On Temperance

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about something I’ve always considered myself to be fair at, but now I’m less certain: temperance. In a modern context, a lot of people consider that word to be synonymous with teetotalism. When I write “temperance,” I’m not specifically talking about avoiding alcohol–though I’m pretty good at that when the time is right. I’m talking specifically about the combination of moderation and prudence, with a sprinkling of moral fiber to understand how much is enough of something, and how much is too much.

There are a couple verses I want to call out. One is written by Paul in Galatians, and I’ve called it out before: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22,23). Here, in the NIV translation, the word “self-control” is used in lieu of “temperance,” which appears in the King James translation with which I grew up. I think it’s an interesting choice; firstly, it’s more of a layman’s term, and secondly it’s true over broader set of circumstances.

The second verse that speaks to me comes from Proverbs. “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it” (Prov 25:16). Solomon wisely uses honey, something sweet and seemingly innocuous, as a symbol for worldly pleasures, and the proverb means that too much of anything can be a bad thing. This sums up many of my feelings on what temperance ought to mean for me. Temperance is not necessarily about avoiding or abstaining from worldly pleasures–though it can be–but should be more focused on understanding where partaking ends and gluttony begins. This can be true of alcohol, of food, of sex, of material goods, and of a great many other things.

In C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece “Mere Christianity,” he tackles this issue in a section about cardinal virtues: “One great piece of mischief has been done by the modern restriction of the word Temperance to the question of drink. It helps people to forget that you can be just as intemperate about lots of other things. A man who makes his golf or his motor-bicycle the center of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge or her dog, is being just as “intemperate” as someone who gets drunk every evening.”

1940s sexism aside, his point remains true. We live in a culture that’s obsessed with becoming obsessed with things to the point of gluttony; it’s almost encouraged! Think of the term “binge watch.” It’s how many of us spend our weekends, and the word “binge” is right there under our noses telling us that this is deliberate gluttony. Watching football, working out, gambling, shopping. Temperance might be our virtue in shortest supply these days.

I am not saying that I have not been guilty of these things, because of course I have. I am more temperate than many, but less temperate than others. I also do think that I am self-aware enough to know when I am not practicing this virtue. In many ways, it goes hand-in-hand with understanding my own idols and setting them aside.

In the first sentence of this entry, I did not say that I was uncertain that I’m personally “good” at practicing temperance; the word I used was “fair.” This was a deliberate choice that leads into my next thought: I believe now that I have been lacking with regards to how I treat others’ lack of temperance. Lewis writes in that same section: “An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.”  Here’s what I mean in the context of what he has written: I do think that I’ve been guilty of looking down on others because of their habits, and in that way, I have not been fair to them. Though I can say that I’ve always tried not to judge, I can also say that at times I’ve stood on a soap-box.

Later, Lewis addresses morality in general terms, talking about the every day choices we make, and how each of them can affect our spirit. I think this quote relates to both temperance, and to my own life: “People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’ I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.”

He is saying that every single moral choice I make results in a slight change in my heart; too many choices in one direction or another can change me permanently, for good or for bad. For some people, a choice is whether or not to have that beer with dinner tonight. For me, a similar choice might be whether or not I choose to judge someone for an action I deem intemperate.


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