The Return of Restraint

In a day when explicit sex scenes are almost mandatory in any movie romance, one Academy Award-winning film bucks the trend and strikes a deep chord with American audiences. This, despite the fact that in the movie, Sense and Sensibility, the main characters never even kiss until after they are engaged to be married. What do audiences find so alluring about Sense and Sensibility? The film is a celebration of a concept long ridiculed by Hollywood: that true love is the wedding of passion and self-control. In the film, based on Jane Austin’s classic novel, two sisters struggle with affairs of the heart. Marianne, the younger, falls heedlessly in love with an untrustworthy young man. When the young man runs off with someone else, she is devastated. Meanwhile her older sister, Elinor, discovers that the man she loves is engaged to someone else. Even though he is unhappy in his engagement, she refuses to encourage him to break it—reasoning that his honor is more important than any passion she may feel. In the end Elinor’s virtue is rewarded by true love, and Marianne finds happiness with a man who is distinguished by his persevering faithfulness. The surprising popularity and critical success of Sense and Sensibility has sent critics scrambling for an explanation. Newsweek columnist Evan Thomas attempts to explain it as the nostalgic desire for a return to Victorian morality. In the world of Sense and Sensibility, he says, people are rewarded for doing what they know to be right even when it conflicts with their desires. Thomas notes that Americans have made a virtue out of immediate gratification—regardless of the consequences for other people. He concludes that a little restraint might not be a bad thing after all. “We may be selfish animals at heart,” he writes, “but we can at least pretend. A little hypocrisy is not always a bad thing.” It is hypocrisy to act with self-restraint? Here Thomas is simply parroting the philosophy of secularized, post-Christian culture, which believes that the highest good is found in simply following our desires. To act contrary to our feelings is to be a hypocrite. Thomas can be commended for at least questioning the cult of immediate gratification, but resorting to—as he puts it—”a little hypocrisy” isn’t the answer. What is required is a genuine return to plain old self-control—a virtue as old as Christianity itself. The Bible teaches chastity because passion can reach its full potential only when it is combined with restraint. That’s why in the Old Testament we find the same Hebrew word used for the concepts of heart and will. As Elinor makes clear in Sense and Sensibility, the head must control the heart. And that’s why movies like Sense and Sensibility strike a chord with audiences—because they exalt a profound truth that has been lost in contemporary culture. So treat yourself and a friend to a night at the theater. And take the opportunity to explain true love—from God’s point of view.  


Chuck Colson


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