Psychology Meets Religion (Part 2)

Which would you rather have: Greater self control or higher intelligence?

There are obvious advantages to choosing intelligence. You would have an enhanced ability to apply your knowledge towards solving novel problems, be able to integrate multiple pieces of information and see clarity and order where others saw chaos. If you worked hard enough, you would definitely be able to secure a nice job for yourself and make good money.

But what would self control get you besides a better ability to regulate your behavior? Well, apparently, self control can get you much, much more according to various psychological studies. Self control can be defined as the ability to delay a current goal for the attainment of some future reward. Multiple studies suggest that individuals with greater self control show enhanced life satisfaction, report experiencing greater happiness, closer relationships, and emotional intimacy and even excel in school studies. In fact, when you pit self control against intelligence, self control is actually a much better predictor of a number of positive psychological and educational outcomes.

Let me give you an example of a study examining self control. One aspect of self control is the ability to delay gratification (think: the ability to avoid temptation). In one famous study, children were brought into a room with a marshmallow on a table and told that they could eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted. However, if they could avoid eating the marshmallow for 5 minutes, then when the experimenter returned, they would get a second marshmallow. Simple study right? Their results showed that the amount of time that children waited was an incredibly strong predictor of life satisfaction, legal problems and social competence. In fact, children who were able to wait the full 5 minutes versus those who ate the marshmallow within 30 seconds scored almost 200 points higher on the SAT.

I think these results are startling as they help us understand why self control is indeed a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Also, it highlights the need to perhaps place an emphasis on raising children who can learn to deny themselves rather than raising baby Einsteins.

Interestingly, the ability to deny oneself is one of the qualities which characterize Christians and other religions in general. So one question researchers wanted to ask was whether religiosity was associated with greater self control. Well according to one meta-analysis that combines the results of several studies, it was found that those who reported higher religiosity (in terms of Bible reading and church attendance) showed higher self control. Interestingly, the authors of the meta-analysis went on to ask whether this relationship is limited to the religious or to those who characterize themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” But they actually found that the more individuals defined themselves as spiritual but not religious the less self control they exhibited.

When I first came across this result, I couldn’t help but secretly chuckle as it supported the notion that “spiritualist” will deny religion simply to justify their own desires. However, as I thought about it more, I realized that it brings up an interesting question of whether religion trains individuals to develop better self control, or are people with higher self control generally better able to keep the faith?

It is certainly true that we can strengthen our ability to control ourselves by practicing daily acts of self regulation. And this is exactly what we are called to do by the gospel. However, it is also true that some people have an easier time accepting the gospel because they are endowed with the gift of self control.

Anyway, I thought I would bring some of this research to your attention and would love to hear what you guys have think of this work.


  1. Gerardo, thanks for this article. I see what you are saying. But I’m wondering about your statement, “it is also true that some people have an easier time accepting the gospel because they are endowed with the gift of self control.” In my understanding of the gospel, it is because we lack such things and know that we lack them that we are driven toward Christ. I’m reminded of what Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).

    Perhaps you are using  “self control” in a different way from what I’m accustomed to. It’s paradoxical to think of self control, which appears to involve our own effort, as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, a result of God’s grace given to us freely in Christ. If we are truly in Christ, then Christ is in us, and he is bearing good fruit through us. Our mystical union with Christ sometimes makes it hard, perhaps impossible, to distinguish our own self effort from Christ’s work in us. Yet it is possible to display self control which is not a fruit of the Spirit, and the results of that kind of self control are not good. Before the Apostle Paul was converted, he had heaps of self control, and in his case I think it was an impediment to his acceptance of the gospel, at least initially. But when he accepted Christ, it was his deep inner knowledge of the futility of his own self effort that helped him to rely on God’s grace.

