The Virtues: Temperance

This sermon was made possible with the help of Grace Kreher, MDiv. In honor of her contribution, please consider donating to Project Transformation.

Philippians 3: 17-21

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Sermon Text

Temperance and Methodism go a long way back. From the moment that John Wesley first penned his general rules till today, there has been a connection between our denomination and Temperance with a capital T. The word is usually used today exclusively to discuss alcohol. The Temperance Movement was the deciding force behind prohibition at the outset of the 20th century. The leaders in that fight? The organization that would go on to form the General Board of Church and Society and the United Methodist Women. Temperance, however, goes beyond whether someone chooses to drink “spiritous liquors,” and bleeds into every aspect of our life.

I will be using temperance and self-control fairly interchangeably in our discussion today, because the two words are more or less identical. In the same way that a temperate climate is not too hot or too cold, a temperate person knows how much of something they need. While every virtue is about balancing out the two extreme dispositions on either side of it, temperance is the science of finding that balance in our physical appetites. We become temperate as a people when we are able to find things that we want and say no to them when we do not need them, or when partaking of them would cause more harm than good.

We are all people who have our fair share of appetites within us. Appetite, as I would use the term, is any desire we have for anything. There can be healthy appetites and unhealthy ones, ones built from our biological needs and ones built from our perceived needs. The list of appetites we might have are endless, but we can discuss them in general terms as desires for food, for intimacy, and for pleasure. Sometimes these categories overlap, but as a general framework, most things that a person can be temperate about are underneath these umbrellas.

For many of us, there are few extenuating circumstances that lead to us pursuing our needs in an inappropriate way out of anything but our own conscious choice. We might make a fool of ourselves at a social event because we, “like to be social,” with our drinking. The wandering of our eyes that lead to us objectifying those around us as things to be desired are excused because, “We are only looking.” There are many times where we do these things with full control over our ability to say no to them and yet we choose to do them anyway.

For those of us with the means to control ourselves and our appetites, the problem becomes one of discipline and self-determination. It is within our control to change the channel or to exit a webpage that we are using as an exercise in objectification. We have the means to step away and come back to a situation when we are more fully in our senses. Moderate consumption of most things can allow us to more properly enjoy the benefits of the thing in itself. Self-control in these material aspects can help us sharpen our mind, to be better more generally at building up our other virtues.

            Here, however, I want to shift our discussion. The ability to say no to the things we want is in many ways a privilege. With notable exceptions which we will discuss below, there are many ways that our ability to make decisions about what we do or do not do are complicated by circumstances or by health. A person who is struggling with an eating disorder is not choosing to binge or to avoid food, they are fighting with their own mind to regain that control, but they are not simply choosing to do one or the other. In the same way a person addicted to alcohol or drugs are no longer making decisions completely out of their own strength or will. I cannot speak for addiction, but as someone with depression I know that when your own mind turns against your well-being, wishing to be better is not enough in itself to change the situation.

            Too often our response to those who are struggling in these ways is to impose our neurotypicality upon them. We have full control over our faculties, we have no struggle with how we interact with food or alcohol, therefore they too must simply be lacking the hutzpah necessary to get the job done. This cannot be the way we approach these sorts of things. For every person who is able to power through whatever they are dealing with, there are ten more people who are simply unable to tackle these things alone. Honestly, I question if any of us truly do not struggle with self-regulation in one place or another. The only thing that we do by villainizing or infantilizing those who struggle in these ways is to cause serious harm to them mentally, socially, and physically.

When we approach any person, and address any aspect of their life, we ought to do it compassionately. This can take many forms. Expressing, not only consternation with someone’s abuse of substances, but support for them and genuine love. To help them seek treatment and to be there with them as they walk that long road of recovery. Similarly, we must be more aware of how we talk about people’s eating. Originally, I included more talk about food and our relationship to it in this sermon, but after consultation with a peer of mine, we realized something. Disordered eating is so common, that it would be irresponsible to talk about it as an accessory issue to anything else. Disordered eating is more common than we may think, and the pain that we can cause just by asking why someone is or is not eating is immeasurable, let alone should I discuss it poorly on a Sunday.

The difficulty of discerning how we can be temperate and encourage people to do the same is that there is a lot more that goes into the particular ways we engage with the world than just doing or not doing certain things. For some of us it come down to learning how to delay gratification or simply take in less than we might otherwise. For many others, the battle is much harder – it involves consultation with mental health professionals and a long battle against forces outside and within us that would see us destroyed either through over or under consumption of the things we need to live. We cannot make a general teaching on these matters because each person must find their own way to the healthy relationship they might have with food or drinks or any other manner of thing.

