The Purpose of Human Nature

Main idea: The telos (purpose) of human nature is to move us towards actualizing our true potential.  People are happy when they are actualizing their highest potential and unhappy when they ignore this part of their nature.  Human nature is therefore designed to move us from incompleteness to wholeness and happiness is a feedback mechanism that tells us if we are actualizing that potential. 

i.) The Purpose (Telos) of Human Nature

Aristotle said that all things have a telos or an end/purpose for which they exist.   Teleology involves examining things to discover their aims, purposes and goals.  Organisms experience teleological development as they move from being imperfect to becoming more perfect.  All organisms strive to become the perfect form of their kind or to actualize potentiality.  For example, a seed becomes a plant, an embryo becomes a baby or a baby becomes an adult.  The true essence of something is therefore what it can become and not necessarily what it is at a given moment in time.

The Psychologist Carl Rogers observed that people begin life incomplete but have an “actualizing tendency” that, if ignored, leads to arrested development and adaptive difficulties. This actualizing tendency leads to the fulfillment of intrinsic human nature. Human nature is designed to move us towards wholeness and to fulfill the purpose of our existence on this earth (the Telos).

Aristostle believed that true happiness was found through achieving one’s telos (purpose).  The telos of humans is to live a virtuous life in accordance with reason. He called this “eudemonic living.”

The Scriptures teach us that the purpose of our existence is to have joy.  Lehi taught that: “Men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25).  Similarly, the prophet Joseph Smith taught: “Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.”

Joy and misery are feedback mechanisms that indicate if we are in harmony with our Telos.  President Dallin H. Oaks taught:”Joy is more than happiness. Joy is the ultimate sensation of well-being. It comes from being complete and in harmony with our Creator and his eternal laws. The opposite of joy is misery. Misery is more than unhappiness, sorrow, or suffering. Misery is the ultimate state of disharmony with God and his laws. (Dallin H. Oaks, “Joy and Mercy,” Nov. 1991)

Our joy in this life is but a shadow of the “fullness” of joy that we are promised we will have when we are resurrected.  D&C 93: 33-35 teaches us: “For man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy; And when separated, man cannot receive a fullness of joy.”

Jacob taught the Nephites the same thing in 2 Nephi 9: 18 which reads: “They who have believed in the Holy One of Israel, they who have endured the crosses of the world, and despised the shame of it, they shall inherit the kingdom of God, which was prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and their joy shall be full forever” (2 Ne. 9:18).

If joy is the purpose of our existence then the only way to fulfill our telos and to become like God is to obey those laws that lead to joy. In D&C 88: 18-20 we learn that the purpose of our souls’ creation was to learn to live the Celestial law:

“Therefore, it must needs be sanctified from all unrighteousness, that it may be prepared for the celestial glory; For after it hath filled the measure of its creation, it shall be crowned with glory, even with the presence of God the Father; That bodies who are of the celestial kingdom may possess it forever and ever; for, for this intent was it made and created, and for this intent are they sanctified.” (D&C 88: 18-20)

In Ecclesiastes, we learn that the main purpose of life is to prepare for judgment day by fearing God and keeping His commandments: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” (Eccl 12:13-14) By learning to keep the commandments in this life, we prepare ourselves to live the law of the Celestial Kingdom in the next life.

Nephi recorded  that his people lived “after the manner of happiness” by building a temple, reading the scriptures, worked together in unity and keeping the commandments of God. (2 Nephi 5)

We will now examine what the scriptures teach us about how to fulfill the measure of our creation and “live after the manner of happiness.”

ii.) What makes people happy

a.) Basing our lives on the teachings of Christ.

