How sweet it isn’t

At first, it seems like a good idea — even a virtuous one — to allow them into your home. But then the regrets begin. You start doing things that you told yourself you wouldn’t do. You try to ignore the invaders, but they won’t let you. And soon, you find yourself taking drastic measures just to have them gone.

That’s right. I’m talking about Girl Scout cookies.

It’s almost not fair. These things are seasonal, so you know you can’t get them any time you want. They practically sell themselves. But as if that weren’t enough, some four-foot tall elfin creature comes to your door, looks up at you with big eyes, smiles, and holds out a box of cookies. You’re going to say no?

One of the things my wife and I decided to forego at Lent was sugar. We bought two boxes of GS cookies beforehand and patiently waited until Easter to open them. Once each box was opened, however, most of the patience and discipline we had exhibited over the previous weeks dissipated.

Well, at least mine did.

It’s funny how the mind works (or fails to work). First, it’s, “That was just one cookie. That’s nothing. Two would be OK.” Then, not long after you’ve eaten the first two: “I think I’ll have a couple more. After all, two cookies is still nothing, right?” This, despite the fact that I have a degree in math.

Or this: “Well, I don’t want to make a pig of myself, so I’ll eat the cookies and cut down on the broccoli. That way, it all evens out.” Somehow, at the time, it sounds like the most logical idea you’ve had all day.

And finally: “I’m having a hard time stopping myself from eating these things. Look, there are only five left. Might as well just finish them — problem solved.”

At least until next year, when another Keebler elf shows up at the door.

Many studies have been done on willpower. Some researchers, like Roy Baumeister, argue that willpower can be depleted. If we’ve been  expending energy controlling our emotions (as in not snapping at an annoying boss), we’re easier prey for temptation.

But our beliefs and values play a role, too. It’s not that I’m completely unable to refuse a cookie. I just don’t have a strong enough reason to do so, now that Lent is over. It’s not enough to just try to say “No!” — I need to connect that “no” to some goal that I actually value.

In other words, we can’t always deal with temptation by trying to will ourselves into wanting something less. The better strategy is to want something else more.

It makes me think: maybe that’s one way of understanding how Jesus (and Paul) can say that the whole of the Law comes down to the love of God and neighbor. It’s one thing to ask for the Holy Spirit’s help in the fight against our desires.

But it’s another to lean on the Spirit in cultivating our love for God.