The scriptures referred to are Mark 1:9-15.
Before I read the chapter on the 4 cardinal virtues in C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, I hadn't heard of this classification of moral qualities. Lewis, who was educated in classical literature, got the concept from the ancient philosophers. Plato first proposed that there were 4 cardinal virtues. They were picked up by the Roman writer and statesmen Cicero, and later by St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who added 3 theological virtues. But the 4 cardinal virtues were considered universal and were honored by both Christians and non-Christians.
The first of the cardinal virtues listed by Saints Ambrose and Augustine is temperance. And that makes sense. Temperance means moderation and if you are going to be a morally good person, one of the first things you need to learn is how to control yourself. Unfortunately, due to the anti-alcohol movement that led to Prohibition, in the popular mind temperance equals total abstinence. Oddly enough, the Temperance movement was originally about moderation. But by the 1820s Temperance Societies were pushing teetotalism. And when enacted into law...well, we've seen how well that worked.
Make no mistake: excessive alcohol consumption causes liver disease, brain damage, weight gain, high blood pressure and depression. Alcohol abuse often leads to the break up of marriages and families, and is a major factor in domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assaults and crime. For alcoholics the safest course is to totally abstain. It's just unhelpful that people used the word temperance when they meant total abstinence.
So for the rest of our time we will use the terms self-control and moderation when referring to this virtue, because they are closer to the meaning of the original Greek word used by Plato. You may remember that I said on Ash Wednesday that some of these virtues would overlap with the fruit of the Spirit which Paul lists in Galatians 5:22-23. Self-control is the last one he mentions.
But as I said, it was often listed first among the virtues by others. And it is usually the first one we try to teach our kids. Children are always discovering things they can do that hadn't occurred to them before or for which they didn't previously have the skill or the access to do. What they need to learn is that just because they can do something, it doesn't mean they should. I can dismantle Dad's electric razor but should I? I can throw a diecast car at my brother's head but is that something I ought to do? I can slip that candy bar on the rack at the checkout stand into my pocket but should I ask Mom to buy it instead?
Sadly some people never master restraint in childhood. And so we have people who realize that because of their power, their wealth, their position and/or their celebrity they can pressure women or men into sex and they never ask themselves if they should. We have lawyers and corporate boards that realize they can take advantage of a loophole to do something that will profit them but they never ask themselves whether it is ethical. We have elected officials who realize that a certain political action will please a certain segment of the voters or a specific group of donors but they never ask themselves if it is good for the country or the state or the county or city as a whole. Recently we've realized that some actions which politicians have refrained from doing in the past were norms and not laws and so there is nothing to stop an unethical official from violating those norms.
Moderation is knowing the extent to which you can engage in an activity before it becomes excessive and therefore destructive. Some people who drink know their limit and rarely exceed that amount. They exercise self-control. Studies have shown that one thing that fathers tend to do is show kids how to play and yet not get carried away. Fathers will often play a little more physically with kids than mothers do but will also correct the child if he or she is getting too rough or too reckless. Ideally the kids will learn to be neither excessively inhibited nor out of control.
Moderation is all about finding that sweet spot between not doing enough and doing too much. And, as Aristotle pointed out, most virtues are found between two extremes. Love falls between indifference to a person on the one hand and being possessive on the other. Being trusting falls between displaying paranoid distrust and being gullible. Being assertive falls between being totally passive and being overly aggressive. Again it takes self-control, and a bit of wisdom, to realize when you have reached a reasonable limit.
Petronius is credited with saying, “Practice all things in moderation, including moderation.” The Roman satirist probably meant that sometimes you should enjoy a bit of excess but it is also true that in some situations, moderation is inappropriate. It is not a good thing to be moderately racist. Or to be a moderate user of heroin. Neither of those are things you should want any part of. Nor would you want to be known as moderate on the issue of terrorism. There are times when the only moral response is to say “Absolutely not.”
The Bible, like most moral authorities, encourages self-control. Paul writes, “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” (1 Thessalonians 5:6-8) And in 2 Peter it is part of a different list of virtues: “...make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness....” Notice two things. First, knowledge by itself is not enough. There are those today who think that simply by learning more facts, humanity will solve its problems. Knowledge of things like the sciences is important but you need self-control as well. The scientists who got us to the moon were the same scientists who enabled the Nazis to rain missiles on London in World War 2. Unrestrained use of knowledge is not a good thing. For that matter, self-control is not a sufficient check on the use of knowledge. You need wisdom. And you need a love for your fellow human beings.
Which brings us to the second thing we should notice: one virtue is not sufficient. You need them all. Courage without self-control is recklessness. Justice without self-control is merciless. And we've already discussed how you need the wisdom to tell when you should not be moderate on an issue.
While the idea of moderation and self-control should not be controversial, there is often pushback. One is in popular entertainment. It is much easier to write inappropriately behaved or extreme characters than self-controlled ones. Plus misbehaving characters are more entertaining than ones who do what they should. ( Ferris Bueller, Dr. House, etc) So we are treated to many more fictional persons who go too far in one or more directions than restrained characters. Even our so-called reality shows tend to pick people who are immoderate in speech or behavior, again for entertainment purposes. And they are not above staging confrontations or even restaging them and asking the participants to be more outrageous. Adults know, or should know, the difference between entertainment and real life but I wonder about children. And since the antiheroes almost always win in the end are kids being taught that not only is it more fun to be immoderate but that it is a successful strategy in life? After all we are seeing that kids are taking pointers on sex from porn, which is based on a fantasy of how men and women act.
