By David Hegg
Throughout human history character not only mattered, but also it mattered so much that whole societies were determined to define, teach and applaud virtue. And this drive to instill virtue in children, and grow it throughout life, was a primary unifier of society. It set goals everyone could achieve, and made virtuous living the common theme in every area of life.
Today, the abandonment of virtue as an essential element in civil society has left us susceptible to the unrestrained passions of the human heart. And that lack of restraint has allowed individuals to satisfy their own desires without considering the consequences of their actions on their neighbors. While virtue used to unite the community around a shared belief in the necessity of building great character, the lack of virtue today brings division since many now demand the freedom to live without restraint. And their unrestrained “freedom” has meant the rest of us have to deal with the carnage they have created. This is precisely why the last of the four great virtues of antiquity is so vitally important today.
We’ve looked at Prudence, Justice and Fortitude, and now we come to Temperance.
This virtue speaks to the power of an individual to value moderation and self-control. Plato considered that temperance conditions the person to resist temptations of all kinds even as it enables him or her to establish the proper relationship between personal desires and what is the right thing to do.
Even a cursory look at the society around us will show just how deeply we have allowed what we want, and the feelings that drive those wants, to become the most powerful force in our world. Temperance demands that we exercise restraint over those passions and behaviors we absolutely know will cause harm to others and regret to us.
For example, the statistics on both fatherless homes and abortions testify to the result when the desire for unaccountable sexuality is given free reign. No longer will our society even suggest temperance in the area of sexual desire. Instead, we come up with ways to mitigate the regret. Throw caution to the wind, forget birth control strategies, and just abort the baby or leave it for the mother to raise. And then make the Nick Canons of the world super studs rather than the super duds they really are. How in the world has society given a pass to a man who has laughingly created fatherless, single-parent homes for 12 children?
Temperance tells a different story. Temperance declares that saying no to personal desires and drives is noble when so doing eliminates potential burdens rather than creating them for both self and society.
Space prevents me from a deep explanation of other examples but they are abundant. Why do people ingest or insert poisons into their bodies when everyone knows drugs kill? Why are both personal and national debt crippling our economy? Why are crime, pollution, alcohol abuse, child abuse and myriad other societal problems on the rise? The answer is, of course, quite complex but I would propose that in most cases, the answer includes a lack of personal self-restraint when the opportunity for short-term thrills presented itself.
Sadly, too many of our fellow citizens have confused freedom with a lack of restraint. We have become a nation of people driven by a relentless determination to have immediate gratification despite the knowledge that, at some point, the consequences will come calling. And, more to the point, we have thrown all our energy into mitigating the consequences rather than stopping the behavior that brought them on us in the first place.
That’s where temperance comes in. Say no to what you can’t afford. Say no to habits that are weighing you down… literally. Say no to gossip, slander and lies. Say no to habits that hurt yourself and your family. Say no to passions that keep you from loving those you promised to love and care for. Say no to selfish priorities and behavior you know down deep are destructive and just plain wrong.
But also realize deciding to do the right thing will never be enough. Why? Because we’re a weak people in terms of virtue. Just like you can’t do 30 pushups without first strengthening your arms over time, you’ll never fight off the pleasures of sin for a season without first determining to strengthen your prudence, your sense of justice, your fortitude, and most of all your ability to restrain the powerful passions of your soul. That’s where temperance matters most, in your own prioritization of good over evil, right over wrong, in your soul.
So, my final word is, learn to trust temperance. Build a strong ethical system, not on feeling but fact. And strengthen it in the laboratory of life. Discover the satisfaction of saying no to indulgence and yes to virtue. And by all means, include your kids in your program. There is no greater legacy than to leave behind some strong women and men who know how to say no to temptation and yes to character. They’ll thank you for it and so will we.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.