The first and most important principle of fulfilling our purpose is to based our lives on the teachings of Jesus Christ.  Jesus taught this principle when he gave the parable of the Wise and Foolish builders. He compared those who base their lives on His teachings to those who build their houses (lives) upon a rock (a solid foundation) so that when the storms come (adversity) the house is not moved.  He compared those who based their lives on anything else to building their houses on sand (weak foundation) so that when the storms come the houses get blown away because they are not built upon a solid foundation. (Matt 7: 24-27)

On another occasion, Jesus taught Martha that learning of God trumps all other responsibilities we might have in this life.  Martha had complained that Mary dropped her household responsibilities to listen to the teachings of Jesus.   Jesus told Martha that it was important to care for her home but that Mary had recognized that it was more important to listen to and learn from Him. All other responsibilities are less important than coming to know God and grow spiritually.  (Luke 10: 38-42)

Jesus taught the same principle to a disciple who would put off following Jesus until he had buried his dead father: “And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.” (Luke 9: 21-22)

When we base our lives on the teachings of Christ, we seek to please God and don’t make gaining the approval of others our primary concern in life.  Paul wrote the Galatians: “For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10)

When we base our lives on the teachings of Jesus, we enter into covenants with Him that ensure peace in this life and eternal life in the world to come.  In Psalms 25: 12-14 we read: “What man is he that feareth the Lord?… His soul shall dwell at ease; and his seed shall inherit the earth.  The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant.” (Psalms 25: 12-14)

When we base our lives on the teachings of Jesus, we become inheritors of the riches of eternity, regardless of our temporal circumstances.  Paul taught the Corinthians that though they were poor from a temporall perspective, they were very rich from an eternal perspective.  He said that the saints were:  “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.” (2 Cor 6:10)

In the Book of Psalms we also learn that being righteous is  better than having the riches of this world:   “A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked.” (Psalms 37: 16)

b.) Subjecting the will of the flesh to the will of the Spirit and obeying God’s commandments.

When we base our lives on the teachings of Jesus we begin to subject our natural desires to the laws of God and the will of the Spirit.  Jesus taught that our main goals and labors in life should be around gaining eternal life and eating the “bread” that He would gives us:  “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

c.) having a clean conscience brings peace

The scriptures teach us that peace of conscience is a gift from the spirit given those who obey the laws of God.  In D&C 59: 23 we read: “But learn that he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.” (D&C 59: 23)  Peace indicates to us that we are on the path to fulfilling the purpose of our  creation and gaining eternal life.

The prophet Isaiah taught that peace is the fruit of righteousness and that the wicked cannot know peace: “O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments! Then had thy peace been as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea… there is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked.” (Isaiah 48: 18,22)

Paul stress the importance of always having a clean conscience when he said: “And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men.” (Acts 24:16)  He also told the Philippians that the peace of God “passeth all understanding.” (Phil 5:7).

In the end, only obeying the commandments of Jesus can give us peace in this life: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27)

d.) having faith in Christ and a hope of redemption fills us with joy.

The scriptures also teach us that putting faith in Christ and exercising hope in redemption fills us with joy.  Proverbs teaches us that those who trust in God are happy: “He that handleth a matter wisely shall find good: and whoso trusteth in the Lord, happy is he.” (Proverbs 16:20)

Isaiah also promised that those who exercise faith in God will have perfect peace: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee. Trust ye in the Lord for ever: for in the Lord JEHOVAH is everlasting strength:” (Isaiah 26: 3-4)

The prophet Joseph F. Smith taught that keeping God’s commandments grants us faith in hope that we often call “God’s rest.” He said: The man who has reached that degree of faith in God that all doubt and fear have been cast from him, he has entered into ‘God’s rest’” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith [1998], 56).

e.) fulfilling our preordained life missions that conform with the will of God brings us joy

The Book of Jonah is a lesson on the importance of fulfilling our life mission. Jonah was given a clear mission from God that he tried to run from but ultimately found that it was futile to live a satisfied life while ignoring the clear life mission that God had given him.  This book teaches us that unless we are working towards completing our preordained life missions we will not be satisfied.

f.) true joy is a gift of the spirit given to those who obey God’s laws.

Ultimately the true spiritual “joy” that passes all understanding, is a gift of the spirit given to those who obey God’s law.  The Spirit taught Nephi that the love of God is “the most desirable above all things..and the most joyous so the soul.” (1 Nephi 22-23)

g.) experiencing the opposite of joy gives us the capacity to understand it.

