A new year looms on the horizon and with it, thoughts of new beginnings, life changes, the sloughing off of old, destructive habits, etc, etc. If there is a practice that is more widely and enthusiastically embraced with less empirical evidence to ground its optimism than the New Year’s Resolution, I am not aware of it. Rare is the occasion when our resolve makes it past, say January 15. It’s just too difficult to control ourselves.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been sporadically dipping into a book called Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. Among the topics addressed by the authors are our (in)ability to control ourselves, the source of willpower, how to maximize it, and why it is such an elusive commodity.
One of the interesting things that research into this “greatest human strength” is showing is that willpower is a resource that we have in very finite quantities, and that rather than screwing up our determination to just control ourselves, a more suitable approach would be to manage and distribute it wisely. As is the case with any expenditure of energy, our willpower reserves are depleted with use. So, if you’ve spent the morning heroically resisting that piece of chocolate cake or cigarette, chances are you’re not going to have as much in the tank to hit the treadmill in the afternoon or tackle that disciplined reading program in the evening. When it comes to willpower, the general message of this book seems to be that you’ve only got so much of it, so decide how you’re going to use it.
By contrast, biblical injunctions to self-control seem downright simplistic. Hopelessly naive, even! Over and over, in the Apostle Paul’s letters, the stark command rings out: “be self-controlled.” “Put off what is evil and destructive.” “Put on the new (better) self!” “Just do it!” Paul clearly knows little about such things as “ego-depletion” and the crucial contrast between “short-term and long-term payoffs.” Paul obviously has a minimal understanding of the limited nature of our willpower reservoirs and the complexities of managing them for maximal personal/social benefit. “Be self-controlled?!” As if things were that simple.
And yet… The Bible’s portrayal of human nature is also accurate, if in different ways from the picture painted by the behavioural scientists. The language employed in describing the problem is somewhat different, as are the resources offered for addressing it and the ends to which willpower is thought to be best employed. But both bear witness to the basic truth that is poetically expressed by the wisdom writers: “Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25:28). Both agree that an undisciplined life is foolish, dangerous, and destructive. Both agree that exercising the muscles of self-control is a crucial part of what it means to flourish as human beings.
Ultimately, of course, self-control is a gift. And, like all of God’s good gifts, it is a gift that we can live into. Like all of God’s gifts, self-control is something we can work into our lives and do what we can to make it an expression of who we are as God’s children. We can employ the helpful resources and insights yielded by scientific research to bear the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24). Perhaps more importantly, though, as followers of Jesus we can live according to our conviction that, whatever it might feel like at any given moment, we are always in the process of putting on our new selves—selves that are “being renewed” in the knowledge and image of our Creator (Colossians 3:9-11).