Recently I read a great article about willpower and self-discipline (“Can You Control Yourself?” by Bradley Wright with David Carreon, Christianity Today, May 2017). The author, who is a Christian social scientist, talks about his research into self-control. Research has found that people with more self-control live longer, are happier, are less depressed, have better health, and have stronger marriages. Self-control is a good thing – it is even listed as one of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23).
Self-control, simply defined, is controlling your impulses – doing what you don’t want to do or not doing what you want to do. Wright uses one of Plato’s analogies – it is like a trainer on top of an elephant. The elephant is our natural impulses; the trainer is our willpower. Here is his main point: self-control is not like a power switch; it is like a muscle – it gets weaker when it is used but can be strengthened with use.
His research shows that those who have used their willpower are more likely to give up when a new challenge arose. Psychologist Roy Baumeister did an experiment where a group of college students were told to skip a meal, so they were hungry. They were then sat at a table with cookies, candy, and radishes. The first group was brought in and could eat whatever they wanted (using no willpower). The second group was told they could eat only the radishes (lots of willpower). The third group had no food on the table (used no willpower). They were then asked to solve an impossible geometry problem. Groups one and three stopped after 20 minutes. Group two stopped after 8 minutes. They had already used much of their willpower.
Our willpower is not an infinite resource. Like a muscle, it gets tired after use. This is why we need to pay attention to our rest and sleep. Without rest, our willpower is weak and we are open to temptation – the elephant will go wherever it wants, and it can cause a lot of damage. Self-control is also like a muscle in that it can get stronger with use. Studies have shown that those who exercise their self-control have more of it. These people have learned how to start and keep good habits in their lives. For big habits, this is more than “just do it”; it is finding small, easy routines to get started, followed by reward. These small habits grow into larger habits, and the big habit is formed.
Self-control is part of God’s plan to redeem us. God’s grace is working in every Christian to refine our character. I heard someone say, “Christians get to the point where they want God’s strength before they sin more than His forgiveness after.” As we cooperate with God, He grows more and more self-control in our lives, which leads to more fulfilling lives.