In 2 Nephi chapter 2, the prophet Lehi gives a great sermon on the necessity of opposites.  He teaches that without opposites, there is no existence.  This means that joy would not exist without its opposite: misery.  Lehi said that if Adam and Eve had not partaken of the fruit and experienced misery then they could not have known joy. (2 Nephi 2:23).   Our capacity to feel joy actually increases as we endure pain and misery.

h.) Focusing upon Christ, the light and things that give us joy will make us happy.

What we focus on will ultimately determine how we behave and what we become.  Jesus taught: “The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness.” (Luke 11: 34)

President Russel M. Nelson encouraged us to find joy by focusing on the good things in the world. He said: “Jesus Christ is our ultimate exemplar, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Think of that! In order for Him to endure the most excruciating experience ever endured on earth, our Savior focused on joy! If we focus on the joy that will come to us, or to those we love, what can we endure that presently seems overwhelming, painful, scary, unfair, or simply impossible?” (Russel M. Nelson-Joy and Spiritual Survival)

ii.) False Idols of Happiness

Aristostle contrasted eudemonic living with hedonistic living or the pursuit of pleasure.  According to Aristotle, you can pursue pleasure or you can pursue meaning.  The psychologist Martin Seligman wrote:

“What makes life worth living is not ephemeral. It does not result from the momentary tickling of our sensory receptors by chocolate, alcohol, or Caribbean vacations. The good life is lived over time and across situations, and an examination of the good life in terms of positive traits is demanded.”

Ignoring or rebelling against our own “demonic” nature results in pain, suffering and misery. While understanding and fulfilling this part of our nature results in peace, happiness and fulfillment, ignoring or rebelling against it results in pain, suffering and misery.

The scriptures speak of many “false idols” that people follow in an attempt to mimic the “joy” for which we were created.  These idols give experiences of pleasure that are cheap counterfeits of the joy that is the gift from the spirit.  Some of these idols include: wealth, pleasure, comfort, sin and the philosophies of men.  We will now examine each in more detail.

a.) wealth and materialism

Jesus taught his disciples that material goods do not bring happiness nor does lusting after them.  He said: “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.” (Luke 12:15)

The prophet Isaiah lamented that many spend their whole lives laboring for that which cannot satisfy: Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.” (Isaiah 55:2)

Ultimately, those who seek after wealth and live materialistic lives will never be satisfied.  The preacher in Ecclesiastes declared: “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.” (Eccl 5:10)

President Dallin H. Oaks observed that: “You can never get enough of what you don’t need, because what you don’t need won’t satisfy you.”

In contrast, the author of Proverbs teaches us that the rich can feel as if they have nothing and the poor can feel very rich.  Proverbs 13: 7 reads:“There is that maketh himself rich, yet hath nothing: there is that maketh himself poor, yet hath great riches.” (Proverbs 13:7)

We should heed the words of Paul who said: “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

b.) the pursuit of pleasure and physical appetite

After reflecting on a long life, the author of Ecclesiastes concluded that pleasure, wine, women and wealth were all vanities that did not satisfy. (Eccl 2)  On another occasion the preacher in Ecclesiastes said:“All the labour of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled.” (Eccl 6:7)

While pleasure can be momentarily gratifying the Lord warns us that the pleasures of sin and the suffering of the righteous exist only for a “short season” (Heb 11:25).  Ultimately, those who bear the crosses of the world will inherit eternal joy while those who gratify momentary pleasures will be damned in their progress.

c.) Wickedness and sin

Samuel the Lamanite warned the Nephites who had spent their lives trying to find happiness through sin.  He said: “But behold, your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late, and your destruction is made sure; yea, for ye have sought all the days of your lives for that which ye could not obtain; and ye have sought for happiness in doing iniquity, which thing is contrary to the nature of that righteousness which is in our great and Eternal Head.” (Helaman 13: 38)

The prophet Alma, who was a sinful and rebellious youth, bore his testimony that “wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41: 10)  He describes the contrasts between sin and redemption this way: “My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more.” (Mosiah 27:29)

Alma also taught his sons that those who are not born again cannot truly be happy. He said: “And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.” (Alma 41:11)

The prophet Isaiah also taught that the wicked cannot know peace.  He said: “But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.” (Isaiah 57:20) “The way of peace they know not; and there is no judgment in their goings: they have made them crooked paths: whosoever goeth therein shall not know peace.” (Isaiah 59:8)

Wickedness and sin not only cannot produce happiness but must result in despair.  The prophet Moroni taught: “And if ye have no hope ye must needs be in despair; and despair cometh because of iniquity.” (Moroni 10: 22)

d.) Pleasant circumstances don’t make us happy.

