Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Cultivating self-control, pt. II:
Preparing to begin a 21-day discipline

In the previous article, we discussed the role intention and will play in the cultivation of self-control. I suggested 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. This new habit is then an ally rather than an obstacle in the establishment and maintenance of self-control.

Let us look at the preparations that are helpful before setting out on a new 21-day discipline.

First, we wait on God. To begin is not to choose at random some habit which we covet or fancy; rather, it is to come before God humbly, allowing the perspectives and wisdom of Scripture to inform our self-understanding. Then, immersed in prayer, we wait for guidance. The mere act of stopping and waiting (a rare enough event in our crowded world) can often reveal a misplaced priority or an important insight in plain view. The intent of this initial silence before beginning is intended to keep us from bandaging a scratch while a more serious wound goes untended. How long is long enough? A little practice ought to reveal what is appropriate for each person. Three days, perhaps, is the least we ought to devote to waiting on God for such an important endeavor, but neither should we wait too long; longer than five days and we are stalling.

Second, we must clearly and accurately define the behavior we shall address. We must be specific. Do we wish to become more generous with our money, trusting God to provide? Then make it specific: is this discipline about spending less or giving more? Is it directed toward stopping a behavior in progress, such as impulse spending? Or is it directed toward creating a new behavior, such as setting aside money with which to be generous? In this part of the process, we must take care not to try to do too much. Especially at first, it is better to embark on a 21-day journey with a simple goal and to emerge victorious than to attempt a much more difficult one and fail. One other note at this stage: the structure of the 21-day discipline is directed toward behaviors which occur or should occur at least daily. Otherwise, we would not have opportunity to practice the behavior in a way that causes it to become ingrained.

Third, we must arm ourselves. The 21-day discipline properly undertaken is more than just an application of the will. There is frequent witness in the writings of Paul (and elsewhere) that there are forces at work within us which oppose positive growth in the fruits of the Spirit. What's more, Paul warns us in Colossians that mere application of will and harsh discipline of the body will fail because of its powerlessness in opposing these forces. It is the Spirit of God which alone has the facility to overcome the elemental forces which oppose our growth. Part of our work during this 21-day discipline then is to "feed the Spirit", to remain in intimate fellowship with God through prayer and time in the Scriptures. The best practice is to "bracket" the day with a short time of prayer specifically devoted to the discipline. We thus begin the day with a prayer asking for empowerment, approaching our task in expectation of the difficulties we will face. Similarly, we end the day with a reflective posture, prayerful relinquishment, and thanksgiving. In addition, for particularly difficult struggles, we might choose a scripture passage to memorize to have at the ready for when the path turns difficult.

Fourth, we ought to enlist the prayerful support of our brothers and sisters. The Christian life cannot be properly lived alone, and the critical task of introspection and active discipleship must always have a public dimension. Before we begin our 21-day discipline, we should lay our plan before a wise friend who can advise us, pray for us, and to whom we will make ourselves accountable. We might also consider entering into a 21-day discipline with another person or group with whom we can share the journey.

Fifth, and lastly, we should choose an appropriate time to begin. The pursuit of a change in behavior can be a tiring task, so we must be sensitive to the other needs in our lives. It would be wise to anticipate times in which new behaviors will be needed, and to put them in place before that time. We ought not to attempt more than one 21-day discipline at the same time; one brings enough difficulty on its own.

In forthcoming articles, we'll discuss:
  • Beginning, sustaining, and finishing the 21-day discipline
  • Nourishing the behavior over the long term

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