One of the things I have on the wall by my desk at work is a picture of snoopy holding a mug of a hot beverage with the words, ‘fuelled by Jesus and coffee’. As a dedicated lover of coffee and chocolate I decided this year to give up both for Lent! An act of sacrifice my students on Ash Wednesday maybe suffered a little for too! But I kept strong, having no coffee or the chocolate covered almonds which had been a regular treat.
But going back to the beginning of January I woke up one morning to read an article in the Guardian with the headline ‘Like sending bees to war’: the deadly truth behind your almond milk obsession.’ It described America’s titanic almond industry, totally dependent on bees for pollination, but killing billions of them in the process. Now, me as someone who struggles with deliberately even harming a fly, this presented a moral problem. Can I continue to eat (and drink) almonds knowing that billions of these worker bees are being killed in the process for consumers like me simply for our pleasure. So, I began wrestling with questions; who is responsible – the company, the beekeeper they hired, the consumer? Does it mean now that I know if I continue to eat them, I am choosing something that is wrong? Does unconscious participation mean we cannot be held accountable for our actions?
My conclusion was that as a consumer I am complicit in every stage of this products life cycle, but that it would be impossible to live in such a way that I could be fully knowledgeable of the vast array of complex supply chains that now run through our modern lifestyles. So, do I give up these almonds? But then what would be next? Would I keep on restricting or controlling that which I liked in order to justify my own sense of righteousness? Here we must be careful of any form of self-reliance that is used as a source of satisfaction apart from God, which essentially leads us to pride. Proverbs 16:18 tells us ‘Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.’
To use another example – what issues do you think arise from our choices regarding the use of a plastic bag or a paper bag, what would you choose purchase for your customers if you ran a business?
Interestingly I heard one morning on radio 4 that businesses have plenty of misconceptions about what constitutes ‘good’ for the environment. I found out myself when I asked the question about paper vs plastic. Many people believe using paper is better for the environment and this actually is not the case. The only advantage a paper bag has over its plastic equal, is its biodegradability. A lot of wood is required for pulping and a lot more energy is used in processing paper than plastic. Then you have the production of a lot of unusable waste from paper which you do not get with plastic. Paper also does not do as well on use and re-use.
Just as the coronavirus is putting inequality in the spotlight, so is plastic pollution highlighting our wastefulness. The food waste mountain after all rots whereas the plastic persists. Surprisingly, plastic pollution is not quantifiable, but it is emotive, and therefore becomes a ‘value judgement’ for individual consideration. But plastic itself is not the enemy – it is our use of it, our action that determines its effect.
We know in our minds that we are not saved by our actions but by the grace of God. We are not what we do, but what we do still matters. Our actions still have an effect. So, what can we do? Temperance to the rescue! In other words, restraint, or moderation.
When I first looked up the word temperance, the definition was ‘abstinence from alcohol’ and there was indeed a movement called temperance whereby people and even whole communities signed up to refrain from drinking alcohol. But what I would like us to focus on is temperance as moderation yes, definitely against excess, the excess of the ‘I wants,’ our desires or temptations.
But the goal of moderation (temperance) is one of balance. The goal is not to be ruled by our desires, or our feelings, but to have them in proportion. In fact feelings often help us to understand our needs, God wants us to be joyful and thrive, to have what we need, to enjoy pleasures, but not so much that they become idols or the ‘must haves’ in our lives and therefore we become dependent on them and not God.
Daniel Goleman put it in his book on emotional intelligence “there is no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulse.” Which sounds a bit harsh! We can have a whole range of impulses they can go to both extremes, to either indulge or deprive ourselves. But temperance is not about resisting all impulses but balancing them. Moderating them.
Substitute the word impulse for temptation and follow on that emotion is triggered by the thoughts we have internally. So, when Jesus says in Matthew 5 (27-28) “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This also might seem harsh! But here I think Jesus is getting to the root of our improper action and that is the thought that leads to it. And we must remember that pure lust is an objectification that does not value or love the essence of that other.
So, if our thoughts lead to our emotions which lead us on to the impulse to action. It follows again that when we think good things in our hearts about ourselves & others, such as I am a valuable person, (or they) these lead us to take care of ourselves and others. American psychiatrist Morgan Scott Peck, links in his book The Road Less Travelled self-care with self-discipline, and says both are essential to our mental health. Temperance or moderation can be seen as a form of self-discipline, that avoids the extremes of wanting it all or rejecting everything. Temperance keeps things in proportion.
Lastly, Thomas Aquinas said that it not only matters what a person does but how the person does it. So, he says we must choose rightly but also rightly about the means to that end. I suggest living consciously or mindfully, or simply practicing a pause before we act is an example of using temperance which can help us towards more helpful outcomes such as kindness, joy, gentleness, peace, faithfulness and so on.
To finish, I think it is helpful to reflect on the following questions:
- Are there areas in your life where you feel you might either indulge or deprive yourself?
- Are there areas where you feel you are good at setting personal limits?
- What are your basic needs and how often do you provide them for yourself?
- When life is hard how do you seek to soothe yourself?
- In what ways can we moderate our false desires for more?
- What strategies does Jesus offer us for living mindfully?
- In tackling global issues such as climate change is there a place for promoting the virtue of temperance?
- How can temperance help us to love others as ourselves?
We remember that God is with us as we pray:
God Our Father, we offer you thanks for this time of reflection. We ask you to guide us in our ways, to give us the strength to resist temptations and live in balance with the natural world around us. Help us to be hopeful, loving and caring to those nearest and dearest to us, especially in this time of Covid-19, we pray for the temperance of our souls as we seek to live together well. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.