In Christian tradition, there are seven heavenly virtues and seven deadly sins. The theological virtues (faith, hope and love), some of the cardinal virtues (justice and courage) and many of the deadly sins (pride, anger, lust, envy, greed, sloth) get a fair amount of attention, but temperance, one of the cardinal virtues, and gluttony, its counterpart vice, tend to be downplayed a bit. Temperance is viewed primarily as a virtue against drunkenness, while gluttony as a vice about food, but there is much more to it than that. Temperance is vital to our relationship with God: we need it to love him properly.
Temperance, like all virtues, comes from God – it is the virtue of right quantity, of proper amount. With respect to alcohol, drinking alcohol is not forbidden in Christianity, but excessive drinking and drunkenness is forbidden. While for some people (those suffering from an addiction to alcohol, or an allergy) any amount of alcohol will be too much, for most, a moderate amount is fine. The apostles and Jesus himself drank wine, and grape wine has a key role in the Eucharist. But temperance is about more than just drinking alcohol in moderation, it is about moderation in general. Life has many good things and bad things in it. The other virtues are at least in part about avoiding certain bad things, but temperance is exclusively about good things. Temperance makes sure that we do not use good things to excess. Good things, used wrongly, can separate us from God, becoming sins when we start to overdo them, especially when we choose good things over better things. These better things include our duties and responsibilities, our human relationships, and especially our relationship with God. It is this relationship with God that virtue and vice are all about. Virtue builds and strengthens the relationship, while vice sins against it, damaging or even killing it (hence the terminology “deadly sins“).
The seven deadly sins include the sin of gluttony, the vice that is most directly opposed to the virtue of temperance. Gluttony is the sin of excess. It is usually applied to food. Gluttony in drinking alcohol is drunkenness. Gluttony can apply also to good things that have nothing to do with food or drink. In the seventeenth century, for example, an avid book-reader (someone we would call a “book-worm” today) was called, in Latin, “helluo librorum” or, in English, a “book glutton”.
In the modern world, gluttony beyond food might include excess in watching online shows (binge-watching) or sports, or playing video games for too many hours to the neglect of other things. Excessive shopping, vacationing, golf, or other amusements can also be gluttonous. Temperance is the antidote to all of this. Temperance does not normally mean cutting oneself off entirely from a good thing. It means using or enjoying it in moderation, in an appropriate amount. The only times temperance calls us to cut ourselves off entirely from things is when we are unable to moderate our amounts, or when our moderate use would be potentially harmful to others. For example, a person suffering from an addiction to alcohol may be unable to stop drinking once started, so for them, temperance means not drinking alcohol at all. A person living with someone who has such an addiction might choose to avoid having alcoholic drinks themselves while at home, so as not to make sobriety more difficult for the other.
Unfortunately, the sin of excess, the vice of gluttony, can even apply to our pursuit of the virtues. When this happens, we generally call it intemperance. People with an excess of zeal, for example, are not called “zeal gluttons”, they are called intemperate. Every virtue is a good thing, which is why it is a virtue, but without temperance, the pursuit of a virtue can lack moderation, and may become excessive. This can happen, for example, when pursuing the virtue of justice, when our zeal for justice makes us harsh, impatient, inconsiderate, or judgmental. It can happen when pursuing the virtue of courage, when bravery becomes foolhardiness. Even the pursuit of faith can be excessive when it is unwarranted, such as parents being deliberately blind to their child’s faults, placing unreasonable faith in the child’s good judgment. The pursuit of hope, too, can be excessive: counting on winning the lottery may be an exercise in hope, but if the likelihood of winning is negligible, as it typically is, such hope is intemperate: excessive, and foolish. Even the pursuit of love can be excessive when we love a lesser thing so much that we fail to love something greater. For example, while love of one’s family is an important virtue, it is wrong to choose love of family over God [Matthew 10:37].
What about God, then? Can love of God be excessive? I do not mean religious fanaticism: of course, excesses of all sorts can be carried out in the name of God. I mean the genuine love of God, the love that Jesus is speaking about when he says, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” [Mark 12:30] The truth is, we can’t love God excessively: the love that is properly due to him is greater than our human ability to love him. The reason is that God gave himself first, becoming a human being so he could show his love for us, and in so doing, he gave all he had, dying on a cross out of love for us. This is far more than we can possibly give to God in return. It means it is safe to love God with everything we are and with everything we have, because he did it first, in a way we cannot match. In giving our best, we are just loving him back.
What, then, about temperance and loving God? Jesus tells a parable of a pearl merchant, an expert in fine pearls, who finds a pearl so splendid that he sells everything he has to buy it [Matthew 13:45-46|. We who love Jesus are like that merchant. We have found in Jesus the one thing that is worth being intemperate about: Jesus is worth everything we have. Yet this does not mean the virtue of temperance is something that is not for us. Rather, it means we need to exercise it vigorously in everything else, not just so that we can reject bad things, but so that we can be moderate also in good things, lest they get in the way of our pursuit of the best thing. We do this to free ourselves to claim the one thing that is better than all else: Jesus, who is God himself, come to save us.