Cultivating Virtue by Loving Jesus: Temperance
Temperance goes by many names. Some of them include, self-control, restraint, patience, endurance, fasting, feasting, or settledness. Of the other moral virtues, temperance is most similar to courage. While the other virtues are directed towards somebody or something — faith, hope, love in God or wisdom towards the best things — temperance and courage are both directed to yourself. They strengthen your soul towards one of those other virtues by resisting the passions or emotions. They are the virtues that allow wisdom and justice to flourish.
When you are afraid of saying your lines during the play, or worried that you won’t get a good grade on your homework, you are experiencing the passion of fear, and courage is the virtue to resist that fear and press on joyfully. Temperance is like that, but instead of something outside you, it resists other passions that come from you. When you don’t have a bad attitude even though you are hungry, or you start playing a video game for five minutes and have to stop and go do your chores, you can do it, even though you might not want to. That’s temperance; It’s self-control. When you don’t say the first thing that comes to your mind, or if you do your schoolwork or obey your parents, even when you you feel tired and grumpy, that’s temperance.
We have desires that are good and natural. If we didn’t have the desire for food, some of us might die. If we didn’t have the desire for rest, or anger at sin, or to play with friends, to watch a movie, or to listen to good music, we would be more like rocks than like God. Temperance is the virtue that can put all of these desires in order to desire the best things first. It’s not simply getting rid of desires or wants. In that sense, you should not be selfless. Rocks are selfless. Trees are selfless. You are a self, and so you are not told to get rid of good desires, but order them. Can you put the best things first? You are told to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength. Everything is good if it is received with thanksgiving. God gives us richly all things to enjoy. Temperance puts God first and enjoys all of His gifts rightly.
Temperance also restrains evil or wicked desires. There are some things that we want to do that are evil and wrong. If we want to say bad words or twisted jokes because we like it when people laugh at them, we are twisting the gift of laughter and friends for evil. When we want to eat too much or make a big deal about eating too little, we are showing more attention to our bellies that we need to or should. If we get angry and lose control of ourselves and yell at our friends or family, this is not temperance, but it is also not temperate if we can never get angry and act against things that are sinful. We would be ruled by laziness instead of being self-controlled.
You can grow in temperance along with all the other virtues. If you love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, you trust Him and hope in Him completely, if you are wise and just and courageous, you will also be temperate. If you have one virtue perfectly, you will have them all. They are connected. Practice self-control and saying no. If you know you are being tempted to give in to a desire that is evil, or you feel yourself controlled by anger, or you are choosing a lesser things instead of a better one, practice saying no to that desire and do what is right. Keep practicing. But remember, temperance isn’t just doing without things, but it is doing without them for God’s sake. “Look at me! I haven’t had screen time for a whole year. Aren’t I so temperate?” No! Not if you didn’t do it for God’s sake.
Like the other virtues, temperance only comes from being crucified with Christ. Paul tells us to put to death what is earthly in us like anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscene talk, lying, and to put on the new self which is renewed after the image of the creator. When Jesus died, all those who trust in Him died with Him. They died spiritually to their old self and way of life. They don’t live for themselves and what they want any more, but now they are to live as slaves to God. Picture a dead body put in the ground. It’s no longer moving. It has not life or power. That is what happened to all of your old desires if you trust that Jesus saves you from sin. So why do you let the old, dead self boss you around or rule you? When Paul wants to give instructions to Christians about how they should live, this is how he explains it. After all of the gospel promises that have been made to believers in Romans 1-5, he reminds Christians they have been crucified with Christ and should live as slaves to righteousness (Romans 6).
If this world was all there was — if you live, die, and are laid in the ground — you would need to do everything you could to get as much as you could as fast as you could. But Jesus promises eternal and abundant life for everyone that hears His voice and follows Him. This is what temperance looks like. We don’t need to fight for the most toys or joys in life, but we can live for Jesus instead. Every wrong will be made right and more joy than we could imagine is promised for those who trust in Him.