If you’re like me, you’ve had the experience of deciding to do something and then actually doing the opposite. You want to go to the gym, but sit on the couch instead. You think it would be best to get a salad, but go for the burger and fries. You think you should be saving money, but find yourself at the store or browsing Amazon.
You know this stinks, so maybe you browse the self-help section and buy a book to try and make sense of why you do what you do and give you ideas to improve your self-control. But if you’re a Christian, you run into a problem with many of those books. Sure, they have a lot of good practical advice, but there is often something missing: a worthwhile goal beyond vague notions of “self-improvement” or “getting what you want out of life.” There’s no sense of the need to develop virtue or help others. Yeah, that’s great if it’s something you’re into, but the typical self-help author studiously avoids talking about any overall purpose other than self-actualization—whatever that means.
That’s why I was excited to read Drew Dyck’s book Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science. Dyck is an editor at Moody Publishers and previously wrote Generation Ex-Christian and Yawning at Tigers. Also, he apparently has trouble controlling himself.
After a brief introduction, Dyck kicks off chapter 1 a sneakily hard question: “Why self-control?” For an answer, he turns to a source that is not often found in mainstream self-help books written by psychologists and lifestyle gurus: the Bible. He writes, “The Bible portrays self-control not as restrictive but rather as the path to freedom. It enables us to do what’s right—and ultimately what’s best for us” (20). Self-control is important because the lack of it enslaves us to our sinful desires. Also, according to the Bible, self-control is not merely the ability to delay gratification. It is a character trait that emerges as we surrender to the will of God in our life, and it leads to greater freedom.
Dyck goes on to explore the importance of having the right purpose for self-control. Again, this is not angle you often see taken in self-help literature. You can end up frustrated and unfulfilled, Dyck says, by only directing your self-control to the end of your own success and happiness. Self-control should have the purpose of suspending our own interests so that we are truly able to love others: “Ultimately, self-control isn’t about you. It’s about surrendering to God’s purposes for you. And it’s not about getting success or money or power. In the end, it’s about love” (42).
Continuing the theme of “things you will never, EVER find in a typical self-help book,” Dyck explores the relationship between sin and self-control in chapter 3. We are both created in God’s image and have fallen into sin, which means that many of our own impulses and desires (what the Bible calls “the flesh”) cannot be trusted. Not only that, but we have an external enemy (what the Bible calls Satan and demons) that seeks to lead us away from the lives of self-control and service God wants for us.
In chapters 4–6, having established the core reasons for self-control and realities behind why it is so hard, Dyck provides specific strategies for controlling ourselves. He begins with the concept of willpower, which he describes as a finite resource. When your willpower is weak, you are more vulnerable to temptation. This means, unless you are one of those freaks who are just naturally gifted with a lot of willpower, if you’re just relying on willpower to do the right thing you’re probably not going to do it. Instead, you need to cultivate healthy habits. The good news is that willpower is like a muscle; with good habits in place, it can grow. To form a new habit, it’s helpful to break a bad habit by associating old cues and rewards with a new, better routine. Because of the issue of weak willpower, it is also helpful to only try to start one new habit at a time.
Dyck also addresses common misconceptions Christians have about self-control, like “Doesn’t grace mean I don’t need to cultivate self-control?” and “Isn’t striving legalism?” (You’ll have to read the book to see Dyck’s responses, but suffice it to say that he isn’t buying it.) Then he closes the book by looking at strategies for self-control in our digital age, and asking what we can learn about self-control from addicts.
Over the years, I’ve read a lot of books on how to get work done, how to manage time, and how to get better at what I do. I’ve gotten a lot of value out of those books, but as I alluded to at the beginning of this review, books in this genre are often missing something. They tend to not provide good reasons for why you ought to improve yourself. I understand why; they’re trying to appeal to the biggest possible audience, and the way you do that is to bracket out questions of right and wrong and ultimate purposes other than becoming a better you. Ultimately, you have to bring your own sense of purpose to these kinds of books for them to be useful. I wish there were more books like Dyck’s that are conversant with the latest psychology and neuroscience and productivity techniques but have taken the time to think about what their purpose might be, and are able to avoid the trap of legalism that books in this space are prone to.
Note: Thanks to Moody Publishers for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.