the difference between immature and mature virtue. The effort-driven, straining of self-mastery is a reflection of beginning in virtue. The movement toward maturity is marked by an increasing spontaneity of virtuous action.
The Apostle Paul’s words ring in my mind here: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. . . . If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:15, 26 ESV). As we increasingly walk by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit, like someone learning a dance, we become increasingly overcome by the rhythms and patterns and less conscious of the effort it takes to move our feet to the rhythms of the dance.
Self-conscious spiritual effort feels tense and difficult to watch, yet it is the necessary first steps of growing with God, sensing His Spirit’s work in us, and learning the patterns of life with God. But it is the spontaneous living with God that brings out the sweetest rhythms of grace, overflowing into the most beautiful dance of life in step with God’s calling for holy living.