Self Control


The Eight Bad Thoughts

Evagrius Ponticus (345-399AD) was a monk, an ascetic, and a writer. In his work, Praktikos, he names eight bad thoughts (logismoi) that tempted monks to abandon the monastic life: gluttony, sexual immorality, love of money, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. (early church texts, For extensive research, readers may subscribe to this site.) These eight thoughts draw the believer away from a holy life and lead to a diminished awareness of God and self. These thoughts were later adapted and renamed the Seven Deadly Sins.

The fruit of the Spirit

By contrast, the action of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23

For the next few weeks, I will reflect on Evagrius’ Eight Bad Thoughts and Paul’s list of the action (karpos) of the Spirit. Karpos is usually translated as fruit, but the intent is more active than a still life subject. The word can also be translated as result, outcome, deed, gain, grain, and advantage.

Self Control

Giving up favorite vices, committing to good causes and practices – self control has to be the stick most of us choose during Lent…

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel and others ran the Marshmallow experiment, a study of deferred gratification (see  “Predicting Cognitive Control From Preschool to Late Adolescence and Young Adulthood”. Psychological Science 17 (6): 478–484. Archived from the original on June 22, 2007. See also Maia Szalavitz, “The Secrets of Self-Control: The Marshmallow Test 40 Years Later,” Time Magazine, September 6, 2011, online). Young children were offered a small treat – a marshmallow, cookie, etc. The experiment leader told the children that they could eat the treat right away, or get another treat if they didn’t eat the treat until the leader left and returned, about fifteen minutes later. The gist of the study: young children who could delay gratification and earn the second marshmallow were less likely to struggle with behavioral issues, drug addiction, or obesity in their teen years. Also, their SAT scores were significantly higher than those who couldn’t wait.

As these children became adults, the picture isn’t quite as clear. Some gained the ability to defer gratification, others didn’t. As an indicator of overall life success, the marshmallow experiment isn’t definitive: good news for the ones who couldn’t wait. Reality turns out to be written in water rather than stone.

Delaying gratification, giving up an immediate reward for a bigger one, is taking a longer view. The marshmallow in hand doubles its value when it’s saved rather than consumed. It’s a valuable life skill, but not what Paul was writing about.

Self control as an action or gain of the Spirit isn’t about marshmallows or whatever our equivalent temptation might be. Self control grows when we know that we don’t really want marshmallows: we want communion with God. If eating a marshmallow right away reveals God’s presence with us, eat it. If waiting for another marshmallow draws us to God, don’t eat it. The chief end of human life isn’t the acquisition or consumption of marshmallows.

Self control breaks the stranglehold that an external temptation has on us, moving us to seek God in all things and through all things. With enough practice, self control teaches us a great lesson: without God, there will never be enough marshmallows to satisfy us. With God, whatever marshmallows we have are more than enough – we might even learn to give ours away. After all, who needs to hoard marshmallows when we are seated at the heavenly banquet?



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