READ : Daniel 1:8
Temperance is the power to say no to ourselves so that we use the things God has created for our pleasure in the way that God intended.
“Just say no” goes the familiar slogan, part of an advertising campaign to stem the tide of social evils threatening to engulf society. Illegitimate births, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, drug and alcohol abuse, health problems related to cigarette smoking or obesity – the list goes on and on. All of these moral and social ills are, in one way or another, the result of our failure to curb our various appetites. One of the most important virtues, esteemed alike in both the biblical and classical worlds, is temperance. The New Testament is talking about this quality when it calls self-control a fruit of the Holy Spirit – that’s from Galatians 5:23 – and when it reminds us that God’s grace teaches us to say no. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all,” wrote the apostle Paul to his friend and colleague Titus. “It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:12). Living as we do in a society given to every sort of excess, there is a pressing need to think again about this crucial virtue of temperance.
RECOGNIZING THE NEED TO SAY NO
Temperance can be defined as the habit of disciplining our basic appetites for pleasure. Here’s a fuller definition from the Catholic Encyclopedia:
[Temperance] may be defined as the righteous habit which makes [one] govern [one’s] natural appetite for pleasures of the senses . . . in one sense temperance may be regarded as a characteristic of all the moral virtues; the moderation it enjoins is central to each of them. . . . temperance has for [its] subordinate virtues, abstinence, chastity, and modesty.
(Joseph Delany, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XIV, 1912)
Things that bring us bodily pleasure – food and drink, sex, play, rest – like all of God’s gifts, are good in and of themselves. But we can overindulge in any of them or even become addicted to them if we use them in the wrong way. Temperance, or self-control, to use the more familiar term, is the power to say no to ourselves so that we use the things God has created for our pleasure in the way that God intended. A key issue in spiritually healthy temperance is that we say no to ourselves because we are saying yes to the Lord. Many people have the strength to deny themselves things, but they do so out of pride or self-love, or some other self-centered motive. Think, for example, of the miser who doesn’t drink, not because he’s self-controlled but because he’s too cheap to spend his money on wine. Or the woman who with rigid self-discipline never overeats but does so only out of vanity and pride. The kind of self-control which springs from the Holy Spirit is motivated only by love for God and the desire to obey him and bring him glory, not just because we’re trying to improve our health, our good looks or our financial wellbeing.
FINDING THE STRENGTH TO SAY NO
Recognizing the threat of gluttony or drunkenness or unchastity is one thing. Wanting to control our appetites rather than having them control us, and to cultivate the strength and dignity of self-control is one thing. But actually finding the strength to say no is another. One place where we see clearly in scripture the strength to “just say no” is in the Old Testament book of Daniel in the story of the young Jewish exile Daniel and his three friends. They were carried into captivity to the city of Babylon, where they were brought to live in the royal palace. Daniel and his friends were marked for special favor. They were selected to be trained as high officials in the administration of the Babylonian Empire. They would even be fed with the finest food and drink, with delicacies from the King’s own table. But there was the problem. That would mean compromising their religious dietary beliefs. So the young Hebrew men asked to be excused.
Where did they find the courage and strength as lowly captives not just to say no to their natural appetite for “the good life,” but to stand up to the tremendous pressure of the whole royal establishment? Two keys are given us in the book of Daniel. First, the young men began with an inward resolve (Daniel 1:8). Daniel was clear in his own mind and heart what he must do. There was no wavering, no questioning. Daniel had already settled the issue within. He would not partake of that food, and committed himself to living according to his principles. And so he and his friends acted on their resolve by requesting a trial. They asked to be excused from the royal table and to be allowed to eat just a simple diet. It was a small thing but it had big results. The Old Testament scholar Joyce Baldwin writes in her commentary on this passage:
Even a small act of self-discipline, taken out of loyalty to principle, sets God’s servants in the line of his approval and blessing. In this way actions attest faith, and character is strengthened to face more difficult situations in the future.
In addition to his principles, Daniel had one other thing going for him that helped give him the strength to stand up and say no. He had friends. Daniel wasn’t alone. His companions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shared his resolve and joined him in his stand of faith. You and I do much better in a community of faith and discipline, even if it’s just with one other friend, than we do all by ourselves. Daniel and his friends found strength by being together. They lived together, ate together, talked together, and prayed together (see 2:17ff.).
This truth has been demonstrated over and over again: alone we are too weak to stand, but together we lend one another strength. We may not be able to win the struggle for self-control and mastery over stubborn appetites and enslaving habits by ourselves, but if we’re willing to humble ourselves before others and ask for their help, ask for their prayers, God will give us the strength we need through them. One of the most dramatic illustrations of this truth is found in the story of Bill Wilson, the New York stockbroker who founded Alcoholics Anonymous based on his own Christian conversion and subsequent victory over alcohol with the help of a small group of friends.
Do you have a Christian friend, or a small group of friends, with whom you can talk and pray honestly, and who are helping you as you help them to strive toward real growth in self-control? If not, why not? Are you stronger than Daniel?