May 23, 2021
I've been enjoying my morning “time with God” quite a bit recently.
I think it's because it's almost summer.
Rather than being holed away in my basement flipping through the pages of God's Word (which there's absolutely nothing wrong with, of course, especially during the cold, dark mornings of fall and winter), I've of late been stepping out on my back patio as the bright morning sun peaks over the horizon, then reading the Bible and speaking with God while bathed in the glory of His beautiful daytime star in the sky, surrounded by the lush, green forest and early morning birdsong.
You too will likely find that pairing nature with a morning spiritual practice, or, if time doesn't permit for that, an evening spiritual practice under the stars, can prove even more meaningful than reading, praying, meditating, or journaling indoors.
But I digress from today's topic, which is that of something called “temperancy.”
See, during a recent morning time with God, I was reading in my Bible, and came across a passage in 1 Corinthians 9:25-27, in which the Apostle Paul, one of the leaders of the first generation of Christians and a missionary, philosopher, and author who is often considered to be the most important person (after Jesus) in the history of Christianity, says,
“And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”
Paul seems to think of himself as being something very much like a physical competition that requires focused and careful training, and, as a result, understands the importance of being “temperate in all things,” just as an athlete who is striving for mastery. He, like many exercise enthusiasts you may run into these days, also emphasizes his priority placed upon disciplining his body and bringing it into subjection—literally pummeling his body and making it his slave, not in a masochistic, self-harming sense, but rather in the same way that you might imagine when you picture Apollo Creed preparing to fight Ricky Conlan in the recent Rocky film, or even Rocky himself preparing in the harsh Russian winter to fight the Russian fighting phenom Ivan Drago.
In the same way that getting hit in the face during a boxing match means that the stakes are significantly high in that scenario, Paul also knew the stakes were high in his scenario—an uphill operation to spread the message of salvation to a world that so desperately needed hope. At this point in his life, Paul had suffered much in his missionary journeys. He had been beaten, stoned, hated, mocked, shipwrecked, snake-bitten, and imprisoned. But yet he seemed to find a strange joy in each of these afflictions, because each trial strengthened his faith in leaps and bounds, and allowed him to become an even stronger missionary and champion for the message of salvation. In other passages of Scripture, Paul describes how he considers his body “as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1) for God’s kingdom, and says that because he had faithfully run the race set before him (Hebrews 12:1) and that he knew God would be honored not only during his life but also at his death (Philippians 1:19–20).
Paul also knew if he opened himself up to temptation towards excesses of food, sex, money, and other worldly pleasures, if he did not practice self-control, self-discipline, and temperancy, and if he let his body get the upper hand, he was going to be lost, because he could not accomplish his epic journey in a broken, a lazy, an unfit, or an unhealthy body. He knew that he couldn't let his body simply “go to sleep”, that to support his soul he must keep his flesh awake and watchful because, as Mark 14:38 says, “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
Yet, this passage from 1 Corinthians also actually made me scratch my head a bit. Why? Because in 1 Timothy 4:8, Paul says,
“For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.”
So which is it? Should you “discipline your body and bring it into subjection” or should you accept the fact that “bodily exercise profits a little” and prioritize godliness over self-care, self-control, and temperancy?
Let's dive in and answer this question, along with addressing what temperancy actually is, and why you should have a good understanding of it if you want to enable yourself to be fully impactful with your unique purpose and skillset in life.
What Is Temperancy?
So what is temperancy, exactly?
Temperancy is, simply put, a state of temperance. There. Now you know. Seriously, though, more specifically, according to Webster’s 1828 dictionary (since I, of course, insist upon using very old, brown, and wrinkled reference texts), temperance itself is defined as:
1. Moderation; particularly, habitual moderation in regard to the indulgence of the natural appetites and passions; restrained or moderate indulgence; as temperance in eating and drinking; temperance in the indulgence of joy or mirth. Temperance in eating and drinking is opposed to gluttony and drunkenness, and in other indulgences, to excess.
