The Seven Deadly Virtues — 4

We are being asked, for the sake of our communities, to suspend normal rituals and routines, and keep to ourselves until further notice. You have been receiving advice and warnings by the virtual truckload.  Dave and I have no intention to pile on.  All we want to do is help you keep your Lent fresh and your souls clean.  This week’s virtue may be the most initially unappealing; yet, we think it is absolutely crucial for these strange days. Dave writes this week’s entry.

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.”
~ Ecclesiastes 2:10 

“I guess a modern version of heroism is regaining control of social impulses, saying ‘no’ to a thousand shallow contacts for the sake of a few daring plunges.”
~ David Brooks

Temperance: let’s give it another try. 

It is impossible to write anything this morning without acknowledging the strange times in which we live.  With the coronavirus, we are witness to something that literally affects every American (and world citizen) in real time.  It is an unavoidable backdrop to Lent 2020.  And we see no need to avoid it. 

Mike and I understand these Seven Deadly Virtues as speaking into our present situation. Lent is not a distraction to real life but the path to walk gracefully through it.  Therefore, it is precisely during times of disruption where virtue is most needed and where vice is most tempting.  

That brings us to our Deadly Virtue of the week:  TEMPERANCE.  The word itself has lost its place in our language except to conjure up images of an angry, axe-wielding woman of old (see the fascinating Carry Nation) or, perhaps, the Puritans in general.  

The dictionary helpfully describes temperance as “habitual moderation in the indulgence of a natural appetite.”  The King James Bible keeps temperance in the text when our modern translations use self-control.   The concept is easy to grasp; to be temperate is to exercise voluntary self-control. 

Despite America’s Puritan heritage, we must admit that temperance has become a very un-American virtue.  We are not exactly known for voluntary self-restraint.  The writer of Ecclesiastes (quoted above) may be our culture’s patron saint; we, too, are tempted to deny ourselves nothing which our eyes desire. 

Temperance is the antidote to the sin of gluttony.  Where temperance moderates indulgences, gluttony impulsively over-indulges.  Fundamentally, gluttony is a failure of self-control, the inability to be temperate with something that is otherwise normal and necessary.    

There was a famous Stanford University study, The Marshmallow Experiment (1970), regarding self-control and children.  Kids could choose one marshmallow in the moment or, if they waited an indefinite amount of time, they could have two.  The conclusion: those who delayed immediate gratification tended to have better long-term life outcomes. 

The idea is sound.  To exercise self-control by choosing not to indulge in something you want — even something good—is part of our personal maturity and our spiritual formation.  And, like all Deadly Virtues, it leads us to better life outcomes.  How is your life of self-control these days?

Both Peter and Paul include temperance/self-control in their lists of virtues.  Peter tells us to add self-control to our knowledge (2 Peter1:6) as he describes the progression of spiritual growth; knowledge requires temperance (see the reflection section below).

Paul places it at the end of his famous Fruits of the Spirit list (Galatians 5:23). It caught me how important temperance must be when its place is alongside iconic virtues such as love and joy.  By calling it a fruit of God’s Spirit, we admit that temperance is more an outcome of following Jesus than something we simply will into our lives.  Like the metaphor suggests, our focus is to cling to the Vine as if our lives depends on it and in season, fruit arrives (see John 15). 

Fasting—historically the centerpiece of Lenten practices—is designed to build the virtue of temperance.  There is much Christ can do with a person who seeks to practice self-control in even one area of their life.  For starters, things get revealed:  chronic dependencies, favorite self-medications, places of constant temptation, “good” things that lead you away from community or responsibility and more.  

All of these personal revelations open space for God if we let temperance do its inner work.  And as we become more proficient at self-control, other areas of our life may open up for God’s grace to move.  Yes, temperance is a foundational virtue that will lead us to a better long-term life outcome. 

Regarding our current reality with the COVID-19 sickness, this is a time for our whole culture, not just the Church, to rediscover the grace and power of temperance.  Where is Christ calling us to restrain ourselves for the sake of our neighbors? 

We need to stop fighting against this archaic-sounding virtue that has the audacity to deny us something within our reach and within our rights.  We need to embrace the Spirit of Temperance and reclaim a piece of our spiritual heritage—and this embracing will help navigate this time of crisis.

Lord, hear our Prayer:  

May this time of “social distancing” create a deeper hunger for community in our neighbors and ourselves.

May our hearts be more focused and our actions more compassionate during this crisis.

May we learn to deny what will harm us while we learn to embrace what will heal us. 

May our attempts at temperance — no matter how small or how frustrating — grant us a greater taste of your grace and may they be marked by Joy.  

May our growth in temperance lead us to you. 

May our failures in temperance lead us to you.

May our true fast be to loosen the chains of selfishness that bind us. 

Lord, grant us the power to do so—in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 

Amen.

REFLECTION

  • During our current coronavirus outbreak, where have you noticed a struggle with self-control?  Is there a good, natural appetite you’re having to moderate or deny? Can you re-focus that to become a spiritual practice by inviting Christ into it? 
  • If you have taken a Lenten fast, how is it going?  (Did you give up March Madness?) Consider taking one week for a concentrated fast.  Find one good thing in which you indulge everyday (food, drink, screens, games…) and simply deny it.  See what it sparks within you.  Talk to God about it.
  • If you have never read through “The Twelve Steps” of AA*, you would be wise to become familiar with them.  Which steps catch your attention? Is there one takeaway for this time of crisis? (*AA was founded just two years after Prohibition—two different approaches to the same problem of alcohol addiction).
  • Peter writes that self control helps us with knowledge (2 Peter 1:5-8).  How might that work? Think about what is involved in knowing something or someone else; what role might self-control/self-restraint play in deepening that knowledge? 
  • Temperance (translated self-control) is one of three subjects Paul brings up to a Roman Governor when he was under house arrest (Acts 24:25).  Why do you think he brought up self control? Is this why Felix left the conversation terrified?

For Fun:

A preacher was completing a sermon on temperance. With great expression he said, “If I had all the beer in the world, I’d take it and throw it into the river!” 

The congregation nodded their approval. With even greater emphasis the preacher added, “And if I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and throw it into the river, too!” 

The people clapped and said, “AMEN.” 

“And if I had all the whiskey in the world,” said the preacher, “I’d take it and throw it into the river!” 

As the reverend sat down, the song leader then stood very cautiously and announced with a smile, “For our closing song, let us sing Hymn 365: Shall We Gather at the River.”

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