Mike Harmon cannot tell you how he lost his willpower, but he is certain that it is gone.
On a recent Thursday night, sitting in a grungy recliner at the Stop Smoking Hypnosis Clinic of Baltimore County, the middle-aged man shrugs his shoulders.
"I don't have it anymore," he says.
Neecy Riley, a woman sitting next to him, also could not locate her willpower.
"I need something beyond me," she said.
"My willpower isn't doing it."
Mike and Neecy headlined a recent story on NPR.
The whole story had to do with how you and I go about changing our behaviors: you know stopping bad habits, putting down the cigarettes, shutting the refrigerator door when that Edy’s French Silk is just calling your name and you want to just get you a spoon and dive into the little round . . .
O, I’m sorry I was losing it there for a minute.
What were we talking about?
O, yeah, WILLPOWER.
Anyway, that story on NPR went on to discuss an interesting experiment on will power.
It said that one person who has looked at this question in detail is a psychology professor at Columbia University named Walter Mischel.
Mischel, who is sometimes referred to as the grandfather of self-regulation research, designed a series of very famous experiments in the 1960s now popularly known as the marshmallow tests.
To do the experiments, he put hundreds of 4-year-olds in a room, one by one, with a marshmallow or cookie on the table in front of each.
He told them he was going to leave the room and that the child could either eat the treat immediately or, if they could wait until he got back, and have two instead.
Some of these kids could hardly last a minute.
Others waited as long as 20.
And Mischel believes you can learn much of what you need to know about the process of exerting willpower from the strategies employed by these children.
They basically used two.
The first one was distraction.
The children that lasted the longest would distract themselves: They kicked the table, they sang little songs, they played with their hair.
They did anything they could do to keep themselves from thinking about that beautiful yummy marshmellow.
The other strategy the successful children used was to change they way they thought about the marshmellow.
So, for example, to help the children resist the treat, before leaving the room Mischel told the kids to imagine the treat in front of them differently.
He told them ". . . to think about those marshmallows as if they were just cotton puffs, or clouds.
Those instructions to the 4-year-old had a dramatic effect on their ability to wait for the thing that they couldn't wait for before.”
So let’s get this straight.
What the research says is that, if we want to develop willpower, if I am going to successfully avoid diving into French silk, I’ve either got keep myself from thinking about ice cream or lie to myself about what ice cream is.
I’ve just got to tell you that these strategies just don’t sound very effective to me.
Sounds like to me that, if I’m going to really get free of some sin or failure that’s been plaguing me, I need to look somewhere else besides psychological experiments.
Which is why we have this book.
This book talks of bondage and freedom in very deep spiritual terms.
It tells us that spiritual freedom is not about mind games and psychological tricks; it’s about understanding and appropriating real God-given truth.
Now, even as I say that this morning, I realize that there are some of us that are in denial.
You, in fact, are just like the Jews that Jesus encountered.
In John 6, Jesus said to the Jews who listened to Him: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.
32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
The Jews answered Him: “We are Abraham’s descendants, and have never been in bondage to anyone.
How can You say, ‘You will be made free’?”
That may be you this morning.
You’re saying, “Hey, Rusty, I know I’m not perfect, but I’m not a slave.
I do sin, but I’m not a slave to it.”
Well, then, hear how Jesus answered those who took issue with Him telling them that they were slaves.
Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.
And my friend, that’s you!
If you have ever sinned, you’re a slave.
Some of you doubt your bondage this morning, and my prayer for you is that God will open your eyes to see, not only that you are in bondage but that He can set you free.
Others of you have no doubt that you’re a slave.
You’ve wrestled with cigarrettes and tried to quit, but you just can’t seem to lay them down.
You’ve wrestled with drug addiction.
Time after time you’ve promised yourself and you’ve promised others that this was your last binge, only to find yourself at another crack house, or stealing money from somebody else to indulge yourself again.
You’ve wrestled with pornography.
Time after time, you promised yourself that you will stop, but the computer screen is like a chain forged in the pit of hell that keeps calling you back to those images that excite and then sicken you.
O you know you’re a slave, your only problem is that you’ve given up on freedom.
You want to be free, you just don’t know how.
Well you need to hear God’s word this morning.
He wants to tell you how you can be free.
This is what He says in Romans 6:11:
Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts.
13 And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
These verses give us three actions we can take to be set free, and this Easter Sunday morning, April 12, 2009, you can be emancipated.
You can be set free if you will first of all
DIV 1 - TRUST THE TRUTH THAT ENLIGHTENS YOU
That truth is found in v 11.
It says, “Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Obviously, “likewise” refers us back to something that was said before.
If you look back to the first part of Romans chapter 6, you find that Paul has been talking about the fact that, when Christ died on the cross, we died with Him.
Because we are dead to our sin, we are set free to live a new kind of life that is not bound to it.
The question is, “How do we activate that truth in our lives?
How do we really experience this freedom he is talking about?”
The answer to those questions is in v 11.
He says, “Likewise . . .
reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God . .
That word “reckon” is an accounting term.
It means “to impute to one’s account; to count on it as being so.”
Let’s say that tomorrow I go to my mailbox and find a notice from the IRS.
They send me the dreaded letter we all hate to receive.
I have been chosen to do a complete audit.
I am sweating bullets as I show up to talk to a guy with horn-rimmed glasses who has the appearance of Steve Erkel and the attitude of Ghengis Kahn.
He finds a mistake in my tax return and tells me that I owe $1000.00 which must be paid by one week from today, or I am going to incur very significant penalties and interest.
Now I’m really in a dilemma.
I don’t have $1000.00,
and I spend all week trying to get it.
Finally, I call you.
I am desperate, and, out of the goodness of my heart, you agree to lend it to me.
There’s only one problem.
I’m supposed to show up at 11:00 a.m. with the money and its 10 pm at night.
You tell me, “Don’t worry, Rusty, just give me your checking account number.
I’ll go to your bank and deposit the money first thing in the morning.
You can go ahead and write the check.
The money will be there.”
Well, the next morning comes.
I try to call you several times to make sure you deposited the money, only, I can’t get you.