Larry (name changed) was a content father, one who loved laughing and eating. He could always be depended on to share his hidden stash of sweets. He enjoyed celebrations of all kinds and the foods that went with them.
One day, when he was in his early 60s, Larry went to his doctor for a checkup. Blood work showed he was pre-diabetic. As the doctor broke the diagnosis to Larry, he also explained the potential life-changes that would follow due to this self-inflicted disease. Scared for his health and its effects on his family and future, Larry vowed to never eat candy or dessert again. He began exercising more and slowly lost much of his excess weight.
A few years later found Larry at another checkup. This time he mentioned to his doctor that, while exercising, he felt unusually winded. Another test verified several of the arteries in Larry’s heart were blocked and a triple bypass surgery was required. After his surgery, doctors explained how beneficial Larry’s previous lifestyle changes had been. If he hadn’t exercised self-mastery earlier, it was likely Larry would have discovered his heart condition via a heart attack and possible death.
Dr. Russell M. Nelson, a retired heart surgeon and one of the pioneers in aortic valve replacement, declared, “A strong human spirit with control over appetites of the flesh is master over emotions and passions and not a slave to them.” Larry’s days of unhealthy eating were enjoyable but he found greater, more lasting, happiness when he exercised self-mastery.
Use and misuse of appetites
We have strong, God-given appetites. Whether sexual, physical, emotional or spiritual, our bodies naturally crave certain things. The sexual appetite helps populate the earth. Our desire for food helps us live. The desire to be loved helps nurture our families. Our need for a spiritual connection helps us strive to be closer to God.
However, any time our natural appetites are misused we find ourselves in trouble. Giving into sexual temptations can bring about illness, fractured families and broken hearts. Too little, or an overabundance of, food is unhealthy for our bodies. Deviating from appropriate love or withholding love can be damaging and has the possibility of perpetuating through generations. When we attempt to fill our spiritual needs with anything other than God, our retarded efforts never truly satisfy our souls. Not only do our bad habits hurt us, but they harm our families as well. Overcoming our vices will be beneficial for us personally and will help encourage and strengthen our families.
It’s easy to look at our self-mastery problems and decide our weaknesses are too strong, the temptations are too hard and that we’ll never be able to rule over our appetites. But gaining self-mastery over large temptations can be easier when we focus on something smaller first.
Many people struggle with smoking. Addicted to this harmful habit, they wish they could stop. But nicotine is a powerful drug, one that traps its users and makes it difficult for them to leave alone. Quitting this habit, however, can be made easier by giving up a few meals.
Let’s say an individual, Mary, smokes two packs of cigarettes a day and would like to stop. However, she is very hesitant to do so even though she worries about the example she is setting for her children. Maybe she’s tried in the past to conquer this habit and has met with disappointment. Now, not only does Mary feel guilty and self-conscious over her nicotine habit, but she also battles with feelings of failure over past efforts.
One way we can practice controlling our appetites is through fasting. When we fast, we are exerting control over one of our very basic corporeal needs: eating food. Going without this food causes discomfort and forces us to exert our mental muscles as we force reason over appetites.
When used correctly, fasting can help us grow closer to God. The practice of fasting has been extolled by Plato, Socrates and Galen. Today, every major religious group practices fasting for spiritual benefits. Not only can fasting be physically beneficial, but when coupled with prayer and meditation, it can be extremely spiritually rewarding and mentally invigorating.
If Mary were to implement fasting two to three consecutive meals once or twice a month, she would start strengthening her self-mastery. After making fasting a habit, she would quickly realize just how capable she is. She would soon feel not only empowered, but closer to God. Eventually, once she became comfortable with fasting, Mary would be ready to tackle her nicotine habit. But now she would be armed with the knowledge of how powerful her spirit is. She would have a greater understanding of her mental will-power and a history of fasting examples to buoy her up.
Changing our natural inclinations, especially those that stubbornly persist, can be difficult and at times depressing. We’ll make mistakes, many of them, as we try to overcome our cravings. When errors are made we need to try again. Often those errors can be useful tools, helping us analyze what may be faulty with our previous attempts and leading us to change tactics. It is only when we dwell on mistakes, instead of learning from them, that they become hindrances. When we rebound from our mistakes, not only do our spirits persevere, but our children learn from our examples that quitting is never an option.
Many think real freedom means doing whatever their hearts desire. But actions have consequences. For years Larry thought he enjoyed freedom over food because he ate whatever he wanted. What he didn’t realize, until it was almost too late, was that his choices came with serious side effects for himself and his family. Just like Larry, our physical appetites have consequences attached to them as well. Whether we enjoy the rewards from our self-mastery or experience repercussions from its lack, is up to us. Happiness is just around the corner; by exerting our wills now we can find it sooner.