Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
October 7, 2007
FINDING TEMPERANCE, LIVING IN THE SPIRIT
Texts: Galatians 5:19-23; Luke 11:24-26
Is there any of the seven virtues less attractive on its face than Temperance? How does one preach on it without being a scold, or boring you to death?
Can one preach on Temperance temperantly? In a Wizard of Id comic strip the preacher is waxing eloquent on the virtue of Temperance, or Moderation as it is sometimes named. He’s on a roll: “Moderation is the key to living! Follow the Golden Mean! Eat moderation, drink moderation, sleep moderation, work moderation, play moderation, live moderation!” On and on he went. After the service the king passed by in the narthex and said to the preacher: “I think you overdid it!”
The ancient Greek maxim was this: “Nothing overmuch.” Temperance was the avoiding of extremes, the “golden mean.” Plato said it was the rational ordering of the soul that kept it free. The animal or natural vitalities must be governed, he wrote, lest they produce a feverish state of the soul, a city of pigs -- which knows no limit. The ungoverned soul, he wrote, is like the State ruled by cooks, bakers, tap-dancers and flute-girls. I’m not sure what he meant by flute-girls -- or boys, to be inclusive here -- but I do not think he was talking about the flute section of the Athens Philharmonic.
The ideal of the well-ordered soul is attractive, but how do we pull it off? For the Greek philosophers it was the rational mind, but as Jewish philosopher Woody Allen said, “The brain is the most overrated organ in the human body.”
And when does the virtue of Temperance turn into a vice? A ditty from a Broadway musical sings of the “seven deadly virtues”! If Pride can be both a sin and a virtue, so can Temperance. It can turn moral passion into mush. Be nice, don’t get too carried away, don’t make a fuss. Watch out, you’ll look like a fanatic.
Or this: Temperance can turn into a hater of all pleasures. We think of the Temperance Movement, the failed experiment of Prohibition, the identification of purity with abstinence. One of my favorite Will Campbell lines is when he said, “I thought about giving up chewing tobacco but decided not to because I didn’t want to become a slave to my own will power!”
Of course, a little more will power is called for today, and not just among the young. There was recently a New York Times opinion piece entitled “This is your (Father’s) Brain on Drugs.” The writer was responding to recent scientific finds on brain development that suggested that the teenager’s brain made it vulnerable to risky behavior and poor moral judgments. The writer wanted to show that the middle-aged brain is not doing so well either. He cites these statistics for Americans between the ages of 35 to 54:
- 18, 249 deaths due to overdoses of illicit drugs since 2004, up 500% since 1975.
- 46,925 fatal accidents and suicides.
- More than 4 million arrests in 2005, including 1 million for violent crimes.
- 630,000 middle agers in prison, up 600% since 1977.
- 21 million binge drinkers, double the number of teenagers and college agers combined.
- More than half of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses in 2005 were given to middle aged Americans, up 1/3 from a decade ago.1
This is quite sobering, don’t you think?
How does one make Temperance beautiful? Can Temperance become a lovely thing we do not only need but want?
Let me start with me. Here is what I need and want: balance, centeredness, wholeness, simplicity, serenity. A way to escape the compulsions of the false self and live out of the wholeness and centeredness of the true self.
The Apostle Paul, who himself struggled with compulsions of the false self, named them “works of the flesh,” or sarx. When we hear the word “flesh,” we think “bodily impulses,” but the works of the sarx were far more than that. Look at his list of the works of sarx in Galatians:
Sexual immorality, yes, but keep going. (The church in its obsession with sexual sins usually stops here).
and things like these.
Missed any? Missed anyone? What would you add? Greed, maybe, or hubris, excessive pride, or idle gossip? How about consumerism? Wendell Berry writes: “Virtually all our consumption now is extravagant, and virtually all of it consumes the world.” And he adds, we “must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live poorer than we do.”2 This is a form of Temperance, and it can save the Earth not to mention our souls.
But Paul will not let us stop with a look at the ways of the flesh. He contrasts it with the way of the Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit is:
love, joy, peace
patience, kindness, generosity
faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Lovely things, to be sure. Then he adds a curious phrase: “Against these there is no law.” He was making a crucial point for his life and for ours: Rules and laws cannot rescue us from the ways of the flesh, from the compulsions of the false self. And neither can the law bring us the fruit of the Spirit.
We need the Spirit for that, God’s Spirit. We can strive for a perfectly ordered, perfectly balanced life, but this is not enough. We need more.
This is what Jesus was getting at in his odd and striking parable for today. You may never have read it before now. It’s not found in the three-year Common Lectionary many churches follow. Most books on the parables of Jesus ignore it.
Here the parable again with some interpretive interjections:
When an unclean spirit has gone out of a man, [think of unclean spirits as compulsions of the false self] he passes through waterless places seeking rest. [In the desert he cannot find another person to inhabit.] And finding none, he says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” [That first man’s body seems pretty attractive now that he’s in the desert with no one to possess. What ‘s an evil spirit to do?] And when he comes he finds it swept clean and put in order. [Think of your own heroic efforts to clean up and sweep clean your spiritual house and put everything in perfect order.] Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there. [Here’s an almost comic scene. The first evil spirit was a little grungy. Now he goes and finds a gang of seven, bigger and grungier than he, and this gang of thugs gleefully follows him and possesses the man.] And the last state of the man becomes worse than the first. [You can imagine the man’s bewilderment: What did I do wrong?]
The parable speaks to the limits of the rational mind and the power of he unconscious mind. It speaks to the power of sin which we cannot fend off all alone, by oneself, within our own power. It speaks to the limits of will power and the weakness of perfectionism.
What we need is the Spirit of God, to breathe it more and more into our lives. This is the secret to the A.A. way of life. We begin by acknowledging our weakness. Our lives have become unmanageable. But it goes on to call upon a higher power. And this not one day alone, but every day, one day at a time.
So every day we pray: Come Holy Spirit come. And every day we pray the words Jesus taught us to pray:
And lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
Paul writes to Timothy:
I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands [that is, the gift of the Holy Spirit]. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power and love and self-control.
Power, love, self-control: That sounds awfully good to me.
In a John Hersey novel entitled The Call, the main character is an American missionary in China. His ongoing lifelong struggle, says Hersey, was the struggle “to subdue the greater but sicker saint in himself and give himself to a more modest state of being: one of balance, sanity, serenity, and realized human love.”3
That’s my struggle too, and that’s why I pray for the Spirit on the road to Temperance.
1Mike Males, “This Is Your (Father’s) Brain on Drugs”, The New York Times, Monday, September 17, 2007, p. A23.
2Cited in Wendell Berry: Life and Work, ed. Jason Peters (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007), p. 1.
3John Hersey, The Call (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), p. 17.