The Virtue of Temperance
Last week I spoke in chapel at Regents Park, with the assigned topic being the virtue of temperance and the assigned text being Daniel 1. I found this an interesting way to read the Daniel story. Here’s a summary of what I said, as best I remember it.
“Temperance” has two main meanings: self-restraint, especially in matters of the appetites for food, drink, or sex; and balance or moderation, the avoiding of extremes.
When we think of the Christian virtue of temperance, we generally focus on the first meaning – self-restraint; although in fact many Christians speak as though temperance didn’t just mean control of one’s appetites but rather their elimination. With the result that temperance has often come to mean complete abstinence or refusal, especially when it comes to alcohol. The Temperance Movement wasn’t about drinking in moderation, and that usage has affected what many of us understand by this virtue. Popular culture has also twisted this understanding of temperance into something that’s not so much about restraint as about a new obsession: with health, with fitness, with mastery of the body….
Temperance in the second sense – as balance or moderation – doesn’t on the face of it seem to have much to do with Christian virtue. After all, Christians are not called to chart some moderate path between extreme devotion and extreme disobedience. Popular culture often values this sort of moderation, teaching us that religious commitment is fine as long as it’s not too extreme, as long as you’re not too carried away. But Christians must resist this popular understanding. We worship a God who is all goodness, not a mixture of good and evil. “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all.” And Jesus, our model for perfect humanity, was without sin. In John 2, He is described as fulfilling the prophecy of the psalm: “zeal for your house will consume me.” And in the book of Revelation, Jesus condemns those who are lukewarm in faith.
There is a different sort of balance that is necessary for Christian virtue, a balance that is in fact connected to Christian temperance and that we see illustrated in Daniel. I am thinking of the balance Jeremiah describes in his letter to the exiles, a letter in which he instructs those like Daniel about how they are to live faithfully in Babylon.
On the one hand, he tells them that they are to work for the good of the city of Babylon, to invest in its welfare, not to stand aloof from its life. They are to pray for God’s blessing on Babylon, acknowledging that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not some tribal deity whom they have left behind in Jerusalem, but is the Lord of heaven and earth, including Babylon. He is Lord of this city too, and He can bring blessing to this city too.
However, the letter goes on, the people of Judah are also to remember that their true home is not Babylon, but Jerusalem. God promises that He will bring them back to Jerusalem some day, and so even as they are living in Babylon they must live as citizens of another place, of another kingdom.
This same balance is often called for in the New Testament – especially in Paul. We are to be ambassadors to the world, becoming all things to all people, and yet we are not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. We are to be in the world, and yet not of it. Such exilic balance is an essential mark of temperance.
C. S. Lewis somewhere makes the point that the Church tends to preach against whatever sin we’re not especially tempted to at the moment, and that is certainly true when it comes to maintaining this balance. We tend to preach against the extreme to which we are least tempted. At least in the circles where I live and move, it is very fashionable to worry that the church is too other-worldly, to insist that we must be more affirming of the goodness of this world, to suggest that our greatest temptation is to undervalue our bodies and our physical pleasures. Perhaps there are a few of you here who come from communities where that is genuinely a problem, but I must say that I have no experience of such communities. In my experience, today’s church is far too likely to be completely assimilated into the world, to fall completely on the side of loving the city of Babylon and forget about our citizenship in another place.
Surely that must have been the great temptation for Daniel as well. Assimilation was the goal of the Babylonian induction program. And it would have been so easy to go along with that program, to embrace this new, cosmopolitan life, to follow the road clearly marked out that was going to lead to security and the possibility of advancement, to position himself on the side of the winning city as opposed to the losing city of Jerusalem. Indeed, Babylon’s approach of assimilation was very gracious and enlightened, something that must have made it even more appealing.
Instead, Daniel looks for the balance that will allow him to be an emissary from Yahweh in this new place. He accepts his new name, he participates in the training that he is assigned, but he draws the line at violating the Jewish law about diet. It’s a little unclear just what it was about the rich food that was a violation – possibly the kind of food or the way it was prepared, but most likely that it had been offered to idols and that eating it was connected in the minds of those who ate it with the worship of the Babylonian gods. That would indeed be a defilement, and Daniel refuses it. He will not allow Babylon to be his source of nurture and sustenance. Although he is living in Babylon, he is still sustained and nurtured by his citizenship in Jerusalem.
It is this balance that then allows him to refuse the rich food and subsist on a very restricted diet. In other words, it is temperance in the sense of balance that allows him to practice temperance in the sense of self-restraint. Temperance isn’t just about will-power and defying your desires. That’s not temperance; that’s continence. And continence is a useful discipline that may lead to temperance. But temperance is the virtue of actually changing and reordering one’s desires. The continent person refuses the tempting piece of chocolate cake, while still longing for it and thinking about it even in the refusal and half-regretting the will-power that made it possible to walk away. The temperate person no longer wants the cake because there are other things, better things, higher things that are now more desirable.
Daniel desires other things more than food. He loves God’s law, he loves Jerusalem and the worship that he learned there, and he loves the God Who reveals mysteries. Those loves make it possible for him to resist assimilation, to be working in the world without being taken over by it. And they also make it possible for him to restrain his very ordinary desire for tasty food. The stronger those loves become, the more deeply he desires God, the more temperate he is.
The 12th-century theologian Alan of Lille taught that “the head rules the belly through the chest,” which is to say the reason rules the appetites through the quality of habitually ordered loves or desires, a quality that Alan calls magnanimity. (C. S. Lewis references this in his book The Abolition of Man, which you must read if you haven’t yet.) Our appetites for sex, for food, for drink, for money, for stuff, for acceptance, for pleasure, for every sort of self-indulgence are very strong. We live in a world that tells us it is normal and healthy to gratify those appetites, and most of us in this room have the time and the resources and the opportunity to go a long way down the path of gratification. If we are to be temperate people, people who are not dominated by our most basic appetites, then we need to develop patterns of strong, even passionate desire for higher and better things. So our New Testament lesson says: “Set your mind on the things above, where Christ is.” We need to love the new kingdom of which we are citizens and the new community of which we are a part. Most of all, we need to love Jesus Himself, love him so much that our appetites are not merely controlled but re-ordered.
Since I’m a Calvinist, I don’t think we can do that re-ordering ourselves. It needs to be done to us. God needs to awaken the right loves and desires in us. Only God’s re-ordering of our desires will make it possible to live as His ambassadors in the world without being swallowed up and assimilated by the kingdom of the world. We need to ask Him to do that for us.