“Temperance and labor are the two best physicians of man” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau).
MOST PEOPLE THINK OF TEMPERANCE AS SELF-CONTROL. If we’re temperate, that means we’re able to govern our desires and moderate our impulses, restraining ourselves when we need to. But think with me today about what that really means. One of the most basic definitions of the verb “temper” is “to modify by the addition of a moderating element.” Self-control almost always involves this kind of temperance. If I say no to a second helping of chocolate pie, for example, I am not just saying no — I am saying yes to some other considerations. I am modifying my desire for chocolate pie by adding in some other values, such as physical health, respect for another person who might want the last piece of pie, and so forth.
Daily life consists of many such balancing acts, where multiple priorities have to be considered and desires have to be tempered. There is no virtue in the world that doesn’t have to be balanced with other virtues. To take any virtue or desire and make a god out of it is to create a demon that will destroy us. Idolatry is a dangerous thing.
So our desires have to be restrained, and if we can’t restrain them, they’ve mastered us and we’re in bondage to them. “At each moment of a man’s life, he is either a king or a slave. As he surrenders to a wrong appetite, to any human weakness, to any failure, he is a slave. As he day by day crushes out human weakness he receives a new self from the sin and folly of the past, then he is a king” (James T. White). The point is not that desire is inherently bad and has to be done away with; it’s that no one desire can be allowed to become a tyrant or a dictator. Every desire should be required to cooperate with our other desires — and also with our principles, values, and commitments.
In fact, the higher a desire is on the scale of our values, the more destructive it will be if it’s not tempered. Even love, as great as it is, has to be governed. It is not enough simply to say that we love something or someone. The question is, what are the boundaries of that love? How must that love be balanced with my concern for what is right and good and honorable? And come to think of it, that’s always what temperance comes down to: submitting love to virtuous discipline.
“Temperance is love in training” (Dwight Lyman Moody).