One of the core questions I have been wrestling with for the last three years is how a
person actually changes. I have been wrestling both for myself and for those I am responsible for in the church.
At the core of the question is how it is possible for a person to make choices and not simply be determined by their circumstances or feelings. I agree with Roy F. Baumeister who wrote “Self-regulation failure is the major social pathology of our time”
I have just finished reading the New York Times best-seller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierny.
One of the interesting things that emerge in the book is that all of us have a finite amount of willpower (the ability to choose against our impulses). The other interesting finding is that:
You use the same supply of willpower to deal with frustrating traffic, tempting food, annoying colleagues, demanding bosses, pouting children.
The researchers have identified four different kinds of willpower:
- The control of thoughts
- The control of emotions
- The control of impulses:
- Perseverance of focus.
The authors are both self-described agnostics, spend a lot of time in the book trying to explore why religious people experience tangible benefits in the development of health and willpower from their faith. They report that:
Religious people are less likely than others to develop unhealthy habits, like getting drunk, engaging in risky sex, taking illicit drugs, and smoking cigarettes. They’re more likely to wear seat belts, visit a dentist, and take vitamins. They have better social support, and their faith helps them cope psychologically with misfortunes. And they have better self-control, as McCullough and his colleague at the University of Miami, Brian Willoughby, recently concluded after analyzing hundreds of studies of religion and self-control over eight decades.
While the authors have to struggle to explain why faith seems to work as a framework for life, it is not a surprise for people who read their bibles or who are familiar with church history.
The book of Proverbs (Proverbs 25:28 NIV) gives a great analogy of the importance of Self Control:
Like a city whose walls are broken through
is a person who lacks self control.
Galatians 5:23 tell us that Self Control is one of the “fruits” that indicate the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In 2 Timothy, Paul declares that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” (2 Timothy 1:7 ESV)
I am interested how the sociological data about Willpower ends up sounding a lot like what people in the middle ages called “virtue”. A few weeks ago I quoted N.T. Wright who wrote:
“Virtue, in this strict sense, is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices, requiring effort and concentration, to do something which is good and right but which doesn’t “come naturally”—and then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required “automatically,” as we say”
I am indebted to Baumeister and Tierny for showing me just how beneficial my faith is.
There are a number of deep, inter-related reasons for the profound impact faith has on our lives and ability to make choices.
The first is that religion gives a broad framework of meaning with big goals like “seeking first the kingdom of God”, “Loving the Lord your God” and “Loving your neighbour as yourself.” It turns out that these big, abstract principles are much more important than a more “live in the moment” approach to life. The authors write:
The results showed that a narrow, concrete, here-and-now focus works against self-control, whereas a broad, abstract, long-term focus supports it. That’s one reason why religious people score relatively high in measures of self-control and why nonreligious people … can benefit by other kinds of transcendent thoughts and enduring ideals
They also believe the data shows that religion gives a clearer narrative to explain life, and therefore enables people to more successfully deal with it:
Religion reduces people’s inner conflicts among different goals and values. As we noted earlier, conflicting goals impede self-regulation, so it appears that religion reduces such problems by providing believers with clearer priorities.
Baumeister and Tierny also believe that time spent in disciplined prayer and other spiritual disciplines, strengthens a persons willpower more generally:
Religious believers build self-control by regularly forcing themselves to interrupt their daily routines in order to pray.
They also believe that a believer’s understanding that God cares about their behaviour enhances their ability to self monitor, which has been shown to be an essential element in developing self control. They state that:
Religion also improves the monitoring of behavior, another of the central steps to self-control. Religious people tend to feel that someone important is watching them. That monitor might be God, a supernatural being who pays attention to what you do and think, often even knowing your innermost thoughts and reasons, and can’t be easily fooled.
The final reason that they give for the effectiveness of religion in building self control, is that it establishes “Bright Lines”, a framework of fundamental values, of lines that a person will not cross. They write:
Once you’re committed to following a bright-line rule, your present self can feel confident that your future self will observe it, too. And if you believe that the rule is sacred—a commandment from God, the unquestionable law of a higher power—then it becomes an especially bright line.
Interestingly, you can’t fake it:
Psychologists have found that people who attend religious services for extrinsic reasons, like wanting to impress others or make social connections, don’t have the same high level of self-control as the true believers. McCullough concludes that the believers’ self-control comes not merely from a fear of God’s wrath but from the system of values they’ve absorbed, which gives their personal goals an aura of sacredness.
As it turns out, faith is good for you in many different ways, including strengthening the part of you that makes decisions. We human beings are wired to do better when we have faith than when we don’t. This is exactly what you would expect to be true of people created in the Image of a triune God.
It seems to me the role of faith in the formation of willpower and emotional health is one of the strongest arguments against Atheism. Paul was right when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:24:
It is by faith you stand firm.
At the end of the day though, the research does point out that even if you have a lot of willpower, your reserves are finite. Perhaps the term “losing it” is actually a very accurate description of what happens when the willpower tank runs dry.
If is in those moments that I find myself needing to trust that David is right when he writes in Psalm 142:
When my spirit grows faint within me, it is you who watch over my way.
I want to grow, and I know that Jesus keeps inviting me to become healthier and healthier, but I will never get to the point when I have all the willpower I need not to need Him to be watching over my way.