By Audrey Stallsmith
Dateline recently featured a scandal involving an unusual charity that offered health insurance to Christians. As those of you who saw the show may recall, the plan worked well as long as its subscribers mailed their checks directly to their fellow subscribers who needed them. Once millions of dollars started rolling in, however, the central office began to handle all payments.
Even those of you who didn’t see this particular Dateline episode can probably guess its ending. The pastor who had founded the charity began awarding large amounts of that money and other perks to himself and his family, until there was not enough left to pay out claims.
I took particular interest in this story because I am acquainted with some of the subscribers who were affected by the charity’s problems. (I won’t say its downfall, because another pastor and, later, a lawyer appointed by the attorney general, were able to restore order to the plan.) But I know many of the program’s subscribers were most grieved by the corruption of its founder, a man who had once been widely respected for his ministry to alcoholics.
And there are, unfortunately, plenty of other pastors who apparently see nothing wrong with their thirst for money. I once worked for a woman who liked to watch a Christian cable channel. Some of the shows disgusted me, appearing to be little more than not-very-subtle cons that targeted the elderly and the ill.
I actually heard one minister brag about how expensive his suits were. And this con artist purported to serve and emulate the Man who died with only one robe to His name!
It’s high time, in my opinion, that the Church started preaching self-restraint again. Temperance, in other words. Although that term is generally applied to alcohol and/or tobacco, it should cover any of the appetites that can get out of control. The insurance story warns us that even the most dedicated of us, if we’re not careful, can be corrupted.
It would, we might sometimes think, almost be easier to withdraw into a controlled environment and remove ourselves from temptation. But, although a few people are called to a life of seclusion, for most of us such a retreat would be a form of cheating. "Certain minds," G. K. Chesterton comments in Outline of Sanity, "have always perceived that life would be simplified without possessions, as it would be simplified without passions. But so to simplify the whole of human life would be rather to nullify it."
Most possessions, as well as most passions, are not bad in themselves. Temperance originally meant moderation, not complete abstinence. Although I am a teetotaler myself, I have to acknowledge that the restrained use of alcohol can be healthy. I don’t think I can say the same for tobacco.
But I grow nicotiana in my garden and can testify that its lovely and sweet-scented flowers gratify the senses of sight and smell--even though any ingestion of the plant is dangerous. Other drug plants, such as datura and opium poppy, also produce beautiful blooms, and the latter was once one of the few pain killers available. These plants are not "bad" in themselves; it is only the illegitimate use of them that makes them appear so.
Neither are the appetites "bad," as some appear to believe. The idea that the body is more fallen than the spirit is heresy. God created the senses, and he expects us to use them--within the limits he has set. According to The Greatest Drama Ever Staged, Dorothy Sayers thought we should have a "rollicking enjoyment of bodily pleasures which, rightly considered, are sinful only by their excess."
But they are not the reason we are here. Unfortunately, however, once we lose our belief in a larger goal, fulfillment of appetites is all we have left. Perhaps that is why an already obese America continues to gorge on far more than its share of the world’s luxuries. People are trying to fill up what some have called the "God-shaped hole" in their hearts. "In a materialist society," Malcolm Muggeridge points out in Jesus Rediscovered, "pleasure alone is sacred."
It also becomes addictive. "A man is in bondage," George MacDonald states in Creation in Christ, "to whatever he cannot part with that is less than himself." And, the more bound that man becomes, the less he actually enjoys his habit. Persons addicted to drugs, either legal or illegal, often have to take larger and larger doses to get the same rush. Those enslaved to pornography have to go more and more hard core to receive the same titillation.
Fulton Sheen writes in Life of Christ that "many people miss pleasure because they seek nothing else. The first condition of enjoyment is contrast." In other words, if you eat ice cream only occasionally, it remains a special treat to you. If you eat it all the time, you shortly become bored with it but find it a hard habit to break.
So, ironically, it is the people who discipline themselves who enjoy themselves the most. Since they aren’t fatigued with bodily delights, they are much more grateful for them too.
"No restriction on sex," Chesterton declaims in Orthodoxy, "seems so odd and unexpected as sex itself. Keeping to one mate is a small price to pay for so much as seeing that one. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once."
In his Best Wishes, Harold Kohn deplores "jaded souls which have looked at too much and have seen too little." He adds that "the man of romance is he in whom the simplest occurrences produce the most live sensations."
Economy, too, is much more fun than wealth. At least, having always belonged to the lower income brackets myself, I prefer to believe it is! I buy most of my clothes either at thrift stores or on clearance. So, finding a quality outfit for just a few dollars gives me much more of a thrill than it would give someone who could afford to pay the full original price.
"Economy," Chesterton insists in The Apostle and the Wild Ducks, "is essentially imaginative, because it is a realization of the value of everything. . .the real objection to waste is that all waste is a kind of murder. . ." He adds that the newer and truer romance "will celebrate the cheapness of ecstasy. . .The stars and the dreams and myself are cheaper than chalk: for I bought them for nothing."
Although I have contrived to avoid some of the more obvious addictions, that is probably due more to my cautious temperament than to any superior self-control! But even those of us who are poor and timid, I have discovered, can develop obsessions with what would otherwise be healthy hobbies.
An avid gardener, I was overjoyed to discover internet seed trading. The result, though, was that, like one of those pitiful people who try to keep too many pets, I ended up with far more plants than I had either the time or space for.
I am beginning to acknowledge to myself that I need to set some limits on my hobby. Any obsession distracts from what should be our ultimate desire. We practice temperance in all other areas, so that we can be intemperately passionate about Christ and his cause.
"Union with God," Fulton Sheen writes in Peace of Soul, "is the purpose of self-discipline. . .Mortification is based, not on hatred, but on preference." In other words, we mortify (subdue) some of our natural desires for the same reason that monks and nuns do. Not because we hate those desires, but because we prefer God.
You might say, "because we choose to prefer God." This kind of mortification almost always goes against our natural grain. That’s why it requires so much willpower. Perhaps because we haven't allowed God to entirely fill the empty space in our hearts, our fallen natures would much rather hoard things than give them up.
George MacDonald calls "the desire or pleasure of having" lust, and asserts that "things can never really be possessed by the man who cannot do without them." So, when the proper order gets turned upside down and things begin to possess us, we know that it’s high time for an exorcism!