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There’s a test that has been done on kids since the 60’s that measures their ability to have self-control. You may have heard of this test before, or have seen the video, where a team of psychologists give kids a marshmallow and tell them that if they can refrain from eating it until the psychologists return, they will give them a second marshmallow. Some children pass the test; however, most kids eat it or at least take a couple of bites, but why? Why would they choose to eat one marshmallow now when they can have two later?
New studies on self-control
A new study by Alexander Soutschek at the University of Zurich suggests that self-control is influenced by your right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ). This is the area of your brain that has long been linked to empathy and selflessness. But Soutschek, by using magnetic fields to shut down the rTPJ, has shown that it’s also involved in self-control.
Self-control is present you taking a hit to help out future you.
Ed Yong in his article, “Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self” unpacks Soutschek’s study:
“Empathy depends on your ability to overcome your perspective, appreciate someone else’s, and step into their shoes. Self-control is essentially the same skill, except that those other shoes belong to your future self—a removed and hypothetical entity who might as well be a different person. So think of self-control as a kind of temporal selflessness. It’s Present You taking a hit to help out Future You.”
The reason the children chose to eat the marshmallow in the marshmallow test, is because they could not see the benefit that their future self would enjoy if they only waited. Their desire for instant gratification cost them in the end.
This, however, is not only a problem for children. We see this today in multiple areas, including credit card debt. Experian, one of the three main credit bureaus, reports that the typical consumer in America has an average of 2.35 credit cards as of 2016. (Note: These are only bank credit cards and do not include retail credit cards.) And with those cards, Experian found that the average balance on bank cards in America in 2016 is $5,551.
How do we have self-control in areas of our lives where it doesn’t come easy?
There are certain things that come easily to us when it comes to self-control. For example, I have no problem with abstaining from eating exorbitant amounts of brussel sprouts; however, there are other things that take more self-control or can’t be accomplished by my efforts alone. My ability to have self-control in these things does not come from my will power. It is a gift.
Jesus, as He is explaining to His disciples that He is leaving soon, tells them not to be troubled. He says that they will not be alone because He will ask God the Father to send them a Helper: the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will dwell with them and be with them forever. This promise is for all of Jesus’ disciples. Every Christian can know that the Spirit is with us, and as the Spirit is with us, He produces things in us.
Much like a tree produces fruit, the Spirit produces fruit in us. One of this fruit is self-control. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace . . . self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23).
If you do not destroy the things that hinder the Spirit’s work, they will ultimately destroy the Spirit’s work in you.
Puritan pastor John Owen in his book, Overcoming Sin and Temptation speaks to the necessity of the Spirit’s help when it comes to self-control. Owen understood that a person might make it for a short time through their will power or ability, but if they want to walk in the kind of authority that gives them the capacity to control their desires and passions, whether good or bad, they must have the power of the Spirit working through them.
He goes on through his discourse to deliver his famous line, “be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” Essentially what Owen is saying here, is that your spiritual vitality is at stake, and if you do not destroy the things that hinder the Spirit’s work, they will ultimately destroy the Spirit’s work in you.
If there is no power of the Spirit to give you self-control over your life, how can you overcome the eating disorder, lust, greed, anxiety, or whatever else you may deal with? The answer: you can’t; at least not long term. Whatever sin, hurt, or suffering you are dealing with cannot be overcome on your own. You need the power of God.
This is why the Apostle Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:6-7,
“I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
We must understand that like all other gifts of the Spirit; we grow in them through practice and repetition. We grow in self-control by doing things that fan the flame of the Spirit’s work in us.
How do we fan the flame of the Spirit’s work in us?
1. Pray and spend time in God’s Word.
Schedule a time where you can get away. Go to a place where you can be distraction free, separate yourself from your phone, and give yourself to reading large portions of Scripture and calling on God.
As you read through Scripture and pray, it reminds you of the grace you have received through Jesus, and it cultivates a greater desire for God. This is what the Word of God is for. God didn’t give us His Word for mere information. He gave us His Word for transformation.
God didn’t give us His Word for mere information. He gave us His Word for transformation.
2. Be in Church!
Puritan pastor David Clarkson said: “[Corporate] worship is the nearest resemblance of Heaven that earth knows.” Now eternity will not be just an unending church service, but we will be consumed in a joyous, celebratory multitude of fellow worshipers.
There is something uniquely powerful about being with our church family that allows us to experience a brief glance of eternity and fans the flame of the Spirit in our lives.
Donald Whitney in his book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life says, “Christians are called to make themselves, by the Spirit’s power, do what they would not naturally do…in order to experience what the Spirit gives them a desire to be, that is, to be with Christ and like Christ. ‘Discipline yourself,’ says the Scripture, ‘for the purpose of godliness’ (NASB).”
Self-control is not a do it yourself project. You cannot do it on your own. You need God’s help, and the great thing is He wants to help you. He has promised to help you.