President Russel M. Nelson has taught that happiness is independent of our life circumstances.  He said:  Saints can be happy under every circumstance. We can feel joy even while having a bad day, a bad week, or even a bad year! My dear brothers and sisters, the joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives. When the focus of our lives is on God’s plan of salvation, which President Thomas S. Monson just taught us, and Jesus Christ and His gospel, we can feel joy regardless of what is happening—or not happening—in our lives. Joy comes from and because of Him. He is the source of all joy.” (Russel M. Nelson-Joy and Spiritual Survival)

e.) The philosophies of men cannot produce joy.

And finally, we conclude with a final warning from our current prophet, President Nelson.  He warned that the philosophies of men can never produce true joy.  He said: “If we look to the world and follow its formulas for happiness, we will never know joy. The unrighteous may experience any number of emotions and sensations, but they will never experience joy! Joy is a gift for the faithful. It is the gift that comes from intentionally trying to live a righteous life, as taught by Jesus Christ.” (Russel M. Nelson-Joy and Spiritual Survival)

The Power of Self-Mastery

Main Idea: Temperance is the virtue concerned with controlling excesses.  Two sub-strengths of this virtue are prudence and self-regulation.  Prudence refers to the ability to resist short-term impulses to achieve long-term goals.  Self-regulation is concerned with controlling excesses in general.  Temperance is a virtue that we all must develop in order to serve in the Lord’s Kingdom. 

Intro & Overview

Good Morning brothers and sisters.  I am grateful for the opportunity that I have been given to speak to you today on “the power of self-mastery.”  I will begin by first defining what my understanding of “self-mastery” is by equating it with the virtue called temperance.  I will then break it down further and discuss two specific types of temperance called prudence and self-regulation.  I will review the scriptural teachings concerning this principle and then support those teachings by referring to scientific research where appropriate.  My inclusion of scientific research in this message is done in the spirit of “seeking wisdom and learning from the best books” as the scriptures teach. While not doctrinal, the research is meant to aid and support doctrinal claims.  I will also give some guidelines on how you can become more prudent and enhance your capacity for self-control.  My main message is that temperance is the virtue of controlling excesses and is an essential Christ-like quality that we all must develop to be successful from both a spiritual and temporal perspective.

Defining Temperance & Self-Mastery

Self-Mastery is a somewhat vague term that could refer to numerous inter-related concepts and ideas.  For our purposes, I have relied upon the work of psychologists Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson to help zero in on what exactly self mastery is.

Seligman and Peterson identified 6 virtues that have existed across all cultures throughout time that include: Courage, Wisdom, Humanity, Justice, Transcendence & Temperance.  Each of these six virtues further breaks down into 24 distinct positive character traits that can be measured and are associated with positive outcomes in life. Self-Mastery is a synonym for the virtue of temperance which is the ability to control excesses.  Temperance is the ability to be moderate in all good things while abstaining completely from evil things.

Temperance further breaks down into five different character strengths that include: humility, mercy, chastity, self-regulation and prudence.  Humility is a strength of temperance because it involves controlling the excesses of arrogance while Mercy involves controlling the excesses of bitterness, resentment and hatred.  Chastity, of course, involves controlling the excesses of our sexual desires.  Humility, Mercy and Chastity are special cases of self-control that I will not be focusing on today.  Instead, I will focus on the other two strengths of temperance: Prudence and Self-Regulation.

