This is an age of consumption, an age of abundance, an age of excess. At least for those of us in the developed world, it is a time of all-you-can-eat buffets, of room-sized walk-in closets, of unlimited bandwidth and endless binge-watching. Our homes are so loaded with stuff that we’ve made self-storage units a thriving and growing multi-billion dollar industry. We’re overflowing and overwhelmed and unhappy.
Some have responded with a new emphasis on frugality and minimalism, of spending as little as possible and owning only the bare essentials. Yet such efforts never live up to their promise and rarely last for long. Minimalism quickly proves just as disappointing and soul-wearying a god as abundance.
There must be another way. There must be a better option. And, according to God, there is! In a short series of articles I have been examining the 10 duties of every Christian and now, in this context, we turn to the duty of moderation.
Vanity of Vanities
Solomon had it all. There was no desire he would not attempt to pursue, no appetite he would not attempt to satiate. Near the end of his life he remembered, “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (Ecclesiastes 2:10). He denied himself no fleshly indulgence, marrying hundreds of women and sleeping with many more. He was rich beyond measure, so fantastically wealthy that even luxuries became nearly valueless in his time: “The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone, and he made cedar as plentiful as the sycamore of the Shephelah” (2 Chronicles 9:27).
Yet from the vantage point of his old age, he would make these words his repeated refrain: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” All of that pleasure, all of those possessions, all of that wealth turned out to be as significant as dust blown by the wind, as lasting as breath on a mirror. It promised fulfillment but delivered emptiness. It would have been far better to pray with Agur, “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8-9). Enough is enough.
Inhabiting the middle ground between the vices of excess and austerity is the virtue of moderation. Moderation is a necessary response, an appropriate duty that lives in the space between those opposite extremes. Moderation eschews the antitheses of too little and too much, of austerity and excess, to find contentment within appropriate limits. Moderation is the duty of every Christian.
The Virtue of Moderation
Moderation is a virtue, but only when expressed in an appropriate context—the context of things that God has declared lawful. When it comes to matters of sin and lawlessness, God calls us to complete abstinence. “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3 NIV). Some things are so abhorrent we must refrain from them entirely and, in fact, not even think or speak of them: “For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Ephesians 5:12).
But not all is forbidden, of course. Many good things are lawful. Many delights are pleasing to God. But because we live in a fallen world with sinful hearts, we must diligently apply moderation, for the human heart is an idol factory that turns wonderful gifts into abhorrent gods. Even good things can become bad things in the hands of sinful people. Tim Keller says an idol “is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” Idols are good things that have become ultimate things. And that’s a bad thing.
Food is a good gift of God that is truly pleasurable. It is a joy to eat and a joy to experience our favorite tastes. But without the virtue of moderation, eating can quickly tip into the vice of gluttony. The glutton makes an idol of food by overindulging. Because he feels he cannot be satisfied with little, he eats too much. This sin is endemic to the Western world where, by some measures, two out of every three adults is obese. Yet immoderation can also come on the opposite side when we are too picky in what we eat, when we eat only to fuel our bodies, when we refuse to enjoy what God has declared good. Just as many people look for joy in eating too much, many others look for joy in eating too little.
Similarly, entertainment is a good gift of God that brings us great pleasure. There is joy in watching a dramatic television series, in reading a fast-paced novel, in playing a fun game. Yet without the virtue of moderation, such entertainment can tip into the vice of idleness. On the other side of the equation we can reject entertainment altogether or look down on others others for their enjoyment of something that is lawful, as if God is most pleased when his people are most dour. Whether by too much entertainment or too little, we can so easily slide into sin.
In eating, entertainment, and any other area God invites us to enjoy, moderation is a virtue we must pursue. We equip ourselves for moderation when we explore the greater purpose behind such gifts, for none of God’s gifts are purposeless. While food is meant to give us pleasure through the sensation of delicious tastes, it is also meant to equip us for the work God calls us to. Just as too little food denies us the strength we need to serve God, too much food denies us the health we need. We embrace the gift through moderation, not excess or austerity.
Likewise, entertainment is meant to give us pleasure through watching, reading, and experiencing those things that are interesting, exciting, or just plain different from our day-to-day lives. Yet entertainment is not the purpose of life, but a means to help us unwind and recharge so we can better fulfill our greater and higher purpose. We are to be entertained only to the extent that helps us return to our God-given work.
All the while, in our eating, our entertainment, and every other area, we acknowledge they are ultimately means through which we can bring glory to God. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
The Duty of Moderation
Moderation is the Christian’s duty but, even better, the Christian’s joy. We find that excess and austerity offer the promise of joy but invariably fail to deliver it. It is when we enjoy God’s gifts in God’s terms that we experience the highest pleasures we can attain on this side of heaven. God is good to give us pleasures, but even in such pleasures, sin is always near at hand. We respond to that sin and put it to death through the duty of moderation.