2. Patience; calmness; sedateness; moderation of passion.
While you may be familiar with temperance as a reference to a late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century social movement that advocated the moderate use of or—for some proponents—the total abstinence from the consumption of alcoholic beverages, the concept has as course been a familiar component of human self-discipline long before that. For example, in the Pocket Dictionary of Ethics, temperancy is described as an ethical term that is used in two ways. First, the term denotes a virtue prevalent in both Greek and Christian ethical thought that is associated with moderation and self-control, especially with respect to desires and appetites, particularly related to the restraint of desires and the mastery of passions. The Greek philosopher Plato actually considered temperance to be one of four cardinal virtues and spoke of it as the virtue of self-control. He described temperance as the use of reason and will in the mastery of the appetites and the passions. Philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas viewed temperance as both a general and specific virtue. In the former sense, as a general virtue, temperance moderates the other moral virtues, whereas in the latter, as a specific virtue, it controls the bodily pleasures. So temperance is associated with both proportion and moral discernment.
Several quotes from notable religious figures in history highlight the importance of temperance related to the overall positive character of a human being, including…
Tyron Edwards, who said, “Temperance is to the body what religion is to the soul—the foundation of health, strength, and peace.”
John Erskine, “Temperance is the control of all the functions of our bodies. The man who refuses liquor, goes in for apple pie, and develops a paunch, is no ethical leader for me.”
St. Gregory I, “If we give more to the flesh than we ought, we nourish our enemy; if we give not to her necessity what we ought, we destroy a citizen.”
C.S. Lewis, “One great piece of mischief has been done by the modern restriction of the word temperance to the question of drink. It helps people to forget that you can be just as intemperate about lots of other things. A man who makes his gold or his motor bicycle the center of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge or her dog, is being just as intemperate as someone who gets drunk every evening. Of course, it does not show on the outside so easily; bridge-mania or golf-mania do not make you fall down in the middle of the road. But God is not deceived by externals.”
William Temple, “Temperance, that virtue without pride, and fortune without envy, that gives vigor of frame and tranquility of mind; the best guardian of youth and support of old age, the precept of reason as well as religion, the physician of the soul as well as the body, the tutelar goddess of health and universal medicine of life.”
The Apostle Peter, “Add to your faith … knowledge; And to knowledge temperance: and to temperance patience.” (2 Peter 1:5–6)
And of course, the Apostle Paul, who wrote that “Those who sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day let us be sober.” (1 Thessalonians 5:7–8) and also, “Deacons must be respectable, not double-tongued, moderate in the amount of wine they drink … Similarly, women must be respectable, not gossips, but sober and wholly reliable.” (1 Timothy 3:8, 11)
The prevailing theme throughout each of these notable tributes to temperancy is a sharp contrast between temperancy and the opposite of temperancy: a lack of sobriety and self-control, not just in the realm of, say, substance abuse with a compound such as alcohol, but also a.) abuse of one's body in general, including excesses of food or absences of physical exercise; and b.) addiction or attachment to any object in life, both helpful or hurtful. And yes, not to throw any particular demographic under the bus, but this means that the fellas mowing down on Twinkies and Cheetos at a church potluck, their paunches rolling with laughter as they share a six-pack of Coke (in complete contrast to the type of muscular Christianity I introduce here), and the ladies who spent two hours in front of the mirror getting ready for the potluck are just as intemperate as the drunk stumbling down the sidewalk across the park from them.
This phenomenon of a lack of physical temperance, even amongst those who appear to practice a great deal of spiritual temperance, carries with it hints of Gnosticism, which is a philosophy originating in the late 1st century Common Era (CE) among Jewish and early Christians groups based upon a belief that the body is inherently bad, but the spirit is good—that all physical matter is basically evil and that only the spiritual matter is what demands primary care and attention.
But as Genesis 1 and beyond in the Bible points out, we humans are created as divine image-bearers of God. Our bodies—albeit broken from sin and far from the perfect state they will be restored to in heaven—are not nasty, brutish, evil, dirty things. Certainly, living only for the flesh with neglect of the spirit, which is the entire topic of my last book Fit Soul, is a sinful practice—yet it's also important to understand, as Paul did, that the body is the house or the temple for the soul. For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “It is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit.”
So we are a body and soul together. The body is not just a shell. As I write about here and here, the Bible does not describe eternity in the afterlife some kind of disembodied existence in the heavens. Rather, as Romans 8:23 says “And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” This verse demonstrates the hope we have in the eventual redemption and resurrection of our physical bodies: the very bodies we live in now. God values these physical bodies and we are called to care for them. I'd even go so far as to say that because we are all made in the image and likeness of God, when we look at our body in the mirror, we are seeing an image of God Himself!
