The Limits of Self-Control


“Ego depletion…ego strength is required for any and all self-directed efforts…

strength is consumed or depleted in the process of self-control.”

                                                                                    Encyclopedia of Social Psychology


I always think it’s funny when psychology gets it somewhat right. Why? I have this picture of someone stumbling around in the dark, almost completely incapacitated by sleep, barking a shin on the chair that holds his pants. The process of finding what you were looking for is accomplished by a lucky bumbling. That is the way of psychology and wisdom. Since they don’t rely on the Source of wisdom, they have to stumble around until they find a tiny piece of it.

Of course, a psychologist (or anyone who relies on the Eureka! nature of psychology) will tell you that it’s all done with careful research and many reiterations of those research findings to ensure they are at least somewhat accurate (that is, accurate for a portion of the population at a given moment in time). That is true. Since the mid-nineteenth century (beginning with William Wundt) psychology has tried to be a science of rationality reinforced by empirical (or direct observational) research. While psychology has attempted to leave its anecdotal and opinion-based past (read that as  philosophy), it has been a struggle. However, nowadays people seem to take what psychological research says as truth as soon as they spew it.

For the purposes of example, let’s examine the above seed.

It begins with the somewhat addled beliefs of a man who conducted very little research, but whom many regard as the father of modern psychology: Sigmund Freud. Although his name has been run through the mud of late decades, some of his ideas are still worth clinging to apparently. Among his primary contributions to psychology were outlining the concepts id, ego and superego. They are defined as:

  • Id: the primal desires or lusts.
  • Ego: an individual’s conception of themselves (what you think about yourself).
  • Superego: the conscience.

For our discussion we will look only at the ego and leave the others alone.

Ego is a term that has been bandied about enough in popular parlance that everyone has some grasp as to what it is. Ego (for some reason women tend to think men have more of an ego than women; I am not convinced that this is accurate) in many minds is self-pride. It is the seat of the individual and can be wounded if the person is somehow emotionally damaged.

The above quote speaks of an offshoot of the ego which is ego strength. An individual can maintain self-control if they have enough ego strength. However, ego strength can be depleted if it is used; as is true with actual strength. So, the individual doesn’t want to be placed in situations where there ego is never fully recharged or they will lose self-control.

Got it now? This is a simple explanation, but it is one that is easily understood (I could quote from studies to obfuscate the idea if you want, but that’s not necessary here). Basically, you are more likely to lose control of yourself – get angry, get depressed or anxious, start just randomly punching people – if you are in a situation that breaks down your natural calm or if that natural calm is pressured for an extended period of time (I’m looking at you kid kicking the driver’s seat and the other one screaming about his sister touching him!)

This all sounds reasonable right? It is for someone who relies on SELF-control. But we don’t have to do that do we?

If you are a child of God, you shouldn’t be relying on self to control anything. Of course, it is a process, but you should trust in Him enough that you allow Him to have control. That’s what being justified is all about right? You have relinquished all of your old self to Christ because you now know the truth (I Timothy 2:4) and “the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). You also relinquish control because you want to have “life, and…have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

Wisdom comes from God, not a psychology textbook. No matter their good intentions, if they are using man’s wisdom (oxymoron?) to accomplish anything, they are seriously misguided. Don’t allow them to take you in.

Let me show how the insidious work of Satan is alive in even the good intentions of man by using the supposed truth of ego depletion as an example.

Psychologists saw something in people. If people are stressed, they are more likely to give in and lose self-control. So, as is true with all psychological inquiry, they tried to understand why this happened. Psychologists found the answer when they discovered the fairly reliable explanation of ego depletion. What’s the problem and how did Satan use it: it’s only a partial truth (which means it’s a lie). Ego depletion isn’t true. People lose control because they are not relying on Christ not because their ego strength is depleted (this happens with Christians too). But, Satan doesn’t want you to think that, so he provides researchers with another plausible explanation.

But, what do we know about Satan:

  • He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.” (John 8:44)
  • But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?” (Acts 5:3)
  • Even him, whose working is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders,” (1 Thessalonians 2:9)

That’s probably enough. Get the picture? Satan is a liar “and the father of it.” He uses any power at his disposal to confound men and get them to turn to themselves rather than God. If something can possibly be explained using self rather than God, Satan will do it.

Do not be deceived by psychology and reasonable explanations. Go to Christ and seek his restoration of your depleted resources; rely on the Holy Spirit for comfort and guidance. His wisdom, His strength, His power are yours for the asking believer.


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