Drew Dyck on Self-Control and the Power of Habits

Drew Dyck is the author of Generation Ex-Christian: Why Young Adults Are Leaving the Faith… and How to Bring Them Back and Your Future Self Will Thank You: Secrets to Self-Control From the Bible and Brain Science. Recently we talked to him about the challenges of self-control, the power of habits, and finding the balance between God’s empowerment and our own efforts. 

Why do people often view self-control as restricting rather than liberating? 

For many people, self-control is boring, confining, the cop that shows up and shuts down the party. That’s too bad because 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. It’s what allows a person to live a life that blesses others and glorifies God. 

Do you think a lack of self-control has played a role in the recent scandals and moral failings surfacing in the news? 

The recent high-profile failings, especially among church leaders, are a grim reminder of the importance of this topic. As we’ve seen, even a momentary break in willpower can cause irreversible damage. It truly doesn’t matter how much talent and intelligence you have if it’s not balanced by strong character. This is true for everyone, not just leaders. We need to be honest with ourselves and each other about our own potential to fall. The good news is that, when we cooperate with God’s Spirit, we can see the fruit of self-control grow in our life, which will protect us and those around us from untold heartache.  

You also talk about the role of habits in your book. Why is it necessary to recognize the power of habit? How do you build righteous habits into your life? 

Habits are powerful! Once a behavior becomes a habit, it no longer requires as much effort to performThat can be a bad thing … if it’s a bad habit. But if can be a very good thing if it’s a healthy, holy habit. Ultimately, the key to living a holy life isn’t simply to out-battle temptation at every turn. It’s to build righteous patterns into your life.  

How should we understand the relationship between God’s empowerment and our human effort as we’re pursuing self-control and working to build righteous habits? 

True spiritual growth doesn’t come apart from God’s empowerment. You can’t pull your soul up by your spiritual bootstraps. If you try, you’ll become like the Pharisees. You will end up trusting in your own efforts to fulfill God’s law, never quite sure whether you’ve done enough. We must draw on God’s power to live the Christian life. On the other hand, we’re commanded repeatedly in Scripture to resist temptation, die to sin, deny self, fight the good fight, and strive for godliness. So, we need God’s empowerment, and we need to resist sin. Fudging on either commitment will stall our spiritual growth. Discounting our role in sanctification leads to license. Ignoring God’s role leads to legalism.  

It seems like living in the technology age can make all of this so much harder. What are some strategies you’ve used for growing self-control in the midst of our digitally distracting culture? 

I recommend using what researchers call a “bright lines” strategy. “Bright lines” are hard-and-fast rules that help you avoid unwanted behavior. The term came from the legal system to describe clearly defined courtroom rulings, but researchers found the idea helpful for controlling conduct. They’re especially helpful when it comes to controlling technology use.  

A couple years ago, our family started giving our Sabbath a low-tech twist. We forbade the use of screens. We called it “No Screen Sundays.” It’s a little cheesy, but somehow the alliteration helped it stick. We don’t always observe it in our home, but we try. And when we do, it feels like a little slice of heaven. The kids aren’t zoned out watching cartoons, Mom isn’t texting, and maybe most refreshing of all, Dad isn’t glued to his phone checking email or Twitter. It’s a day to worship God, enjoy our church community, and to be together as a family.