When Temperancy Is Good (& When It's Not)
But of course, temperancy and a prioritization placed upon physical self-care does have the potential to spiral out of control into selfishness and OCD-like tendencies.
For example, think about any category of a healthy life that may lend itself well to temperance, such as running for heart health, intermittent fasting for longevity, lifting heavy stuff to get strong, a yoga practice for mobility, or a strict diet of vegetables and chicken.
Those all sound like reasonable methods of passion-mastery, desire-restraint, and self-control, right?
But, as I write about here, when habits and thoughts of temperancy spin out of control, becoming so intense and intrusive that they seem to take over against our will or what we know would be a more sane and normal approach to routine, they can turn into all-consuming rituals that are irrationally and often selfishly performed to rid us of an overwhelming sense of fear, dread, and anxiety. This signifies that we may be on a slow slide towards excessive control tendencies or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
In other words, temperancy can fast become an obsession that detracts from our spiritual health, and often even our physical health too, including:
That lunchtime run you insist on taking each day, so much so that when a co-worker who needs encouragement, compassion, empathy, or friendship asks if you can have lunch with them, you politely decline, because you know how crappy you'll feel about yourself if you don't run, even if you are tired and sore.
That insistence upon a strict daily 16-hour fast, dictating that when your daughter wants to go to breakfast with you, you watch as she awkwardly shoves forkfuls of eggs in her face, as you dutifully sip a black coffee, wishing inside that you could just share a nice meal with her, but not wanting to break your fasting “streak.”
That weight training appointment or yoga class you have systematically planned each morning, causing you to cut your meditation, prayer time, journaling, and time with God quite short, or even occasionally cut it out altogether so that you can maintain the hypnotic rhythm of your morning workout.
That refusal to indulge in high-calorie meals or any dish served in rich, fattening foods such as butter, causing you to sit somewhat forlorn and sad at Thanksgiving dinner, munching on a stick of asparagus dipped in cranberry sauce while gazing wistfully at the coconut-creme pie on the table.
See, temperancy is not an act of prudish self-denial or holier-than-thou self-care or guilt-tripping yourself or others for not, say, exercising perfectly and eating perfectly, but rather, temperancy is the ability to moderate and self-control your desires and appetites, and specifically the ability to be able to restrain desires and master passions. So if you know that you possess the mastery to get up every morning to lift weights, then you also have the mastery to set the alarm clock fifteen minutes earlier to allow for more spiritual care prior to your physical care. If you can restrain yourself on the regular from eating a cinnamon roll slathered in bacon sauce each morning for breakfast as you stroll by the downtown cafe, then you also have the ability to be able to enjoy one of the rolls on a Saturday morning with your family, without fearing a fast, sticky slide into heart failure. If you have the fortitude to run every day at lunch, you also have the fortitude to trust God that skipping a couple of those runs so that you can be there for others more isn't going to suddenly transform you into a couch-lounging, Epicurean Jabba the Hut.
So enjoy God's creation. Savor it. As I tell you here, eat the fat, eat the milk, eat the honey, lay on your back and gaze at the stars, sip a glass of wine while watching a sunset, and skip a stale gym workout to go for a stroll in green and lush nature.
But, as I also tell you here, if there is any habit, enjoyment, staple, pleasure, pastime, or even necessity in life to which you can not say, as Anthony DeMello so eloquently describes in his book Awareness…
….“I really do not need you to be happy. I’m only deluding myself in the belief that without you I will not be happy. But I really don’t need you for my happiness; I can be happy without you. You are not my happiness, you are not my joy.”
…then you risk that temperancy has become your god.
I don't know about you, but I personally enjoy the thought of being a temperate Christian hedonist: soaking up and savoring all of God's creation, with responsibility, self-control, moderation, and a noble and proud mastery of my desires and appetites because I know that my body is a divine image-bearer of God.
How To Be Temperate
One last thing is important to understand.
When I throw around words such as “self-control,” “moderation,” and “mastery,” there is a risk that I give you the impression that you can simply will yourself into temperancy, as the captain of your own ship and master of your own soul.
