In the pastoral epistles, temperance (or “self-control”) is a chief virtue. Every man and woman is to learn it (1 Timothy 2:9, 15; Titus 2:2, 5-6). Every church leader is to model it (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8). But what is it?
The Vices & The Mean
While virtue is always to be a mean between two extremes, in the case of temperance this is quite literally the case. Temperance is variously translated as moderation or balance.1 It is sanity and a sound mind in a world of crazed passions. It might be described as a kind of mental or spiritual contentment which allows for self-control. Aristotle explains, “Temperance is the virtue that disposes us to obey the law where physical pleasures are concerned; incontinence is the opposite” (Rhetoric 1.9). Temperance is not obedience, but rather the calm that allows for obedience.
One opposing vice of temperance would then be unbridled lust. While desire is itself a gift of God, untrained desire leads to sin (James 1:14-15). Paul accordingly explains that the grace of God has trained “us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Desire understood in the light of the creator is a blessing, but without the knowledge of God can only be described as “dishonorable passions” (Romans 1:24-32).
However, the other opposing vice of temperance is more controversial to explain. Here, the correct view of virtue is important to reiterate. Virtue must be a mean between two extremes, not merely a reaction against one. Some forgetting this have confused temperance with an unhealthy asceticism, the denial of all desire. However, some things are clearly to be desired, like spiritual gifts or the work of church leadership (1 Corinthians 14:1; 1 Timothy 3:1). Just as Romans explains dishonorable passions as a failure to recognize the Creator, 1 Timothy teaches that asceticism is also a failure to know God as Creator:
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)
Desiring Too Little
We should understand temperance not as the absence of desire, but rather the healthy shaping of desire in the knowledge of God, “who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). Trench comments, “for those who are ‘led by the Spirit,’ the condition of self-command is transformed into a higher sphere in which a man does not order and command himself but is ordered and commanded by God.”2 In Scriptures, the sound mind is the “gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6-7). When desire has found its true object, all other desires are then refocused to allow the One True Desire to rule all others. The untrained passion which leads to sin in James is a desire which does not yet recognize God as its perfect fulfillment.
C.S. Lewis would agree:
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.3
John Piper has taken this a step further and argued for what he calls “Christian hedonism,” the belief that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. He writes,
By Christian Hedonism, we do not mean that our happiness is the highest good. We mean that pursuing the highest good will always result in our greatest happiness in the end. We should pursue this happiness, and pursue it with all our might. The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy, you cannot love man or please God.4
The Temperate Desire of Christ
The perfect model of every virtue is Jesus Christ our Lord, so if this virtue of temperance has been correctly understood, we should see it evidenced in his life. And we do. Jesus in his daily life is certainly no ascetic. He comes “eating and drinking” after all (Matthew 11:19). Jesus is not lacking in passion and desire. He “in every respect has been tempted as we are” (Hebrew 4:15). The difference is that the desire of Christ is focused on God. In the garden he can push aside one desire in favor of a greater, more fulfilling one: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Having prepared his desire for obedience, he can face trials and the cross as a temperate lamb:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23)
This example of suffering must lead us to the same temperance, “so as to live … no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2).
For Jesus, even his anger in the temple is a consequence of temperance. To set the stage for this observation, look at two instances of anger in the life of Moses. At Sinai, God himself is angry with the people (Exodus 32:10). Consequently, when Moses shares this anger and shatters the tablets of the law, he is not rebuked (32:19-20). On the other hand, in Number 20, Moses takes the rebellion of the people more personally at Meribah. He claims the vindication for himself and Aaron when he says, “must we bring water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10). While his behavior is much less severe than at Sinai, God is greatly displeased. He seems not to be disturbed by Moses’ passion, but rather the focus of it. Here he is rebuked, “You did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people” (20:12).
Turning again to Jesus, we certainly see moments of Moses-like passion. What separates Jesus with his whip in the temple and Moses with his staff at Meribah? Temperance. Jesus’ anger is not the result of personal insult but is rather a consequence of his longing for God. “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:13-17). His desire is shaped and tamed by his love of the Almighty, not by love of self.
Thus, Christian temperance need not be understood as a denial of all passion. It is a balanced life resulting from a devoted heart. Temperance is the curation of desire by God and the satisfaction of the soul in Him. Like the God revealed to Moses at Sinai, temperance is a fire which burns but does not consume.
- Temperance as we will speak of it comes from the Greek term sophron used by Aristotle and others. Sophron is a more subtle word perhaps than the alternative term, egkrateia, which seems to be used more of arduous discipline or self-mastery. See 1 Corinthians 7:5, 9; 9:25. Egkrateia aligns well with Aquinas’ view of temperance as motivated by the gift of fear (Summa II-II.141.1). While there is a place for this sort of self-control, sophron is not so much a project undertaken but rather a beautiful state of moral health and mental sanity. Augustine sees temperance not as fear but as “love keeping itself entire and incorrupt for God” (De Moribus Ecclesiae, 15). Likewise for Paul, temperance (“sound mind”) is the gift of God which runs opposite of the “spirit of fear” (2 Timothy 1:6-7).
- R.C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 84.
- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory.
- John Piper, “We Want You to Be a Christian Hedonist.” desiringgod.org. Accessed 11/9/16.