Scripture: Judges 13-16; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 4:8; Colossians 3:1-10; Hebrews 12:1, 2; 1 John 2:15, 16.
Psychologist Walter Mischel conducted an experiment in 1970 on self-control.1 He left a succession of 4-year-olds in a room with two items: a bell and a marshmallow. They were told that if they picked up the bell and rang it, Mischel would enter the room and allow them to eat the marshmallow. However, if they didn’t ring the bell and waited patiently for him to return on his own, they would be given two marshmallows to eat. A video camera documented the experiment. Children could be seen squirming, kicking and hiding their eyes as they desperately tried to use self-control so that they could receive two marshmallows. As to be expected, their behavior varied widely. Some children just couldn’t wait and rang the bell within a minute. Others had the strength to wait for up to 15 minutes.
But the experiment didn’t end there. Mischel followed these children into adulthood. Those who waited longer to ring the bell scored higher SAT scores. They were accepted into better colleges, and on average, had better outcomes as adults. In contrast, the children who rang the bell the quickest were more likely to become bullies. Ten years later, at the age of 14, they received low parent and teacher evaluation scores. And at age 32, they were more likely to have drug problems.
Mischel’s experiment proves the importance of self-control, and how necessary it is to learn at an early age. But not all of us learned early. And if even if we did, life is still full of challenges and choices where self-control is needed. If you find yourself lacking in the self-control department, try these helpful guidelines from Bo Bennett, author of Year to Success.2
1. Master your time. Make sure your time is spent on things that bring you towards your goals, rather than farther from them.
2. Focus on true desires. Don’t set your goals on the back burner. Keep them written where you can see and read them on a daily basis. Make the desire to achieve your goals greater than the desire for instant gratification.
3. Link pain and pleasure. Associate that pain comes from acting out your every desire, where pleasure comes from reaching your goals. Use your imagination and think of what your life will be like if you act on your desires, in contrast to reaching your goals through self-discipline.
4. Build your self-esteem. You need to care enough about yourself and your life to care enough to be self-disciplined. Believe that your life is worth having in control.
5. Sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term happiness. There is a big difference between pleasure and happiness. You can have lots of indulgences and yet be miserable. Self-discipline toward goals that you meet brings true happiness.
6. Beware of excuses, rationalizations, and justifications. Don’t listen to the thoughts that try to sell you on gratification, excusing every possible consequence. Be aware when this does happen and reject it.
7. Think about both the short and long-term consequences of actions. If your goal is to lose weight, then look at that dessert in front of you and take a moment to think. If you eat it, you’ll experience guilt, a lack of self-control, and be set back from your long-term goal.
Self-control plays a major role in our lives as Christians. It’s imperative to our spiritual growth, yet it doesn’t happen without discipline. And, it doesn’t happen overnight. But every time we say “no” to an indulgence that would harm us, we become a little bit stronger. And every time we say “yes” to what is good for us, we see and feel the benefits.
Paul likened the Christian life to a race. Think of it as a race from birth on this earth to Heaven. All along the way there will be choices. All along the way we will need to ask ourselves, “Is this behavior helping me toward my goal?” If not, we need to walk away. Because nothing on this earth is worth keeping if we lose at the end of the race. Let’s not trade earthly indulgences for Heaven’s eternal gratifications.