What's disturbing is that the second area in which there has been pushback against moderation is in real life, and specifically in those in leadership roles. It is not at all uncommon these days for those who govern the countries of the world to use immoderate speech and take extreme positions. Ironically their positions have become so extreme that they wouldn't tolerate leaders in the past whom they claim to revere. Neither Teddy Roosevelt nor Ronald Reagan could institute today the policies they pushed during their terms. FDR would be considered a socialist by current standards. Their own parties would oppose them.
And this is a common phenomenon we see in movements: subsequent generations migrate to extremes beyond the positions their founders set out. And while some move to more aggressive postures, some become more passive. Most churches today would not hire Jesus to be their clergy because he would be too radical. There is a cartoon on the internet that shows Jesus knocking at the door of a church and a whole bunch of people on the other side of the door pushing it shut, saying, “Don't let him in! He's gonna change everything!” (Here) Sadly, many churches have followed in the footsteps of the church of Laodicea. In John's vision in Revelation Jesus says of that church, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16) If things are too hot or too cold, you get uncomfortable and try to change things. When you hit the Goldilocks point, where stuff is neither too hot or too cold, too hard or too soft, you say “this is just right” and settle in. You fall asleep and you don't awaken until the bears are at the door. And a lot of young people feel about churches as Jesus does. They don't go because they've read in their Bibles what Jesus commands and they don't see the churches doing it.
And this is one aspect of self-control people rarely think about. They think self-control is simply about restraining yourself from doing bad things. But self-control is about making yourself do what you don't want to do but know you ought to. Self-control is not only about not punching someone who's being a jerk but making yourself deal with him calmly and rationally. Among all the videos of cops overreacting to motorists pulled over for minor infractions, there is one of a Maine State Trooper being extremely professional while ticketing an irrationally irate man. (Here) Self-control is not just about not telling off someone who's expressed a very unChristian sentiment about other people but talking to the person to find out why he or she feels that way and see if you can expand their perspective. Darryl Davis is a blues musician who befriends and has dinner with members of the Klu Klux Klan. Davis is black but has convinced so many members of the KKK to abandon racism that he now has a collection of 200 robes they have discarded! (Here) Self-control, or perhaps we should call this manifestation of it self-discipline, makes you go beyond what you want to do into that scary territory of what God wants you to do.
Paul writes, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7) As any parent knows it takes self-discipline to act lovingly towards your kids sometimes. Which brings us back to an aspect of this subject we touched on in the beginning. We mentioned how much we work on teaching kids self-control. And indeed kids with self-discipline, especially those who can delay gratification, do better in their education, in their careers, and in life in general. We also talked about how some folks never seem to master self-control, even in adulthood. And sometimes society has to step in when it comes to such people, the way parents need to step in with kids who are out of control.
Right now we are dealing with the problem of my 3 year old granddaughter and scissors. Her parents don't think she is ready to handle them, not even the safety variety, so we don't let her have them. It goes without saying that she cannot handle the longer, pointed kind. So we keep them out of her reach. It's common sense.
Yet scissors are not designed to harm. Used properly that shouldn't even be a consideration. However, we have in our society things that were designed to maim and kill. That is their purpose, whatever other uses they may have. Most people agree that children should not have access to them. In fact a startling statistic is that in the US in 2015, 18 toddlers inadvertently injured themselves with firearms and 13 managed to kill themselves. They injured 10 other people and killed another 2. That's 21 people killed by someone 3 years old and under and it is more than the 19 Americans killed that same year in the US by terrorists. (Here) Again we all agree that these kids should not have access to them. But there are, as we said, adults who have as little self-control as a child. And most of them are not mentally ill, they just cannot control their impulses. They take umbrage at the smallest of perceived slights and overreact. They fly off the handle and throw tantrums just like a kid you wouldn't trust with scissors. And yet there are those who feel that, except in extraordinary circumstances, such people should have access to guns. And then they deny that this has anything to do with the fact that on average there is more than 90 gun deaths a day in this country, the highest rate of any developed country in the world. (Here) If an adult throws a tantrum, he embarrasses himself; that we let such people have access to weapons of war that let them take out their rage fatally on others should embarrass us. They are not throwing their toys on the ground; they are putting people in the ground. That is the ultimate in not having self-control. The real adults need to put the dangerous objects out of their reach. Or we reveal that something other than common sense and compassion is controlling us.
Self-control has been considered a cardinal virtue for more than 2 millennia. Cardinal comes from the Latin for hinge. So you could say self-control is a pivotal virtue, one of the qualities on which our character and our behavior hinges. All around us we see the consequences of people who have not mastered it. For that matter, none of us has totally mastered it. We all have our Achilles heels when it comes to self-discipline. It could be chocolate, or the gas pedal, or the fact that in the 21st century copiers and printers can do everything except reliably pass papers through their innards without jamming (and on Saturday night when you are trying to print a sermon) that causes you to lose control. But again as Christians we have the Spirit to help us, rather like a coach guides you in doing something over and over until you get good at it. Paul understood the self-discipline required of athletes. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that lasts forever.” (1 Corinthians 9:25)
In a world spinning out of control, we need to show people that you can keep it together. You can do what needs to be done no matter how hard it is. You can say “no” to yourself when your urges and appetities are trying to cut the brakes. You can say “yes” when God calls you on an adventure that will challenge you to be better than you thought you could be. The world is impressed by the control Olympic athletes display in games. Imagine how the world would react should Christians display such self-control in real life.