Temperance is one of the Christ-like virtues that is repeatedly endorsed in scripture.  The prophet Alma taught: “And now I would that ye should be humble and be submissive and gentle; easy to be entreated; full of patience and long-suffering; being temperate in all things.” (Alma 7: 23)

Developing this virtue is a prerequisite for engaging in the work of the Lord.  In D&C 12: 8 the Lord said: “And no one can assist in this work except he shall be humble and full of love, having faith, hope and charity, being temperate in all things, whatsoever shall be entrusted to his care.” (D&C 12:8)

Our prophet, President Russel M. Nelson taught that a major purpose of life is to learn how to control the desires of the flesh through the spirit.  He said:

“Spirit over body.” That is self mastery. Your spirit acquired a body at birth and became a soul to live in mortality through periods of trial and testing. Part of each test is to determine if your body can become mastered by the spirit that dwells within it.”

Since temperance is a virtue that is endorsed by scriptures, psychologists and modern prophets it should be something that we take seriously.  I mentioned earlier that I would like to focus on prudence and self-regulation which I will now further clarify.   3:48 minutes


According to Seligman and Peterson, prudence is an orientation to one’s future that helps one achieve long‐term goals through careful planning and consideration of the consequences of behaviors. It is the ability to resist impulses that lead to short‐term satisfaction at the expense of long‐term goals.  Prudence is manifested in the following behaviors: saving for the future; contingency planning; avoiding known dangers; considering the long‐term effects of your actions and deliberating about one’s personal goals.

Prudence is an essential character strength to develop as it prevents regret, guilt, shame and pain and is essential for achieving our long-term life goals.  Those who have under-developed this strength are impulsive, reckless, thoughtless, foolish, irresponsible and short-sighted.  However, prudence itself can also be taken to an extreme and can become compulsiveness or rigidity.   Thus, prudence is the moderate approach on a continuum between impulsiveness and Compulsiveness (Rigidity).

I am going to read some of the essential behaviors of prudence. Please take a few minutes to grade yourself on a scale from 1-10 for each:

  1. You take a foresighted stance toward your personal future, thinking and caring about it, planning for it, and holding long‐term goals and aspirations.
  2. You are skilled at resisting self‐defeating impulses and at persisting in beneficial activities that lack immediate appeal.
  3. You show a style of thinking about everyday life choices that is reflective, deliberate, and practical.
  4. You harmonize the multiple goals and interests that motivate you, forming these into a stable, coherent, and unconflicted form of life.
  5. You are not excessively cautious or compulsively self-restraining but are flexible and moderate in self-management.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Lord emphasizes how important this strength is when he condemns the ancient Israelites for not developing it.   Deut 32: 29-30 reads: “For they are a nation void of counsel, neither is there any understanding in them. O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!” (Deut 32: 29-30)

Prudence is about considering your “latter end” or the long-term consequences of your behaviors.  In the parable of the unjust steward, Jesus himself criticizes the believers for not developing this character strength and even tells them to be more like the non-believers at the time who did develop this character strength.  Jesus said: “For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.” (Luke 16:8)   6:24 minutes

III. Developing Prudence

One of the major pitfalls to living prudently is something that psychologists call “temporal discounting.”   This means that people have a natural tendency to prefer smaller rewards in the present compared to larger rewards in the future.  Research has confirmed that the brain relies too heavily on this strategy and that we need to learn how to compensate for this natural tendency.

Brain scan research reveals that different parts of the brain light up when you are thinking about somebody else compared to when you are thinking about yourself (self=ventromedial prefrontal cortex).  Interestingly, when you think about your future self the areas in the brain related to thinking about other people are active.  This means that we literally treat our future self like a different person who has to pay for the consequences of our decisions today.

You can compensate for this inherent bias by engaging in mental time travel by considering how you will feel at the end of the day, week, month or year after making this decision.  It also helps to list the concrete consequences of your actions.  In one study, those asked to imagine specific ways their life will change in the future tended to save and invest more.

Prudence has been associated with more positive life outcomes, less psychopathology, delinquency and leads to a longer life.  Prudent people tend to avoid risky behaviors, cope better with stress and make healthier decisions.  It is also associated with optimism and overall psychological well-being.