I do, however, think that there is a human appetite that is much more easily regulated by most people, and that is desires for intimacy – both emotional and sexual. When God made humanity long ago, we are told in Genesis that the first human was not content until they had a partner. The singular person in Eden became two people, “the man,” became distinctly separated into two beings – Adam and Eve. The two humans in the garden showed us an eternal truth. People need people. We desire intimacy of all kinds, and we need relationships to strengthen us – friendships and romance alike. For some people the desire for one or another may be more important, but for most people we want to be connected to others in some way.

We can go astray in these desires in a multitude of ways. Firstly, by projecting emotions on others they need not rest upon. We’ve talked about parasocial relationships before on Sundays, but these manifest when we imagine deeper relationships with people than are reasonable to exist. We see them when we decide that the barista really gets us or our doctor is a close friend despite our only occasional appointments. Even people we know in real, everyday life, can take on aspects of these sorts of relationships. In these cases, we are seeking validation and support from people who simply cannot or should not give it.

For those who are married or in committed relationships, we can also engage in a way of seeking support that becomes a form of infidelity. We confide all the deeper parts of our life to someone who is not our spouse, replacing our partnership with them in all but legal and functional terms. These emotional affairs can manifest in many ways but are not good. It is not to say that we cannot have friends we go to and discuss matters dear to us, but when that replaces our desire to talk to or share with our partners something is amiss. Again, relationships manifest differently, so I can make no hard or fast rule, but if you find yourself getting all your emotional support outside of your partner, seek to fix that problem before it metastasizes.

The other relational issues we have are matters dealing with sexual drives and physical intimacy. Most people have them, just a fact of life. However, I want to dispel a few things that I think are important to clarify. Ministers have lectured on chastity and fidelity forever, so I don’t want to tread on that familiar path. In fact, the effects of how we have taught on them has fractured the church. Frequently young people cite the inability for the church to teach on sexuality in terms outside of shame and guilt as one of the reasons they could not stay within it. It is not as though people want to run out and do whatever they want, they just don’t want people breathing down their neck or telling them how evil they are for being human.

We do not have time to discuss every facet of human sexuality today, or the ways that we in the church have failed to discuss it appropriately. However, the clarifications I want to make today are in reference again to issues of appetite, we are talking about temperance after all. Specifically, I want to address issues of modesty and of the conception that men are biologically driven in a way distinct from women. Both of which the church has poorly taught about for decades. Both of which, feed into a dangerous idea we all hold for how we live and act with one another.

Firstly, modesty. I grew up in a world where every time we had a church event that involved swimming, the girls in the trip were given a list as long as my arm of what was and was not acceptable. Schools would kick girls out of class if their skirt was half an inch too short. The instances went on and on and on. Yet, men received no instructions. We could wear whatever we wanted and never faced any threat of being kicked out. The “modesty” a woman did or did not show would impact her life, but the impropriety of men was never judged in the same way.

The reason behind all this attention is tied to that second issue I want to dispel, the uncontrollable sexuality of men. This disgusting idea is that men simply are made to reproduce, and they cannot be controlled. Women, therefore, must safeguard them, must do everything in their power not to tempt or tease. The woman is supposed to monitor her language and her actions, lest a man suffer. That’s unbiblical. Jesus said a man who can’t help looking at women should pluck out his eyes, better to be blind than to make a woman into an object and yourself a sinner. We live in a world where women are constantly looking over their shoulder, constantly made to carry defensive weapons, to never go out at certain times or to certain places. I refuse to believe that isn’t in part because we teach that they alone can change a man, and we expect far less of men whose only job is to get married and not stray from that marriage.

Is there a place for discussions of modesty? Maybe, but I think different outfits have their purposes. Do I criticize a woman for wearing a bikini or a man for swimming shirtless? Or do I teach people, especially younger people, that the choice to objectify is a choice we make as we see a person. It only has to be a person in clothing, the choice to sexualize that clothing is ours and ours alone. An old story says that a monk walked past a group of nuns, and crossed to the other side of the road out of respect. The mother superior called after him, “If you really called yourself a monk you never would have looked long enough to see we were women.”

Temperance, in appetites of any kind, is not easy. For some of us it takes addressing deeply rooted mental health concerns. For others simply saying no to the things we would like because it is the right thing to do. As a people it means not tolerating the ways our culture has reduced sexuality to one group chasing another, it means fighting against the rape culture that pervades so much of our society. Temperance, the art of finding the space between two extremes, is one of the hardest virtues to perfect within us. However, I pray that together we may honestly begin to understand the ways we are called to give up and take on the many different appetites God has given to us. – Amen.

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