There are certainly several effective means of equipping yourself to eat better, move more, break habits, or build new habits. The most effective, in my opinion, is the type of subconscious reprogramming taught in a book such as Joseph Murphy's Power Of The Subconscious Mind. The first step in that subconscious reprogramming process is making a purposeful decision to be temperate, very similar to Daniel in Daniel 1:8 who “purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s meat, nor with the wine which he drank: therefore he requested of the prince of the eunuchs that he might not defile himself.”
But the fact of the matter is that to build true and lasting temperance based upon a worldview perspective and life purpose of loving God and loving others, you cannot simply, as Benjamin Hardy describes in his book Willpower Doesn't Work, will yourself into temperance, nor can you “go it alone” with even the most powerful of mental habit-breaking or habit-building strategies.
Instead, you must:
1. Eliminate those temptations in your life that draw you away from temperance. Jesus, who I firmly believe was not only a deity but also the greatest philosopher that ever walked this planet, said in his epic Sermon On The Mount in Matthew 5: 29-30: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” This means that if you are snacking on too much chocolate-peanut butter ice cream after dinner, you should duct tape your mouth and also consider hunting down a hacksaw to lop off your ice cream-grabbing fingers. Just kidding. But it does mean that ice cream probably shouldn't be in your freezer until you've built adequate temperance to control that craving. That vape pen that you're hitting too hard at night for relaxation? Toss it in the trash if you really can't resist. Porn? Install blocking software on your browser (and read this). Prioritization of time in Scripture? Hide away any books by your bedside except the Bible. You get the idea.
2. Understand that any ability to control your appetites, emotions, and attitudes is not based on your strength or will, but rather, is rooted in God’s power—a topic I address when I teach you here about the “atomic power” of tactics such as prayer and fasting. Ephesians 5:18 says, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” In other words, it is the power of the Holy Spirit that increases your capacity to resist sin and strengthens any resolution towards temperancy. No matter how hard you try, you can't work or will yourself into full mastery of your carnal desires. You will eventually crash and burn if you attempt to fight sin based on your own strength. Think again to the words of Mark 14:38: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” So temperance is not a skill you develop through blood, sweat, tears, and self-denial. It is instead a by-product of a Spirit-filled life. If you have accepted the simple message of salvation I outline here and have cast all your heavy burdens, shame, guilt, and sin of the past at the foot of the cross, then allowed the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control to subsequently pour into your life, and finally, soaked yourself daily in the spiritual disciplines of devotions, prayer, meditation, gratitude, journaling, worship, love for God and love for others, temperance transforms from a teeth-grittingly difficult (and ultimately futile) attempt to fight against your own flesh, to a joyful process of responsibly caring for the divine body that houses your eternal soul so that your body, your brain, and your spirit are prepared to make maximum impact with the life you've been blessed with.
Does this mean that when you eliminate temptations that surround you and rely upon God's power that everything will be smooth sailing, that resistance to temptation will come effortlessly with pure ease and flow? Not exactly.
I personally still have to check myself and often find myself saying no, but with hesitation, when I'm at a steakhouse and the waiter asks if I want a second or third cocktail.
I still struggle when a scantily clad woman walks by me on the sidewalk and I'm tempted to mentally cheat on my wife.
When things get stressful on a long work day, I sometimes find myself around 4 or 5 pm thinking of ducking out for kava, or weed, or wine, or the soft lounger chair in the living room, rather than putting my nose to the grindstone and maintaining focus, productivity, and purpose-filled activities.
It's often hard to push myself away from the table when I want to keep stuffing my face, but know the health and temperancy values of Hara hachi bu (a Japanese term meaning “Eat until you're 80% full”).
I still struggle too with selfish forms of temperancy, such as spending too much time focused on self-care, or squeezing in just a “few more minutes” at the gym, or spending a disproportionate amount of morning time on physical care vs. spiritual care.
But ultimately, through 1.) intelligent elimination or hiding away of those temptations I know I'm most pulled towards—temptations that I know will pull me away from being impactful with my life's purpose—and 2.) reliance upon God and His power with deep focus placed upon the spiritual disciplines, I am slowly mastering the fine art of savoring and embracing God's creation while simultaneously being a “temperate Christian hedonist.”
After all, as 1 Corinthians 10:13 says…
…”No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
Look, God made all things good.
