Self-control – the importance of willpower


“God did not give us a spirit of timidity,” writes the apostle Paul to Timothy, “ but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7.

We often talk about the spirit of power, particularly since the charismatic renewal. Love, of course, continues to have a high profile
– in our teaching although not always in our lifestyle. But self discipline? Certainly since the 1960s, the Victorian virtue of self-discipline has been out of favour . “If it feels right, then just do it” sings Aimee Allen.

At the moment I am reading a superb book by Baumeister (Florida State University social psychologist) and Tierney (a journalist with the New York Times). It’s on – wait for it – self-discipline. I came across it reviewed in the Guardian and my response was to head straight to Amazon to buy “Willpower, rediscovering our greatest strength.”

For self discipline, otherwise known as willpower, is back. Just in time, folks, for Lent. So concentrate.

It seems that self discipline/willpower makes all the difference.
You’ve always known that, but it’s even more important than we thought. 40 years ago, for example, toddlers in New Zealand were given the option of having one marshmallow now and two marshmallows five minutes later.

Those who held out for two marshmallows later grew into healthier, happier and wealthier adults. And the converse. Those with low willpower fared less well in every area of life.

“Willpower,” concludes Baumeister, “is one of the most important predictors of success in life.”

Of course, the Bible has always taught the importance of self control:
after all it is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. So the apostle
writes: “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.
They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever.” 1 Corinthians 9:25

But what makes this book especially fascinating is to show how we can develop our self-discipline. Like any muscle being exercised in training, it become stronger. And exercising self-control in one area seems to improve all areas of life. Learning to say “NO” to chocolate for example, for a specific length of time will improve your ability to say no to temptations across the board.

It helps if there is a clear goal over a specific length of time, like 40 days!

But to see self-control as a muscle has another important benefit, one which I knew intuitively but never really worked out.

When my good friend Ken became a Christian, he was a heavy smoker. All the pressure was for him to give up smoking but it realised that such a struggle would take over his life when there were more important priorities for the Holy Spirit. He decided to keep on smoking and allow the Holy Spirit to work deep within his personality – and then later he would have the opportunity to resist smoking.

This is what actually happened. Today Ken is the chairman for Youth for Christ (and I am copying him in to this email).

For the point is we only have so much energy for our self-discipline.
We need to decide priorities. Don’t try to do too much at once.
Establish good habits and routines that will take the strain off your willpower. Only have a few items, for example, on your to-do list!

I’m still reading the book and there are some fascinating insights into self-discipline. One which rings bells for me personally is that our self-discipline is improved by having a tidy environment. For myself I cannot work on an untidy desk. “Tidy desk, tidy mind,” taught Mr Aspinall, my teacher in J4. He was right.

So there you are – an encouragement to keep the Lenten disciplines.
Like the discipline of joining one of our Lent groups or reading a Lent book or even to give up chocolate, just for 40 days (Sundays excluded, of course.)

Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday: we have a special informal service of holy Communion at 7:30 PM in the ministry centre to launch our Lent course.

Finally, have you noticed any difference in this week’s blog?

Last Thursday I managed to do a nosedive down the ice-covered church steps to the A59. And in doing so managed a Colles fracture on my left wrist. So in the spirit of seizing an opportunity from a crisis, I decided to invest in speech recognition software. I am using Dragon dictate 2.5 for Mac. It cost an arm and a leg but when you have only one arm, it’s worth it.

It is utterly unbelievable! I just speak and there are my words on the screen. You may not believe this but when I said Baumeister it typed the word Baumeister!

I’m still learning though. And so is the software. So when I say Christchurch Aughton it says Christchurch autumn!