“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:41 ESV
Recently I discovered a great book about resisting temptation, which remarkably is not written from a religious perspective. It is a fascinating read. It provides a very helpful study in understanding the various factors that make people susceptible to and able to resist temptation.
The name of the book is “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” Written by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney it documents findings from voluminous social science and brain research focused on the human ability to exercise willpower, self-control and resist temptation. Truth is truth no matter where one finds it and it is always instructive to see how empirical research confirms and enlightens Biblical truth.
Baumeister cites from his research that the average person spends four hours every day resisting temptation. Wow! That certainly verifies what the Apostle Paul wrote two thousand years ago, that “no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” We all have to admit that temptation is an everyday reality. The challenge of course is latching onto the fact that “God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) ESV
When Jesus had completed His 40 day fast in the wilderness and fully resisted the Devil’s temptation by quoting Scriptures, we are given a significant insight regarding temptation. The closing verse of the passage says “when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13 ESV)
The idea of temptation waiting to take advantage of an “opportune time” is a repeated Biblical theme. There are indeed “opportune times” in everyone’s life when we are more susceptible to succumbing to temptation than others. That is why Jesus in the garden, at the hour of His and the disciples greatest temptation, urged them to “watch and pray” that they not enter into temptation. He knew that in such times “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Being watchful and alert to times when the flesh is weak and praying for wisdom and strength in those times is critical to resisting temptation. A person who knows their weaknesses, and their susceptibility to the particular temptations that beset them, will be positioned more effectively to resist them when they come.
The book, “Willpower” underscores this by exploring a number of thoroughly researched causes of weakness to temptation in the human condition. It expressly reveals temptation’s “opportune times.”
At the heart of the research is the proven premise that each person has a finite amount of will power that becomes depleted as it is used. “The more willpower people expended, the more likely they became to yield to the next temptation that came along.” (p. 33)
Exercising will power expends psychological, emotional and physical energy and that is why we are less resistant to temptation as the day wears on, especially in the evening. Think about it, when are you most likely to eat something or do something you regret?
So what specific things should we watch for which deplete our will power and make us susceptible to giving into temptation? From the “Willpower” book here are eight conditions to be watchful for, that weaken the “flesh” and face us with opportune times for temptation.
- Repeated Temptation – and exercising impulse control causes people to eventually let down their guard. Research with college students found they were more resistant to similar temptations earlier in the day and earlier in the semester than later. “Resisting dessert at lunch leaves you with less willpower to praise your boss’s awful haircut.” (p. 36)
- Decision Making – takes its toll in depleting a person’s will power. That is why “When you shop till you drop, your willpower drops too.” (p. 92) Another effect is that “decision fatigue” can set in making a person less able to make a decision.
- Dietary Deficiencies – and the fluctuation in the body’s energy supply are clear causes of will power weakness. “Following rules is harder when your body is short of glucose.” (p. 54) “No glucose, no willpower” the authors tell us. (p. 49)
- Fatigue – and the need for sleep are proven causes of a loss of self-control. “A recent study found that workers who were not getting enough sleep were more prone than others to engage in unethical conduct on the job.” (p. 60)
- Stress – the book documents, depletes will power and erodes good habits.
- Lack of Goals – has been shown to be a major cause of reduced will power. Goals on the other hand fortify us with strength of purpose to exercise will power. Jesus is our example, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)
- Conflicting Goals – drain will power when goals that we have are opposed to one another or cancel one another out. (p. 67) As a consequence we end up worrying, getting less done and even experiencing deleterious health effects.
- Lack of Self Awareness – depletes will power. Forgetting or setting aside our own sense of self-esteem and dignity makes us more prone to succumbing to temptation.
The book cites an experiment done by a psychologist who hosted a Halloween party for kids. His finding confirms this in a unique and humorous way. One by one he ushered kids into a room with a table full of several bowls of attractive candy where they would be completely alone. They were instructed they could take only one piece. By the table he positioned a mirror which throughout the night he either put facing the table or turned it toward the wall. What he found was that when there was no mirror facing the kids many took more than one piece of candy. “But if the mirror was facing frontward and they could see themselves, they were much more likely to resist the temptation.” “Even when they were looking at themselves disguised by a Halloween costume, they felt self-conscious enough to do the right thing.” (113)
The mirror obviously made the kids more self-aware, resulting in helping them do the right thing. It points out how counter steps taken to address and defend against opportune times of temptation do make a difference.
In my next blog post I will share further insights from the book “Willpower” and the Scriptures as to how best to resist temptation’s opportune times. Stay tuned.
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