by Robert Jacobs
In an article about willpower and dieting, Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center and Columbia Business School Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson compares self-control to the muscular system. Dr. Grant Halvorson notes, “Your capacity for self-control is not unlike the muscles in your body…Just as well-developed biceps sometimes get tired and jelly-like after a strenuous workout, so too does your willpower ‘muscle’… When you tax it too much at once, or for too long, the well of self-control strength runs dry.”
While this particular article addresses willpower in relationship to dieting—explaining why we seem to have more self-control when we are well rested versus at the end of a stressful day when the Blue Bell somehow magically ends up in our bowl—it has far-reaching implications beyond our waist line. Because our self-control is a finite resource that can weaken over periods of stress and exertion, we must not rely solely on our willpower to keep us from sin.
Now, what do I mean that we have to use something other than our will to combat sin? The fact of the matter is that you and I are prone to make bad choices when we are hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or sick (a concept many in the psychology and counseling community call HALTS). As Dr. Grant Halvorson points out, our willpower is weak in these moments due to strains placed on our minds and bodies. That is why it is so important that we decide what our reaction will be to temptation BEFORE we are tempted, putting boundaries in place—if possible—to try and eliminate even the possibility of temptation.
This is precisely what we see the Old Testament heroes Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego do. When Nebuchadnezzar commanded that all his officials had to worship his golden idol, he metaphorically put a gun to these three men’s head and told them they had to commit adultery, to cheat on god with a false deity (see other OT passages, such as the book of Hosea, on the linking of idolatry and adultery).
While the passage in Daniel does not precisely say so, I believe that these three men made the decision to stay faithful to God long before the whole golden idol incident came to pass. This would explain the indignant response they offered to the king: “We do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).
These three men took the sin of idolatry so seriously that before they were even tempted to worship another god, they decided that such an action was a “non-option,” reasoning that it would be better to die than to cheat on “I AM” with another god. We must ask, do we have the same conviction about sin?
I have to be honest. Before earnestly dealing with my own SSA, I didn’t really take my sexual sin too seriously. Though I dealt with other, more socially acceptable sins through my accountability partners, my sexual addiction was off the table for serious consideration. Although I knew that adultery was wrong, I never actually made a plan for what to do if I was placed in a situation where it would be a possibility. I never took precautions to ensure that I did not place myself into a situation where the possibility of a sexual encounter with another man would be likely. And consequently, I cheated on my wife.
If we are serious about sin, if we understand how our sin effects the heart of God and the ones we love, if we truly want to “be holy as [he] is holy,” then we need to decide now what we will do when we are confronted with temptation. There are some practical steps we can all take to begin making these choices.
Don’t wait until you are in the arms of another person to decide if you are going to stay pure. During your morning prayer time, commit your mind and body to God for that whole day, determining that you will keep your thought life and physical interactions pure.
Don’t place yourself in situations where you know you will be tempted. I am always stunned when people tell me they were shocked when they woke up in bed with a stranger, but then tell me they decided to go clubbing the night before. There are places that, given our past, we do not need to be. In fact, there are whole parts of the city I have personally decided to never enter or even pass through, often causing me to take the long way around.
Do stay in constant communication with God. Read your Bible every day, even if it is only a verse or two. Pray throughout the day, offering thanks for his blessings in the same moment they are bestowed. Attend that Bible study or church service that you feel to “tired” to attend (I almost never hear people say they were sad they communed with the saints).
While temptation may be forced on us no matter how much we try to avoid it—as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s certainly was—we can enter these situations with a resolute determination. In doing so, we answer the call of Joshua: “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:14).
 Heidi Grant Halvorson, “You Won’t Stick To Your Diet Unless You Know These 3 Facts About Willpower,” Psychology Today, 25 March 2011, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-science-success/201103/you-won-t-stick-your-diet-unless-you-know-these-3-facts-about