Walter Mischel’s Famous Marshmallow test provides empirical support for the importance of this key trait. In Mischel’s famous study, he offered children either 1 marshmallow now or 2 marshmallows later. Those children who were able to resist the single marshmallow came up with creative strategies for distracting themselves from the temptation. When these children were followed up on years later, the children who showed patience and self-control had better grades and ultimately earned higher salaries as adults. Those who were the quickest to eat the marshmallow were much more likely to have trouble with the law.  8:20

2. Self-Regulation/Control

While Prudence is associated with planning for the future and meeting long-term goals, self-control is a related strength that is concerned with controlling excess in general.  When we talk about self-control we often mean being able to control our thoughts, emotions, impulses, performances, and other behaviors. It is the ability to abide by ideals, moral standards and other performance targets.  Self-Control is the ability to override our initial reactions to things and to consciously craft responses that align with our values and long-term goals.  Most self-control is really just the ability to inhibit and override an immediate impulse.

The scriptures teach us how valuable this strength is to a society.  In Proverbs we read: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.” (Proverbs 16: 32)

President Ezra Taft Benson also taught about the importance of self-control.  He said: “A priesthood holder is temperate. This means he is restrained in his emotions and verbal expressions. He does things in moderation and is not given to overindulgence. In a word, he has self‐control. He is the master of his emotions, not the other way around. A priesthood holder who would curse his wife, abuse her with words or actions, or do the same to one of his own children is guilty of grievous sin. “Can ye be angry, and not sin?” asked the Apostle Paul.” (JST, Eph. 4:26).  (Godly Characteristics of the Master-Ezra Taft Benson)

King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon taught us that one of the major purposes of life was to develop control over the natural but evil impulses of the flesh.  He said: “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit … and becometh a saint.” (Mosiah 3:19)

Yielding to the enticings of the Holy Spirit is an act of self-control that must be practiced over time until our natures change, and we become saints with no more disposition to do evil.  10:14

3. Improving Self-Control

The research confirms that self-control is indeed like a muscle that gets stronger with use and atrophies when we cease to use it.  One study revealed that when people were given self‐control tasks to practice for 2 weeks (such as posture exercises) their general self‐control abilities seemed to improve. Self‐control is also enhanced when we practice monitoring our behaviors over time.

Like a muscle, self-control is also a limited resource that requires energy and can be depleted with repeated use and is only restored with rest and relaxation.   This “self-control” energy has been called the “executive resource” by psychologists and is used to fuel at least 5 different things including: focusing our attention, regulating our emotions, overriding our impulses, making decisions and consciously modifying our behaviors.

You only have a certain amount of this resource per day and it is drained whenever you use it for one of the fivefunctions.  This means that if you spend all day trying to focus your attention on something you will not have much energy to regulate your emotions or override your impulses.  Likewise, if you spent all morning overriding impulses then you will not be able to focus your attention very well in the evening.   When your executive resource is depleted the subconscious, automatic part of your brain takes over and puts you on auto-pilot, for better or for worse.

Many studies prove that after people make decisions they perform worse on tasks that require use of the executive resource. For example, in one study, people who made more decisions while shopping performed much worse on a set of math problems than those who made fewer decisions while shopping.

As mentioned earlier, one of the most important parts of self-control is the ability to regulate your emotions.  The inability to regulate emotions contributes to a host of mental health problems that include depression, anxiety, addictions, eating disorders and impulse control disorders that result in anger problems.  In fact, an argument could be made that self‐control failure is at the heart of nearly all personal and social problems in our society.

Emotions are whole-body responses to situations that facilitate goal achievement by influencing physiology, behavior and cognition. They are like software programs in your brain that are booted up when certain conditions are met.  For example, sadness is the program that your brain turns on when you perceive loss while joy is the program that turns on when you perceive a gain in some way.  Similarly, anger is the program that turns on when you face a threat that you believe you can handle while fear is the program triggered by threats you don’t believe you can handle.  The programs turn on or off depending upon how we interpret our life experiences.  These programs are essential as they are designed to ensure survival.

However, most of us are not born with innate knowledge about how to control our emotions and this skill needs to be learned and practiced over time.  One model of emotional management suggests that there are 5 ways to manage emotions broken down into two overall categories.

The first category contains strategies that are antecedent focused or concerned with preventing emotions from occurring in the first place.  These strategies include situation selection, situation modification and attentional deployment.

