Drew Dyck, whose day job is as editor at Moody Publishers (and was once editor for CT’s Leadership Journal), has written a book that provides the foundation for the most difficult thing for most of us: Getting ourselves to overcome temptations and setting good habits so that our lives can be more what God wants for us: A life of freedom and flourishing.
That’s a huge claim. I know.
Having been a Christian for nearly 30 years, I can say that self-control and overcoming bad habits is the most difficult aspect of trying to be a disciple. Which is not good, since it is foundational to the whole enterprise!
What makes this book unique is that Drew has done a lot of research on the subject, including the insights of the Bible and also the insights from specialists in brain science. It should not surprise us that what the scientists are finding in the general revelation from God found in science lines up with the special revelation from God found in the Scriptures.
Further, this book is unique because of how easy it is to read and understand. Drew has the gift of taking what he’s learned at a deep level and communicating it in succinct and humorous prose. You won’t get lost in the complexities of all the research studies or in the deep teachings of Scripture. Drew makes it all very accessible.
The Enigma of Self-Control
He defines Self-Control as “the ability to do the right thing, even when you don’t feel like it.” But he adds that for a Christian, that “right thing” “has been determined by God. He knows what is best for us…Self-control, then, is about listening and obeying. It’s not self-determined. It means submitting every decision we make to God. It’s about surrendering. When we do this consistently, it’s called self-control.”
This is the enigma of self-control. It is a “fruit of the Spirit” as listed in Galatians 5:22-23. Fruit is produce – and produce is grown from “the Spirit,” not from my own power. So, despite what we might think SELF-control means, it is not something that we conjure up all on our own.
But we can, and must, cooperate with God’s Spirit to bring it about. That’s the trick.
My Willpower Muscles are Weak
But we usually go about it the wrong way. We think we can muster enough willpower to overcome temptations and set ourselves on the right track. But the problem is that most of us have weak willpower muscles.
He cites a study in which college students (a group of people I am very familiar with!) who had been fasting were placed in a room with a table with a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies next to a bowl of radishes. One group was only permitted to eat the radishes. The other was free to eat the cookies. Can you imagine the temptation? “The radish-only students eyed the cookies with longing. A few picked up the forbidden treats and sniffed them before returning them to the plate.”
But here’s the twist in the story: These students were led to another room where they were told to solve a geometry puzzle, which unbeknownst to the students, was impossible to solve. “The participants who had eaten the cookies dramatically outperformed those who had eaten radishes. It wasn’t even close. Those who had consumed the delicious cookies struggled with the puzzle for about twenty minutes before calling it quits. The radish-eaters lasted only eight minutes, less than half as long.”The finding is this: Resisting the cookies drained those students’ willpower. The researcher called it “ego depletion,” and it proved that “willpower is a finite resource, one that can be depleted.”
Use Your Willpower Muscles to Develop Good Habits
The moral of this story is this: When we are trying to develop self-control, we can’t depend on our willpower to make it happen because we have only so much of it!
So, the best strategy is to use our willpower strategically. We need to stop trying to use our willpower to overcome temptations and rather use it to begin good habits. Why? Because habits, once developed, do not need so much conscious effort. Habits are behaviors that are more subconscious than conscious, and therefore they use less emotional and mental energy to do. So, the best use of willpower is this: “Outsource the work of willpower to the factory of habit.”
Developing Holy Habits
Drew writes, “The key to living a holy life isn’t simply to out-battle temptation at every turn. It’s to build righteous patterns into your life.” Habits are more reliable in establishing a more holy life.
He quotes Jamie Smith, who says that God knows we are creatures of habit, and “thus our gracious, redeeming God meets us where we are by giving us Spirit-empowered, heart-calibrating, habit-forming practices to retrain our loves.” In his book, You Are What You Love, Smith makes the case that we need to replace the habits that the world has instilled in us and re-embrace the liturgical habits and rhythms that the church provides to recalibrate our desires. When we embrace these holy habits, we are better able to overcome temptation, better maintain self-control, and more capable to love God and others as we are supposed to.
Research has shown how habits are formed. They have three distinct parts:
- A Cue: a trigger or external signal that prompts us to go into that automatic behavior.
- A Routine: The repeated behavior we do each time.
- A Reward: Some sort of payoff that makes us want to do that behavior.
So, in trying to rid ourselves of bad habits, we need to identify these three parts that keep us in that habit. And we need to replace those things with things that are actually good for us. Perhaps the cue is the same, but we can force ourselves into a different routine (that will become second-nature as we repeat it and repeat it) and we can reward ourselves in som e way to rewire our brains to want to do that new behavior.
Foundational Teaching for a More Holy Life
Drew Dyck has given the church a rare gift with this book. It is deep without being bogged down in its depth. He builds on great foundations in the early chapters: In the first chapter, he makes the case that God wants all of us to flourish (my favorite concept, Shalom!).
Then in chapter two, he explains that seeking self-control for selfish reasons is a contradiction because paradoxically, loving God and others is the best thing for our own spiritual health. “Ultimately, self-control isn’t about you. It’s about surrendering to God’s purposes for you. And its not about getting success or money or power. In the end it’s about love.”
He also makes the extremely important connection between calling and self-control. Those with “sanctified goals,” who have embraced the God-given callings we each have as our purposes, which are tied to our identity as image-bearers of God, have yet another divine foundation for self-control.
You should read this book. Your future self will thank you.
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