The Capacity to Control – Temperance11 min read


Temperance, being the last spiritual fruit (at least, in Galatians 5), acts as a very good conclusion to the list, because it really tells us what is required of a believer to grow spiritually in all the other aspects we have looked at. One cannot resist the lusts of the flesh if he cannot control his body, the channel through which the flesh works. One cannot be long-suffering if he has no control over his emotions. One cannot be meek if he displays reactions rather than controlled responses.  One cannot have peace if he does not first of all determine to cast his anxieties on the Lord – an action which requires distinct purpose and effort.  To be a Christian who is constantly overruled on account of his inability to control himself is a Christian who will lack the foundation for a great host of other spiritual qualities which are so precious in the believer. While our goal is never to be controlling Christians, we must be Christians who are controlled.

Striving For the Mastery

“And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.” 1 Corinthians 9:25

Here we are faced with a call to self-discipline in every aspect of life. And it is really more broad than simply reading daily or praying for a set amount of time. These things are excellent and commendable, but what about our general attitude toward work, hobbies, time-management, assembly-participation, etc.? Self-Discipline is a general lifestyle, not simply an application of effort to specific obligations. Paul in the above verse was pointing out the necessity of dedicated running. “How” he asks “can a runner succeed if he does not exercise self-discipline in all things?” To be part of a professional calling is no light thing, and it should be treated with devotion. How much more should the Christian profession be given the effort due to it! That is why Paul says “I therefore thus run, as not uncertainly; so I combat, as not beating the air. But I buffet my body, and lead it captive, lest after having preached to others I should be myself rejected.” (Darby). It is amazing that in light of such a verse, many Christians would still subscribe to the kind of Christianity that does just enough to get by. We no longer ask “What is right with it” in an effort to be the best we can be, but we are asking “What is wrong with it” not caring how close we come to the world, just as long as we don’t fall into any major sin. The problem is that major sin always starts by blurring the lines between worldliness and godliness. Such is one example of a lack of effort in modern Christianity. This is not what we were meant to be. We were meant for true, dedicated control over the course of our convictions and choices. Now we seem to be swaying with whatever is easiest, not whatever is best – whatever is least difficult, not what is most rewarding. The reason Paul was such a man of God is this: he understood self-discipline, both in the spiritual life and the physical. Perhaps it’s time we ran our course to glory as if glory was really our goal. Just as a runner cannot achieve greatness unless it is his all-consuming lifestyle to achieve that goal, so we cannot achieve Biblical Christianity unless it is our life. Our faith is not a compartment of life: it is our life itself. Perhaps such an outlook will change how we view Scripture, Prayer, the assembly, evangelism, character, and all the other things which we have somehow compartmentalized as if Christianity was a part-time job. Let us be full-time Christians. Let us strive for that incorruptible crown. Let us be temperate in all things!

The Heart and One’s Self-Control

“Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed [judged] in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well.” 1 Corinthians 7:37.

In dealing with the subject of whether or whether not to marry, Paul brings to us a vital principle regarding power over one’s will. The key phrases are “steadfast in heart,” “power over his own will,” and “decreed in his heart.” Here we are presented with a man who has self-control, which is a man who understands the control of the heart. What can we learn from him?

  1. “Steadfast in heart.” This is the basis for all temperance and conviction. Before a Christian can ever be trusted with Biblical convictions, he must have the ability to retain them at all. It is of no use to store valuable information on a hard drive that is soon to crash. It is of no use to ask a veteran with Dymensia for details about a war. Even more solemnly, it is of no use trusting a Christian without the ability to retain convictions. God has reserved the passing down of truth to “faithful men who shall be able to teach others also.” We don’t want spiritual mentors who have a loose grip of spiritual realities. We don’t want teachers who are easily shaken in the faith which they claim to preach. What kind of heart do you have? It will not be a tempered one if it is easily wavered.
  2. “Judged in his heart.” Assuming we have the capacity for conviction, we should strive to be those who weigh and assess options, thus coming to the best conclusion. Thus our second primary factor in being temperate is this: we must have the ability to come to our own convictions. This is absolutely vital. There are so many opinions in circulation within Christianity that we can be tempted with two extremes: (1) we can blindly accept and adopt one system of thought for consistency’s sake, because it shows itself to be right is some areas, thus becoming creed-based rather than Scripture-based (2) we can give up on absolute truth, because it is too confusing to filter through all the possibilities. However, the truth is that we need to face these issue head on and be competent in thoroughly weighing what others say with what Scripture says. Controlled Christianity is convicted of the truth.
  3. “Power over his own will.” Having arrived at a Scriptural understanding of things, we can have a basis to control the direction of our will. God has made us to be creatures of free-will, that is, creatures with the ability to choose. Yet this potential is not reached as long as we are driven by other pressures, such as peers, media, lust, etc. It is obviously easier to “go with the flow,” but is that really having power of our own will? Temperance is not simply making a decision. The alcoholic technically chooses to take another drink, but is it him or his addiction that is really choosing? The same applies to our will. We make choices every day. But when it comes to the hard choices, do we have power over the will to make them because they are necessary? When right seems inconvenient, will we still choose it? This is the test of true will-power.