Situation selection refers to choosing what situations to put yourself in based upon the likely emotional responses that you will have. If you can’t avoid an unwanted situation then you can do your best to modify those aspects of the situation under your control.  Identify the negative characteristics of the situation and try to mitigate or minimize them.  If you can’t modify the situation then you can try and use the next strategy which is to control what you pay attention to. The human brain can only process 110 bytes of information per second so deliberately focus on high bandwidth activities that engage all your senses to filter out unwanted things.  You can also engage in benefit finding which involves deliberately trying to see the benefits when really negative things happen.

The next set of strategies are called “response focused” strategies because they are employed after you experience an emotion instead of trying to stop you from experiencing an emotion.  The first response strategy is to change your perspective on the situation and therefore your interpretation of what it means which then changes your emotional response.  And the second response strategy is called response modulation and involves either intensifying or diminishing the intensity of an emotion.  You can increase the duration and intensity of an emotion by ruminating on it.  Rumination means repeatedly rehearing the situation over and over in your mind.  You can also decrease the intensity of an emotion through deep breathing which activates the autonomic nervous system and engages the “rest and digest” mode.  You can also do the opposite of what your emotion is urging you to do to minimize them.  Contrary to popular belief, acting on emotions has been shown to intensify them and does not release them.

From a spiritual perspective, temperance, which encompasses emotional regulation, can also be a gift of the spirit.  Kent D. Watson in his talk “Temperance in all things” taught:

“In a spiritual sense, temperance is a divine attribute of Jesus Christ. He desires for each of us to develop this attribute. Learning to be temperate in all things is a spiritual gift available through the Holy Ghost. When the Apostle Paul described certain fruits of the Spirit in his Epistle to the Galatians, he talked of “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, [and] temperance.” (Galatians 5: 22‐23) (Being temperate in all things‐Kent D. Watson) 16

Avoiding Fanaticism

Temperance and self-control are also important because they allow us to live a balanced life that is not characterized by extremes.  Aristotle believed that temperance involved coordinating and mediating the other virtues by deciding how and when each should be applied. It also involves coordinating multiple goals and behaviors to make sure they do not conflict but are complementary.

Those who have not developed this character trait are at risk of becoming fanatical.  Fanaticism occurs when a person loses sight of the big picture and takes a single precept out of the context within which it is supposed to exist and elevates it above everything else.  Each of the virtues and character strengths are meant to balance and moderate each other as any single virtue taken to the extreme becomes a vice.

For example, too much kindness can become infantilizing and can undermine the independence and autonomy of the receiver.  Kindness is meant to be moderated by the other virtues such as wisdom and justice.  Likewise, justice is a virtue but taken to the extreme it can become unrelenting and oppressive.   As Shakespeare wrote in the Merchant of Venice, “Though justice be thy plea consider this, that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.”

President Dallin H. Oaks gave a great talk on avoiding fanaticism and encouraged us to live the gospel through a steady and tranquil dedication of a lifetime as opposed to a short and frenzied outburst of zealotry.   President Oaks taught:

“My first example concerns Satan’s efforts to corrupt a person who has an unusual commitment to one particular doctrine or commandment of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This could be an unusual talent for family history work, an extraordinary commitment to constitutional government, a special talent in the acquisition of knowledge, or any other special talent or commitment. Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve has likened the fulness of the gospel to a piano keyboard. He has told us that a person could be “attracted by a single key,” such as a doctrine he or she wants to hear “played over and over again. … Some members of the Church who should know better pick out a hobby key or two and tap them incessantly, to the irritation of those around them. They can dull their own spiritual sensitivities. They lose track that there is a fulness of the gospel … [which they reject] in preference to a favorite note. This becomes exaggerated and distorted, leading them away into apostasy” (Ensign, Dec. 1971, p. 42). We could say of such persons, as the Lord said of the Shakers in a revelation given in 1831, “They desire to know the truth in part, but not all” (D&C 49:2). Beware of a hobby key. If you tap one key to the exclusion or serious detriment of the full harmony of the gospel keyboard, Satan can use your strength to bring you down.” (Dallin H. Oaks-Our Strengths Can Become Our Downfall)

President Oaks gives us another example of taking one gospel principle, giving to the poor, out of context and becoming fanatical about it.  He said:

