Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Cultivating self-control, pt. I :
A practical guide to the 21-day discipline

Self-control is rare fruit in our culture these days. It cannot be called a celebrated virtue in a society whose economy is structured around the principle of instant gratification. That is not to say that the desire for it is lacking: witness the flood of interest in diets and the ubiquity and irony of visually impressive magazines with "simple" in the title.

And yet self-control is not often sought with success.

Christ-followers are frequently exhorted to self-control in the Scriptures:
  • Proverbs 25:28: Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.
  • Galatians 5:23: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
  • 1 Thessalonians 5:6: So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.
  • And quite a few others: search Bible Gateway...

We know from his comments in Colossians that these are not intended to be heard as a call to the ascetic practices of monks, but rather a reminder that strict behavioral rules (no matter how harshly enforced) won't get us anywhere because they do not address the root problem: the need for total transformation of the person. Elsewhere (Philippians 2, 1 John 2:3-6, Galatians 5:16-26), we learn that this sort of transformation is not only possible but that followers of Jesus ought to expect such transformation to be an ongoing part of their discipleship.

The Holy Spirit has charge of the more difficult part of the process: making new our minds and hearts, reorienting them toward their original purposes in God's gracious ordering of His Creation. What part then do we play in this process?

Our part is the intentional application of our will toward forming new patterns of behavior that correspond to our new identity in Christ. Put another way, we must decide to change our current behavior and habits of mind with behavior and habits of mind appropriate to a disciple of Jesus.

Of course this is much harder to put into practice than it is to describe. For any behavior worth addressing, it is nearly impossible simply to decide to change. "From now on, I'll stop thinking those thoughts forever." Hardly. But that is not to say that the will is helpless in the face of such behaviors and habits of mind. What is needed is to use the will in conjunction with the rational mind, applying what we know of the human creature and his nature to create new habits that honor Christ.

It has long been known that repetition of a specific behavior over a span of several weeks can result in the establishment of that behavior in the subconscious. Recent studies have shown that this period reaches its highest potential at 21 days. This means that if you repeat a specific behavior in its appropriate daily context for 21 days, then it has the potential of becoming an ingrained habit.

In forthcoming articles, we'll look at the 21-day discipline in more detail:

  • Choosing a behavior to address and preparing to begin the 21 days
  • Beginning, sustaining, and finishing the 21-day discipline
  • Nourishing the behavior over the long term
Have any experience with intentionally forming habits you'd like to share? Describe them in the comments!


Studyhound said...

Why do you have a pop art picture of Richard Nixon in a post about Spiritual disciplines?

Nice Blog BTW.

Jake Shore said...

Great start to your new blog. This seems timely to me because I find myself lacking the will to excercise much self-control in any area of my life right now. I like what you have to say about matching our will with our rational minds, trying to find ways to be effective by understanding how we develop disciplines. The motivation and inspiration that drove my disciplines in the past revolved around some insecurities and proving something to myself and my family. Now, feeling secure with the relationships around me, I struggle to find the motivation and strength of will to fuel my desire to improve myself.

Thanks for the post. I hope we can put this stuff to good use personally and in our faith community.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, bro. I'm digging the site.