The lost art of self-control

Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington
In this series of articles we have examined the Fruits of the Spirit enumerated in Galatians 5:22-23. Previously, we have considered love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and gentleness. We now conclude with the ninth fruit, self-control, referred to as temperance in some translations. This is perhaps the most problematic of all from the perspective of our modern culture because it calls for avoiding the near occasions of sin as well as disciplining and taming the ego.
Self-control is rapidly becoming a lost art. Restraint, self-discipline, and self-denial are all antithetical to the spirit of the modern age, which promotes self-indulgence and self-expression over and above the traditional virtues.
Well-ordered passions are good, but when they become inordinate, that is, excesses or perversions, then what was once a virtue is quickly transformed into a vice. For example, eating and drinking are good things because they are necessary to sustain life. We eat and drink to live. But if we overindulge in these activities, if we live to eat and drink, then we are guilty of the sin of gluttony.

Melvin Arrington, Jr

Likewise, we need money to pay for the necessities of life, such as food, clothing, and shelter, but when money is valued as an end in itself, when it is excessively accumulated and hoarded, then this inordinate love of money becomes the sin of avarice. The same process of transformation produces the other deadly sins of anger, envy, lust, pride and sloth.
Clearly, temperance, or moderation, should govern our behavior. But when there is a failure to exert self-control over inordinate appetites and desires, sin enters the picture. We should not allow ourselves to be controlled and dominated by the passions of the will, which invariably result in immoderate behavior. When sin gains the upper hand, that means that egotism or self-love has replaced true charity. If we let temptation overwhelm us, then these deadly sins can become, in the words of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, the “seven pallbearers of the soul.”
According to St. Dominic, “a man who governs his passions is master of his world. We must either command them or be enslaved by them. It is better to be a hammer than an anvil.” Governing our passions is easier said than done. Even more challenging and demanding than self-control is self-mastery, which the Catechism calls “a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life” (CCC 2342).
Archbishop Sheen says we can’t really drive out evil habits on our own. Instead, we crowd them out by loving something else more. If we are filled with the love of God, then there’s no room for anything else to get inside of us. God will give us that extra measure of grace we need to overcome temptations if we only ask Him for it.
The Confessions of St. Augustine, who was a slave to the sin of lust before he turned his life around, is a classic conversion story. Augustine became convicted of his sin when he read in the 13th chapter of Romans: “Not in revelry and drunkenness, not in debauchery and wantonness, not in strife and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and as for the flesh, take no thought for its lusts.” He discovered that he could love God more than the sinful life he was leading.
Temperance is based on the idea of exchange. We give up one thing in order to get something else. For example, we choose between the flesh and the spirit. We give up certain things during Lent (e.g. coffee, desserts, television), not because they are bad but so that by practicing self-restraint we can draw closer to God. Similarly, there is a huge difference between dieting and fasting; we diet for the sake of our physical appearance, but we fast for the sake of our spiritual welfare. Everything depends on what we value most highly.
In this out-of-control world we live in we have a choice to make. Do we want to follow the crowd and become like dead fish floating downstream, carried along by the current of popular opinion concerning what is right and wrong and totally at the mercy of our passions, or do we want to boldly swim upstream, against the current, fully alive, self-possessed, with our egos in check, and filled with God’s love. Our modern world can’t understand the latter option, but it’s really the only one that leads to genuine happiness.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)