Yep, all of it, even those things we are tempted to abuse and even those things that threaten to rip us away from temperancy. If you haven't yet, you should read my article entitled Honey. As I tell you there:
“…God loves honey. He loves the stuff, sticky-sugary-syrupy and thick and creamy, all at the same time.
He also loves fat. Fat dripping with salty, savory greasy goodness.
And milk. Buttery, frothing, sweet milk, fresh milk.
Wine? You bet God adores a fine aged Bordeaux and a bold California cab accompanied by a moist slice of sourdough bread dipped in spicy, aromatic olive oil or salted and slathered in fresh blueberry preserves!
As a matter of fact, the richness and value of food and drink is all over the Bible…
Proverbs 24:13 gives sage advice from a father to a son, “My son, eat honey because it is good, And the honeycomb which is sweet to your taste.”
The Song of Solomon 5:1 weaves honey, milk, spices, and wine into one of the greatest love poems of all time: “I have come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk. Eat, O friends, and drink; drink freely, O beloved.”
In Deuteronomy 31:20, God blesses the Israelites as he, “brought them to the land flowing with milk and honey, of which I swore to their fathers…”
And Deuteronomy 32:13-14 reveals a similar blessing, with fruit, honey, oil curds, milk, fat, wheat, and wine all woven in:
“He made him ride in the heights of the earth,
That he might eat the produce of the fields;
He made him draw honey from the rock,
And oil from the flinty rock;
Curds from the cattle, and milk of the flock,
With fat of lambs;
And rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats,
With the choicest wheat;
And you drank wine, the blood of the grapes.”
Nehemiah 9:25-26 describes how the Israelites “…took strong cities, and a fat land, and possessed houses full of all goods, wells digged, vineyards, and oliveyards, and fruit trees in abundance: so they did eat, and were filled, and became fat, and delighted themselves in thy great goodness.”
Lest you wonder whether corn chips, polenta slathered with meatballs and cheese, a pint of beer, and a handful of salted almonds also fall under God's love and blessing, consider the words of James 1:17, which tells us that “Every good gift is from God,” and as I discuss in greater detail here, in John 3:1, we learn that “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
So yes, that means that an Almighty God formed and fashioned the cacao tree, the cannabis plant, the chickpea, and the catfish—and all this marvelous bounty is ours to enjoy in all of its intricacy, beauty, and tastiness—and even for its medicinal uses (1 Timothy 5:23, “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.”).
Yet Proverbs 25:16 warns, “Have you found honey? Eat only as much as you need, Lest you be filled with it and vomit,” and Proverbs 27:7, “The soul that is full loathes honey, but to a hungry soul, any bitter thing is sweet.”
The principle behind wise King Solomon’s advice in these verses is that over-indulgence, even of good things created and given to us by God, will surely make us sick. That's right: that same precious honey can quickly become poison in the hands of a fool or a glutton. And yes, you can consider honey to be a metaphor for any good thing from God that we wrongly abuse.
Choose anything in your life that is a habit, enjoyment, staple, pleasure, pastime, or even necessity. Any of those “honeys” of life—even non-food items like cars, homes, money, golf, exercising, or even other people. If you cannot look at that object and say, as Anthony DeMello so eloquently describes in his book “Awareness,”
“I really do not need you to be happy. I’m only deluding myself in the belief that without you I will not be happy. But I really don’t need you for my happiness; I can be happy without you. You are not my happiness, you are not my joy.”
…then you risk that your blessing from God has become your God.”
So be temperate, but check yourself regularly to ensure that you're not being intemperate with your temperancy.
At the same time, enjoy God's creation and don't live a life saturated with glum self-denial.
Finally, understand that willpower is not going to grant you temperancy. Instead, a temperate life is achieved through the removal of temptations that you know you're drawn towards, combined with reliance upon the power of the Holy Spirit to provide you with restraint of desires and mastery of passions.
How about you? Are there areas in your life in which you have identified a need for greater temperance? If so, what are those areas and how do you plan to tackle temperancy? Do you find yourself selfishly pulled towards excesses of temperancy, often manifested in imbalanced time placed upon self-care or health optimization? How do you deal with that, or plan on dealing with that? Leave your comments, questions, personal tips, and feedback below. I read them all.