According to tradition, the seven virtues of the Christian life are kindness, humility, diligence, charity, patience, temperance, and chastity. These character qualities embody the new self that Christians are called to put on in Christ (Eph. 4:17-24). In this seven-part series, we will familiarize ourselves with each of the seven virtues, with the goal of developing new habits befitting our new selves in Christ.
Virtue can be defined as moral excellence. Someone is seen as virtuous if they exhibit morally good traits and qualities. Unfortunately, in a fallen world, virtue does not come naturally. But as we’ve seen in this series on virtue, through common and special grace, Christians can foster and grow in virtue. The next virtue we will consider is temperance (also known as self-control). Temperance is the practice of self-restraint and moderation; it teaches us to master our appetites—food and otherwise—and order them in a manner pleasing to God.
Food is necessary for life. But in His kindness, God also made eating pleasurable. People often gather around food for times of fellowship and to celebrate special occasions. Food also plays a significant role in the Christian life, as believers we are commanded to take communion together in remembrance of Christ’s work on the cross (Luke 22:19-20, 1 Cor. 11:23-26).
But although gathering for meals is often a source of great joy, the good gift of food comes with its own set of temptations, particularly the temptation to overindulge. Proverbs 26:16 warns, “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.” Temperance, which teaches us proper moderation, helps us resist the temptations of a disordered appetite.
Temperance is simultaneously a physical and spiritual discipline. When we practice temperance, we glorify God with our bodies. As Paul reminded the Corinthian church:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6:19-20)
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)
Spiritual formation should affect all areas of life, including our physical habits. Learning to be temperate in our eating and delight in it as a good gift from God is a hard practice but a necessary one, and it begins by considering what kind of food and how much of it is good for the body.
Fasting is a habit used for cultivating the virtue of temperance. Many church denominations and traditions incorporate fasting into their liturgical calendars, Lent being the best-known example. Fasting does not necessarily have to be from food. We can fast from any number of things, including social media, entertainment, or shopping. However, these activities are not essential to life; we could live without them and be perfectly fine. But fasting from food is unique in that it increases the physical ache that reminds us that “man does not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3, Mat. 4:4). This exercise increases our knowledge of dependency on God for life and satisfaction. It is He alone who sustains us (Ps. 54:4).
The temptation to overindulge is often manifested in the vice of gluttony, which misleads us into seeking food or other material things for comfort. Philippians 3:19 demonstrates this folly, “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” Rebecca DeYoung echoes this scriptural warning in her book Glittering Vices when she explains, “The glutton eats for himself, and his mission is to gratify his own appetites. His mission is ‘pleasure first,’ and he orders the rest of his life around that goal. His god is his belly, and he serves it faithfully.”
It needs to be noted that food deprivation isn’t necessarily virtuous. In fact, a disordered relationship with food can lead us to overeat or undereat. Currently, over a third of the American population is considered to be clinically obese. Meanwhile, many intentionally starve themselves. There are a variety of causes for these conditions, a spiritually disordered relationship with food among them. When we overeat or undereat specifically out of a desire for comfort or control, we neglect to acknowledge God’s goodness, sufficiency, and authority.
Gluttony tempts us to rely on physical food and objects for happiness and satisfaction. It pleads “just one more” but is never satisfied. On the other hand, temperance says “enough” and encourages us to rely more on spiritual food and the gifts of God for satisfaction and fulfillment. Gluttony will tempt us to believe food is not a good gift from God. It will disorder our relationship with food to the point of deprivation and a desire for control. Temperance reminds us that God is in control and teaches us to delight in God’s blessings.