In August of 1941, four years before the end of World War II, British author and theologian C. S. Lewis began three years of radio broadcasts that would become one of his most popular books, Mere Christianity. Published in 1952, this book presents the basic teachings of Christianity for the benefit of both Christians and non-Christians alike.
For Christians, Lewis wanted to clarify terms and teachings that, for many, had lost their meaning. For non-Christians, he wanted to clarify what Christianity is and what it isn’t in order to remove all unnecessary intellectual barriers for those who felt called to follow Jesus Christ.
In one short portion of Mere Christianity, Lewis recovers classical teaching about human virtues. His descriptions of the virtues of prudence and temperance are helpful for all people, though they find special significance for Jesus’ followers. Let’s see what C. S. Lewis can teach us about virtue.
What Is Prudence?
Prudence is traditionally understood as the cautious exercise of wisdom and judgment. However, for many today, prudence is synonymous with naiveté, a kind of simple-minded innocence.
Many Christians have also bought into this caricature, despite the Bible’s numerous encouragements to practice it. C. S. Lewis writes, “Because Christ said we could only get into his world by being like children, many Christians have the idea that, provided you are ‘good’, it does not matter being a fool. But that is a misunderstanding” (70-71).
For Lewis, prudence is not about child-like ignorance and naivety, it is about “practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it” (70). It’s about pursuing and practicing wisdom.
Lewis reminds us of the words of Matthew 10:16 (ESV) where Jesus commands his disciples to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” He says, “If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all” (71).
Lewis encourages us to pursue goodness as well as wisdom.
What Is Temperance?
Around the time that Lewis wrote Mere Christianity, the word temperance mostly referred to complete abstinence from alcohol. While many Christians (and others) continue to practice complete abstinence from alcohol today, Lewis provides an important perspective on the true meaning of temperance.
For starters, Lewis thought that limiting the definition of temperance to abstinence from alcohol actually obscured the fact that humans practice intemperance in many other areas of life. While people may abstain from alcohol, they may simultaneously indulge in greed, gluttony, or gambling.
He wrote, “One great piece of mischief has been done by the modern restriction of the word temperance to the question of drink. It helps people to forget that you can be just as intemperate about lots of other things” (72).
Originally, temperance referred to moderation in the enjoyment of certain (non-destructive) pleasures. We still use the word that way sometimes. For example, when referring to the climate of a place that’s neither too hot nor too cold, we say it’s temperate.
While Lewis did believe we need temperance as we enjoy certain pleasures, he also recognized that some need to exercise complete abstinence. Lewis wrote that a person might need “to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them” (71-72).
But, for Lewis, the decision to completely abstain comes with potential danger. The person who chooses abstinence for good reasons shouldn’t demand abstinence from everyone else. That’s not temperance. Lewis wrote, “An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning” (72).
Lewis gets this idea from the Bible. Romans 14:2-3 (ESV) says, “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.”
Why Do Prudence and Temperance Matter?
At this point, you might be wondering, Why on earth does it matter what C. S. Lewis said about prudence and temperance? The answer comes in one short line at the end of Lewis’ paragraph about temperance: “God is not deceived by externals” (72).
Prudence is about dedicating your words as well as your thoughts, your choices as well as your reasons, to God. It isn’t as simple as saying and doing the right things. God wants our hearts and minds to honor him, as well as our words and actions. He isn’t deceived by our externals.
Temperance is about exercising self-control in every area of your life. Most likely, you won’t be able to completely abstain from everything that tempts you toward indulgence. We’ve all eaten too much, watched too much television, or spent too long on social media. Some of these things may require abstinence, but they all require self-control. God isn’t deceived by an easy fix.
Thankfully, God hasn’t left us to fix these problems on our own. Those who trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior have been equipped with new hearts and renewed minds capable of pleasing God. In Christ, you’re able to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV).
God also gives his Holy Spirit to those who have faith in Jesus. Fruitful life with the Spirit results in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV, emphasis added).
How Do I Get Prudence and Temperance?
Do you desire practical wisdom and self-control? Prudence and temperance?
The book of Proverbs says that “The Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2:6 ESV), and we already saw that it’s God’s Spirit who comes and changes us from the inside out.
The world would say that wisdom and self-restraint come from good books, gurus, our own efforts, or positive thinking. But God’s Word says that our effort to grow in these virtues and any others must first start with heart change sparked by God himself. Have you ever sought God for wisdom and self-control?
You can do that right now wherever you are whether you get on your knees, speak out loud, or write out a prayer to God. And God loves to answer such requests, as he says, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13 NIV).
Although it was published seventy years ago, Mere Christianity continues to teach us today, because Lewis’ teaching on prudence and temperance reflects the ageless truths of God’s Word. Why not pick up a copy of Mere Christianity for yourself and hear what Lewis has to say?