Monday, June 08, 2015

Christian Ethics and the Virtues of Faith, final chapter: Temperance

Habakkuk 2:3-11
1 Corinthians 10:13-23
Luke 4:1-13

St. Thomas Aquinas (13th-century) once observed, “We can certainly never believe, trust, or love God more than, or even as much as, we should. Extravagance [in goodness, mercy, and charity] is impossible. Here there is no virtuous moderation, no measurable mean; the more extreme our activity [in virtue], the better we are.”

In other words, loving The Lord by obeying His commandments (John 14:15), and thereby testifying by our lives of His goodness, does not have a measure of moderation.  Living in the world and navigating life’s temptations, however, are other matters.

Temperance (another word for moderation) is the control of one’s desire for pleasure.  This does not mean Christians are to deny themselves any sort of pleasure; rather it means our deliberate quest for personal pleasure does, more often than not, cross a fine line to gluttony, lust, and covetousness, to idolatry – even spiritual complacency and apathy.  Temperance is our prudent response to the Commandments that prohibit covetousness; that overwhelming desire for things or persons we do not need in our lives and must not desire for ourselves lest they tempt us away from The Lord and lead us toward neglect of and harm to one another.

In a life of discipleship in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition, it is the discipline of sanctification, the spiritually necessary and deliberate measure of our growing (but never settled) relationship with The Lord and His Church.  We do not become better human beings, better husbands and wives, better parents or siblings, better friends, better disciples; nor do we grow in faith and in love except by embrace of the means of grace, our deliberate choices and intentional acts, these values taught to us from an early age by our parents AND our Holy Mother the Church; the very Bride of Christ. 

The measure of genuine virtue and the ethics of discipleship is in the knowledge and practice of the Living Word and the embrace of the many means of grace at our disposal not only for personal spiritual growth and fulfillment – but also as the means to the end of “making disciples who are equipped to make disciples”.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of temperance, a challenge we face almost daily, is the measure of “good enough” and whether our standard of measure takes others into account, including our God and Father.  It is not enough to merely deny oneself; it is about what we will give of ourselves to The Lord and His Church.  In the more common language, complacency, or apathy in the Church today, are we saved just “enough” to avoid hell without really breaking a spiritual sweat or going out of our way for the Church’s mission, let alone for a complete stranger? 

Even then we are missing the boat – and probably the point.  St. Thomas also pointed out that it is “better to illuminate than to merely shine, better to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate”.   Is this not a good illustration of Jesus’ encouragement to His followers to “let your light shine before all, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven” (Matthew 5:16)?

Yet we must also understand that temperance is not about gaining “enough” for ourselves first with the intent of giving more later – because later never seems to come.  As is commonly stated, the road to hell is paved with such intentions.  Rather we are compelled by virtue and the Spirit – as our Lord in the wilderness – to discern between our legitimate needs and personal desires.  The need for temperance as a cardinal virtue in discipleship means we discern between that which is of the world and may meet bodily needs but will never meet spiritual needs. 

We see in our Lord’s confrontation in the wilderness with the evil one the way in which we will inevitably be faced with difficult choices, temptations that have the potential to lure us away from the Light of the Word and into the darkness that is the world, its false promises, and its emptiness in striving only for that which is temporal, that which can be taken, that which will rot or rust.  We are often experiencing not a demonic compulsion or possession – but the curse of free will in the face of personal desire.  And our relationship with The Lord, if it even exists, will be severely tested.

What we are seeing in this exchange between Jesus and the evil one in the wilderness is not merely some cosmic confrontation by which the tempter is trying to decide exactly who he is dealing with; we are also seeing the course of our own lives and the choices we are confronted with if or when we decide to follow Christ in His life rather than to merely believe in His existence and death on the Cross (and, yes, there is a profound difference) – because what we are seeing in the wilderness, in our more contemporary context, is a choice between “going on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1) in discipleship – OR – pursuing the so-called American Dream.

The contemporary and socially respectable Church has managed to convince us over the years we can have all the American Dream promises AND have blessings from Above, but the teachers of the early Church, including St. Augustine, would have challenged such an impossible balance in that “Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation” – as it pertains to worldly goods and personal desires.  In other words, we kid ourselves when we somehow become convinced we can indeed “serve two masters” when Jesus clearly states this is impossible (Matthew 6:24); “for either you will hate the one and love the other, or else be loyal to one and despise the other”.   

Dare we suggest we can somehow prove the Savior of the World, The Living Word wrong??

Life is filled with choices, and not all of them are good.  Often we feel compelled to choose between the lesser of two evils when in reality, there are other alternatives.  But when we choose to become disciples, we must understand that perfection in spiritual liberty can be tarnished, damaged perhaps beyond repair. 

The difference in denominational understanding suggests once we are in grace, we cannot be removed from grace; but I think we are asking the wrong questions when we manage to bring up such a biblically incomplete answer.  For then we are only trying to decide whether we can have our cake and eat it, too.  We are solely focused on “me”; The Lord and His Church are merely incidental to our personal desires – and that, my dear friends, is the “way of death” (Proverbs 16:25).

Temperance demands we discern between spiritual need and personal desire, for the carnal desire is destructive to the spirit.  In absolute terms, it is about asking whether an evil act with good intentions can somehow become an act of virtue.  St. Paul answers this question to the Romans (6:1-2): “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?  Certainly not!  How shall we who died to sin live any longer in sin?”  Being justified before The Lord does not somehow magically alter the destructive nature of sin!

Temperance is the acknowledgment that we do have bodily needs that can be met by worldly goods and services, but temperance also demands that the other virtues play a role in our decision-making process in learning to discern between need and desire.  Being justified before The Lord does not automatically make our choices and actions righteous – we still must be actively engaged in that Relationship through the means of grace which build us up and inform our choices and actions by drawing us closer to the Mind of Christ.   

It is not always going to be easy; in fact it may never be, for the “flesh is weak”.  In discipleship, however, as we are actively engaged in a relationship with The Lord and His Church, we will find ourselves making more deliberate choices toward the good of others – choices by which we deliberately glorify our Father and testify to His Truth and our faith.  This is the ONLY way to build up His Church.  This is our calling, this is our commission from Christ Jesus Himself – for this is our life in this world, and in the world to come.

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