    • GerardoR

      Hi Joe,
      Perhaps I was being a bit unspecific in using the word self control as a gift. So I think we would all agree that we are born with different dispositions. Some of are grumpy (I know I am), some of us our patient, some of us are courages, some of us are cowardly. Some of these dispositions can influence the form in which we respond to the good news. A grumpy, self centered man is not very likely to want to study the bible with a UBF missionary for example. Or a cowardly individual during the early church may not have wanted to become a Christian because of the fear of persecution.  

      My point is that, the  dispositions  which we are born with can how easily we respond to the different ways God is calling us. So perhaps a grumpy man isnt willing to stop and listen to a bible teacher on campus but maybe he listens to a piece of sacred music that moves him beyound himself.

      Christ gives us the gift of salvation freely and we are sometimes drawn towards Christ because we recognize our weakness. But this doesnt change the fact that we have particular weaknesses we have to overcome on a daily basis to experience conversion of heart and remain commited to Christ.

      Indeed, Jesus accomplishes this work but it is not done without our consent. And despite our shortcomings (e.g., poor self control) we are called to respond to the Holy Spirit who wants us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling since God is the one doing the work. So while I agree that Jesus does the work, we need to respond to his call through fiat.  

      So my greater point is simply that, perhaps there exist this inverse relationship between self control and religiosity because religiosity trains self control. Or, perhaps people with poor self control just have a greater cross to bear than those with higher self control. Surely we would all agree that a Pakistani convert has a stronger disposition and situational contraints than say an american convert. I guess I am just speculating whether poor self control is one of those constraints. I hope this makes sense.

    • GerardoR

      Oh boy.. now I am worried this is going to turn into a faith vs. faith + works debate.  
      I am  definitely  not saying that we do part of the work and Jesus helps us along the way. I am saying that Jesus is doing ALL of the work but he still requires us to respond to his grace by “taking up our cross daily.”  And that, for some of us, this cross is heavier in some respects because of particular, geographic, cultural and dispositional circumstances.

  2. Gerardo, you have put it very nicely in your last comment above. I have no interest in debating faith versus works, but I am always interested in trying to understand it better, because it’s paradoxical and mysterious.

  3. Joe and Gerardo, if you have not watched it, you guys should check out the 7 min video that I posted on the true church vs. a true church thread…I think that it answered some questions for me…but I also am not trying to start a debate on that

    • GerardoR

      Hi David, Yes, I have watched it and responded to it on the other thread. Thank you for posting such a fair video. But yes I agree, lets not turn this into a whole debate.

  4. david bychkov

    Thanks Gerardo for this series. Thanks guys for comments. I love Gerardo’s point of God use different natural traits of person and his experience in order to bring him to Christ. I love also Joe’s point about the traits which are nothing but fruits of the Holy Spirit which follows after Christ accepts a person. Both points are really sounds as Christ-centered and I love it. But I see here some related contrasting. From Gerardo’s words I see that he emphasized the good but natural qualities. And Joe talks about spiritual ones. This is pretty interesting and here are some of my lately questions which touch these things. Let me try to formulate.

    1) Does it really have matter if some specified person’s quality is his natural trait or is fruit of the Holy Spirit? Does it really have matter to be led in doing something good by the spiritual trait or by natural one?
    2) If so, how really to recognize if some of your traits, affections are inspired by Holy Spirit and not just your natural ones? How to recognize that your actions are inspired by Spirit and not by your natural?
    3) How then this should be put in the practice, so we could please Lord and bring him glory?

    I will try to show here some of my experiences which led me to asking these kind of questions. Once I began to read the Bible and joined the church I found that I’m really corrupted and evil person, and all my deeds and feelings are sinful, and I’m not able to anything good (Rom. 3:10-18, Rom. 14:23, Is. 64:6). I struggled hard but was not able to change myself in any point. My hope was just in receiving Holy Spirit from God, which he promised to those who ask (Luk. 11:13). After I was accepted by Christ in one day. (now I’m not really sure that it was that day, though I thought so for a long time) I felt relief. And my life significantly changed, especially in the points where I struggled. Thus I gave up smoking, lustful habits and sinful relations, I got enough boldness to make some decisions of faith, to join ministry wholeheartedly etc. That’s why it was natural to me to think that Christians and not Christians are really different and different at every point. So the person which has not been reborn is just sinful and has nothing really good in them (works, motives, traits). And who is really a new creation is led by Spirit, has qualities which are fruits of work of the Holy Spirit in him and his (persons) works are the visible results of it.

