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Temperance: The Least-Understood Virtue

Eric Metaxas | Author | Updated: May 31, 2012

Temperance: The Least-Understood Virtue

Temperance is one of the four cardinal virtues, which the ancients saw as character qualities necessary for people to live a truly good life. We are taking a good look at all four — justice, temperance, prudence and courage — in Chuck Colson’s “Two-Minute Warning” videos, and I invite you now to go to to learn more about them.

We’re also covering the virtues with our daily BreakPoint commentaries, including this one. Why? Well, because the ancients were right — the virtues are essential, they’re not optional extras. Yet the virtues not only help us as individuals; they provide a solid foundation for a healthy society. Given the present crisis facing the West — which is moral as much as it is financial — we desperately need to reacquaint ourselves with the virtues — including temperance. But it would help to know what temperance is in the first place — and, incredibly, we don’t!

Temperance is perhaps the least understood, and most hidden, of the virtues in our day. We’re apparently too worldly and sophisticated for temperance! For example, if you Google the word temperance, you’ll probably come up with some articles about the Temperance Movement from the Prohibition era, and maybe a town or a person by that name, and that’s about it. Temperance is so out of fashion that most of us have forgotten what it is, and we almost never talk about it. Face it: When was the last time you heard a sermon about the ancient virtue of temperance?

So here’s a brief refresher course. As Stan Guthrie and as my friend Jerry Root describe in their book, The Sacrament of Evangelism, temperance is “the habitual ability to resist the enticement of immediate pleasure in order to gain a greater though more remote good.”

This is deferred gratification, and it has very little to do with moonshine or Carry Nation. Yes, you could say that temperance in drink enables people to deny themselves an immediate pleasure — the pleasant feeling that often comes from overindulging — in favor of a life of joy, self-control and purpose.

But it is so much more! We see temperance in action, for example, when a business traveler resists the allure of a one-night stand and saves his marriage; we see it when a dieter turns down a hot-fudge sundae in order to avoid contracting diabetes or suffering a heart attack; and when a mom and dad stop making impulse buys on the credit card so that they can put the money away and send their daughter off to college.

Here at BreakPoint we’ve been pointing out for several years that our present financial crisis comes from, for want of a better word, our intemperance. All too few of us refused to turn down a loan or mortgage we couldn’t afford because we wanted it all now. And because we couldn’t wait — because we weren’t temperate — now we’re stuck with the bill.

Years ago Wheaton College professor Jerry Root tried to teach his young children the virtue of temperance by regularly offering them a choice: a small piece of candy now, or, if they could wait ‘til tomorrow, a 10-dollar toy. They always chose the sweet, until one day when Jeremy, the oldest, chose the toy. The other kids, as they chomped on their candy, looked on Jeremy as if he were crazy — until the next day, that is, when he came home with a 10-dollar toy!

That my friends, is temperance in action, and it’s a lesson that too few of us ever learned. But we need to, especially in the church. Prohibition may be over, but temperance is still essential.

Publication date: May 31, 2012

Temperance: The Least-Understood Virtue