Temperance seems to be the least loved and most ridiculed of all the classic and noble virtues. Does anyone really want a “temperance movement” these days? You will recall that was the name for the grassroots effort during the early 20th century in our country to outlaw the sale and distribution of alcohol. Of course, it should have been called an “Abstinence Movement” instead, since the goal was not to advocate for moderate and sensible consumption but rather the total ban of alcohol—however, it is hard to blame them.
At the time, alcohol abuse was rampant in our country, even worse than today, and was widely viewed as the root of many of the worst maladies of the culture—from poverty to domestic violence to wasted lives lying inebriated on the sidewalks of cities. Finally, the people had enough. Led primarily by women who bore the brunt of much of this abuse, and reinforced by a coalition of churches who joined in the fight against the “demon drink,” the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1919, outlawing liquor sales and transportation.
Now, you will remember from your U.S. history classes that this effort to legislate morality failed to accomplish its purpose. People still found a way to drink, provided mainly by the illegal bootlegging industry that ballooned during the Prohibition years, until the 21st Amendment in 1933 marked the end of that era.
And ever since, the idea of temperance seems to have gone out of style. In my opinion, this is an unfortunate downgrade of a very important, classical, and biblical virtue. For the ancient Greeks, the maxim for temperance was “nothing over much,” meaning no appetite or desire should have such control over a person that they are out of balance. The Greek ideal was a well-ordered soul, a well-balanced life, and a well-proportioned self. Plato said, “Temperance was the rational ordering of the soul that kept it free, the lack of which left a person no different than an animal, and led to a feverish state of the soul, and to a city of pigs which knows no limits.” Aristotle thought temperance was the chief virtue of all and urged people to follow the “golden mean”—moderation in everything.
Temperance is also an essential virtue in the teaching of Scripture. Often, the word temperance is translated as “self-control.” Listen to these verses from God’s Word: “A person without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Proverbs 25:28).
“He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32, RSV).
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
“God did not give us a spirit of fear and timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Just think of how much trouble we bring into our lives when we allow our appetites and impulses, egos, and ambitions to control us. How much of our physical illness is caused by our overconsumption? Maimonides, a 12th-century Jewish physician and philosopher, once observed, “People do not die so much from disease and infection; they die more frequently from an immoderate lifestyle.” What an astute observation—and that was before fast-food restaurants, recreational drugs, and easy, abundant access to every possible delight!
The virtue of temperance, or moderation and self-control, invites us to get off the wild (and deadly) roller coaster ride of our excessive, obsessive lifestyles. Let’s not allow a good thing to become bad for us simply because we cannot govern our appetites and desires. But how do we keep our lives in the “golden mean” of moderation?
The difference between the Greek ideal of temperance and the Christian view of self-control is that for the Christian, moderation or temperance is not just a matter of one’s internal resolve, like a New Year’s Resolution, to control one’s desires. The Bible teaches that the key to self-control for the Christian is submitting foremost to Christ’s control. For if Christ is our master, nothing and no one else can be our master. In a life under Christ’s control, there can be moderation and temperance, an abundant life, a life submitted to Christ’s control, rather than a life out of control.
Is anyone interested in a temperance movement? I am. How about you?
by Pastor Allen Walworth