“We are commanded to give to the poor. Could the fulfillment of that fundamental Christian obligation be carried to excess? Yes, it can. I have seen it. Perhaps you have also seen persons who fulfilled the duty to give to the poor to such an excess that they impoverished their own families by expending   resources of property or time that were needed for family members.  To use an old agricultural expression, we should not eat our seed corn. Such an excess would deprive us of the ability to plant and harvest next year’s crop from which to support our families and give to the poor. King Benjamin, who commanded his people to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and administer to their relief (see Mosiah 4:26), also cautioned them to “see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength” (v. 27; see also D&C 10:4). (Dallin H. Oaks‐ The Dedication of a Life)  19: 37

The Blessings of Temperance

Generally speaking, temperance is associated with a host of positive outcomes.  For example, some studies have found that Self‐control correlates with better grades, fewer psychological problems, less hostility and more self‐esteem. Those with high self‐control are better relationship partners, have less interpersonal conflict, more empathy and more secure attachments.

Temperate people are more satisfied with life as they are able to reach their long-term goals and avoid the consequences of short-sighted hedonism.  The Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed: “Self‐respect is the fruit of discipline; the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.”

Those who live temperate lives are better able to recognize the promptings of the spirit in their lives.  President Thomas S. Monson taught: “The Apostle Paul asks in Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 26 of the Joseph Smith Translation: “Can ye be angry, and not sin? Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” I ask, is it possible to feel the Spirit of our Heavenly Father when we are angry? I know of no instance where such would be the case.” (School thy feelings, my brother‐ Thomas S. Monson)

The Book of Proverbs also warns that living an indulgent and hedonistic life will result in poverty. In Proverbs 21: 17 we read: “He that loveth pleasure shall be a poor man: he that loveth wine and oil shall not be rich.” (Proverbs 21:17)

Likewise, Proverbs 23: 20-21 teaches: “Be not among winebibbers; among riotous eaters of flesh: For the drunkard and the glutton shall come to poverty: and drowsiness shall clothe a man with rags.” (Proverbs 23: 20-21)

And finally, Temperate citizens create free and civilized societies while an indulgent citizenry eventually leads to authoritarianism.  Elder D. Todd Christofferson observed:

“The societies in which many of us live have for more than a generation failed to foster moral discipline. They have taught that truth is relative and that everyone decides for himself or herself what is right. Concepts such as sin and wrong have been condemned as “value judgments.” As the Lord describes it, “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” (D&C 1:16). As a consequence, self‐discipline has eroded and societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion. The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments. One columnist observed that “gentlemanly behavior [for example, once] protected women from coarse behavior. Today, we expect sexual harassment laws to restrain coarse behavior. . . .  “Policemen and laws can never replace customs, traditions and moral values as a means for regulating human behavior. At best, the police and criminal justice system are the last desperate line of defense for a civilized society. Our increased reliance on laws to regulate behavior is a measure of how uncivilized we’ve become.” (Moral agency‐D. Todd Christofferson)


I will close now by giving a quick summary of the main points that I have made.  I have said that temperance is the virtue of moderation in all good things and total abstinence from evil things.  I have focused on two sub-strengths of temperance that include prudence and self-regulation.  Prudence refers to the ability to resist short-term impulses to achieve long-term goals while self-regulation refers to controlling excesses in general.  I have examined some of the research that shows that these character strengths are associated with a wide range of positive outcomes while failing to develop these strengths is associated with almost every societal ill you could think of.  I also argued that temperance is an essential virtue as it involves coordinating and moderating the rest of the virtues.  I cautioned against fanaticism and authoritarianism which are inevitable outcomes of failing to develop this character strength.

I testify that temperance and self-mastery are essential Christ-like character traits that are prerequisites for service in the Lord’s Kingdom and for eventual salvation and exaltation.  I also testify that the Holy Spirit has borne witness to me that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only name given under heaven whereupon men can be saved.  He is the light and life of the world and the author of salvation. I testify also that this church alone has the fulness of the gospel and the priesthood keys to direct the work of salvation on this earth.  I leave this message with you in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.


Dallin H. Oaks – Our Strengths Can Become our Downfalls

Balance Pie