The Tongue and One’s Self-Control

“If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain…. For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.” James 1:26/3:2.

When it comes to the tongue we are almost presented with an “all or nothing” sort of scenario. The first verse tells us that if a man’s tongue is not controlled/tempered, the entire religious claim of this man is empty: he has nothing of true spirituality. On the other hand, James 3 tells us that if the tongue is controlled, it represents that our entire body is controlled; and therefore, assuming a genuine heart, we would have a balanced spiritual life. You see, the tongue is representative in two ways: (1) because it is the most difficult to control, if it is indeed controlled, surely we have the power to control the other members which are easier to get a grasp of, (2) the tongue is the manifestation of what has gone into our hearts and minds, both of which by nature must be subdued before the tongue can be. Thus, the tongue should be a primary target in self-control. Here is the problem: sometimes it is easier to conquer many smaller enemies rather than one seemingly invincible enemy. So it is with the tongue. Just because of its singularity, it is not easier to defeat. No doubt we don’t have to look very far back into our memories to prove this to ourselves.

What is the solution? Well, in some cases, the solution is purposeful silence. Sometimes it is perfectly reasonable for words not to be verbalized, and we need to realize that. Our human nature wants to be heard, as if we always have something to say in every situation. But we need to be humbly honest with ourselves and realize that we are not the master of all things, nor the greatest sage of all time, nor the most skillful comedian on earth. Words of wisdom and notes of humour are not sin – of course not – but they are usually only appreciated for their quality, not their quantity.

In other cases, exercise of thought is essential. Most of our problems lie in our tendency to speak before or faster than we think. Thus, one problem could be solved if we approached each social gathering with the mentality of mindfulness, that is, the training of our minds to be conscious of specifically when, where, and why we are saying something. We could avoid a lot of embarrassment if we began our day with the prayer “Lord, keep me mindful of my speech.”

But sometimes the answer goes further than purposeful silence into giving purpose to what we do say. We were not made to cease communication. Words are a gift, and they are precious when used in an edifying way. Proverbs 25 says “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” Thus we should concentrate, not only on decreasing our empty words, but increasing our profitable words. On the one hand, we will give account for every idle word we speak. On the other, God rewards those who add truth to the conversation. Let us be balanced. Let us be honest with ourselves. And let us be mindful of what we say. If we can control the tongue, temperance will be ours!

The Mind and One’s Self-Control

“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7

While the phrase “a sound mind” does not itself contain the Greek word for “mind” in the original, the concept of wise discretion and self-discipline is still the point, which cannot properly be attained without proper mental faculties. The key is sobriety and self-discipline: the ability to discern and direct one’s self at his own will. (This is why anti-alcohol campaigns are associated with the word “temperance,” because a lack of being sober is associated with a lack of self-control.) Peter tells us the connection between sobriety and the mind in his first epistle: “Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober…” Further, Ephesians 2 describes the lifestyle of unregenerate man and attributes the mind to the cause of vanity: “Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.” The blinded mind is what drove us to vanity in our past days. Surely the enlightened mind is what can drive us to purpose in these present days.

So then, our goal should be an enhancement of the mind if we are to truly achieve self-control. “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Where does that begin? “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” The same is said about wisdom. Only on that basis can we increase the ability of our minds. It is only then that we can become true students of the Word. It is only then that we can have enough incentive to intelligently control what goes on in our walk. Let us learn to gird up the loins of our mind. Let us stretch them. Let us use them to their full potential. Let us be thinking Christians. When the mind is sober, the walk can be tempered.

In all of this, let us again not forget just how pivotal of a subject this is. To neglect temperance is to live arbitrary religion – religion that sways wherever it drifts, religion that is carefree, religion without purpose, religion without meaning. True Christianity demands effort and purpose. How can these be ours without the ability to control ourselves? We can be thankful that God didn’t call us unto flimsy Christianity, but unto a Christianity that is intelligent, controlled, and convicted. Which do we subscribe to?