    Surely b/c of our ministry emphasized I had some specific conceptions of how fruits of the Holy Spirit should look and which works they should produce. It is personal holiness, separating from evil (lust, gossips, drinks, smoking, games, dirty words etc.), willingness to sacrificial life, strong dedication to ministry, preaching the Gospel, obedience, learning mind, humility, unity with others, faithfulness, not being family-centered, living according all our rules.

    In course of time these conceptions were challenged. First I have met people which looked like good spiritual Christians and they looks different from these attitude. Second I have met people which obviously were not Christians but kept very similar values. For example I have heard the speech of Hitler where he called his solders for “just trust and obey” attitude. I’ve read the story about Jehovah witnesses family who were ready to doom their own child to death in order to keep their rule of avoiding blood transfusion. I knew many communists who were very enthusiastic about their ideology and dedicated their life to it and seemed to be very united. Moreover when I tried to live according to such attitudes I honestly could hardly say that most of this (not tell everything) was produced by the Holy Spirit and glorified God and not my natural efforts enforced by some ideas, ambitions, manipulations, self-righteousness etc. So I began to see how spiritual and flesh people could act and be motivated very similar in those very things which I regarded as just spiritual.

    Go next. In order to salve this confusion I thought that my criteria of spirituality and it’s signs was wrong. I began to think of importance of more basic and simple things and life as more essentially spiritual and God’s pleasing life. I mean loving neighbors, be compassionate, patient, forgiving, humble, truthful, faithful attitude toward work, family etc. I read in my friend blog the phrases like this: “being a good human is more important then being a good Christian, being a good Christian is more important then being a good preacher…”. And somehow these words seemed to be revealing my new attitude to life and spirituality.

    However, new question has arisen here. If essential spirituality is really dealing with some basic human traits (Gal. 5:22, 23) how to define that my traits and behavior produced by and revealed them are spiritual and not just something natural? How to separate the same traits which mentioned Joe as spiritual fruits from those which mentioned Gerardo in non spiritual person? And really I know some people which are very good in some points which are close to mentioned, I respect them and want to learn from them, but they are definitely not Christians. And now I see some traits of my character which seems to be good and I want to develop them and to act according to them. But isn’t just something natural and really God pleasing?
    That’s it for now. Sorry for being so verbose.

    Two notes for the record:
    1) Surely I believe that those who are in Christ are new creation and have spiritual nature.
    2) I have no intentions to offend anyone and any practice here.

    • David, thank you for this thoughtful comment.   And just to make it even more confusing, let me offer another point. We often (at least I do) make a distinction between good works that result from our human qualities and good works resulting from the work of the Spirit within us. But all of our human qualities which are truly good were given to us by God anyway.

    • david bychkov

      Yes, I kept this thought in my mind once wrote this, especcally formulated questions.

    • GerardoR

      David, many good points. It will take me some time to comment on your post so I will wait until I get home. Thank you!

    • GerardoR

      Thanks for your kind words David. Yes, I think Christ uses what is there, the good and the bad. In answer to your first question, I guess in this discussion, it really doesn’t matter whether it is a natural trait or something that the Holy Spirit gives us. In fact, Jesus tells us that he knows every head on our head so we have much reason to believe that we are born with certain dispositions and situations because God plans to do use that for his greater glory. Its like the story of the blind man in John 9 who was born blind so that Christ might honor the Father.
      I am not sure how we would recognize if some of our traits are inspired by the Holy Spirit. I guess one way might be to ask does this bring life into the world. Does it serve Gods good purpose. But that can sometimes be tough to tell.
      How do we put our gifts in practice to please the Lord? I guess I would say to humble ourselves so that what is born of the spirit can shine forth and what is born of the flesh can pass.
      It really sounds like Christ has worked in great ways in your life. Although I would disagree slightly that anything that has not been reborn is just sinful. Remember, we are made in the image of God and although we are a bent creation, we have can still be like God when we are merciful even when we have not encountered Christ.
      Yes, there are many Christians that are wolves in sheeps clothing. One of my biggest fears is that I am one of them. I think about that everytime I continue to do the wicked things I hate. Your right about the simple things in life: Christ simplified it all when he said to Love our enemies.
      Thank you for your well thought out note.

    • david bychkov

      I really like your final note about loving enemies. This is really something which could distinguish the work of the Holy Spirit. My email is alexander.bychkov (at) and my skype ID is games4web. I would be very happy to talk with you (and anyone else from this community) sometime.

  5. James Kim

    Self-control is one the fruits of the Holy Spirit. But certainly it is not the monopoly of Christianity. One example is Buddhist monks. They are well disciplined people on earth in many ways: in controlling their emotions, anger, greediness, and in the area of eating, clothing, sexual desire through regular meditations and well disciplined daily routine. How do we understand this? The Bible said that all men are created in the image of God. Because of that, many non-Christians have some aspects of God’s attribute. It is no surprise. But the problem is that they do not have the whole truth, the Christian worldview; Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. They are like blind men groping one part of the elephant.
    Even though we are born again, we are not changed instantly. Every person has different family upbringing and different family background. The characters and personalities that had been formed for the past 20 or 30 years are very difficult to change and it will take a long time even after we are born again. And the change usually comes very slowly. Some person might display a drastic change after born again, but that is only the tip of an iceberg. The large part under the water has not been changed. Most of the conflicts between husband and wife happen because of this problem. It usually takes many years for both husbands and wives understand each other deeply in love. I can tell this from my own experience.

    • GerardoR

      Yes, Christianity does not have a monopoly on self control or any of the other virtues. If Christ brings rain on the wicked and the good, then I don’t see why he wouldn’t shower some of his blessings on those who do not know him. Christianity does have the fullness of truth. But it shouldn’t surprise us when other cultures or faiths teach their followers to deny themselves as well. Sometimes however, what seems similar on the outside ends up revealing a drastic difference when you look at the motivation for a particular behavior.
      For example, a Buddhist might spend hours in self disciplined meditation so that he can realize that he is god and that there is no self. Whereas, a Christian can spend hours in prayer and meditation to help him realize much more clearly how mighty God truly is and how wonderful is his name. Same process, but different motivation.
      Yes, we often only see the tip of the ice berg. I will sometimes pray that God change me in a tiny aspect (say.. my impatience). And after several days of being patient, I always assume that that problem is long gone until something happens that makes me realize that my impatience is tied to something more fundamental about me. So unless I give Christ my whole self, I will never be a real man.

  6. GerardoR

    I am surprised no one has commented on the video that shows an example of the  marshmallow  study. Women usually love that video. If you have young children, I wouldnt  recommend you try this. =)

  7. GerardoR

    One paper I recently read for one of my classes describes how being in the presence of a mirror usually prevents people from lying, cheating or stealing versus those who are not in the presence of a mirror. For example, if you bring in a participant and have him complete an exam for which he could technically cheat, he is less likely to cheat if there is a a small mirror in the room. This is also true of whether you draw a pair of eyes on the wall or tell them that a graduate student, “haunts the hallways.”    

    I bring this up because the study described another study in which people were found to high a strong ability to delay their gratification if they were placed in a room with a mirror.  Apparently, a mirror activates encourages people to self reflect to what is important to them.