Salvation ... comes from the Lord ... because they take refuge in him. (Psalm 37:39-40)

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Trading the Will for the Well

Perhaps the most common source of struggle and failure in a Christian’s life is a misunderstanding of the role of willpower in the transformation process.  The belief that spiritual maturity is chiefly dependent on exercising greater willpower to change into a better (more godly) person, is exactly the opposite of the truth.  If that statement is shocking to you, let me explain.  

            The reader may have heard the slogan “if it’s gonna be, it’s up to me.”  While there is an element of truth to the statement, it does not work spiritually speaking.  Clarifying the difference between, and contrasting the physical realm and the spiritual realm, helps to bring understanding.  The physical realm is identified by laws that govern how the natural world operates.  For example, our bodies are subject to the law of gravity.  Gravity keeps us from floating into outer space.  Gravity is also demonstrated if we step out of a window on the tenth floor of a building.  Our body will be injured in the fall, but this is to be expected.  Even flapping our arms will not cause us to fly.  Whether we believe in gravity or not, it is enforced on our physical body. 

The spiritual realm is equally real, and similarly governed by laws (moral principles).  God set in motion an orderly reality as revealed in the Bible.  His commandments identify a standard of righteousness to protect us and provide passage for our experiences to go well for us.  When we sin (disobey God), it can be painful because harmful consequences result when disrupting God’s order for the way things work.  As broken body parts show how misalignment with laws in the physical realm occur, brokenness in the spiritual realm separates us from God and mis-aligns us with his ways. 

The intersection of the physical and spiritual realms is called the soul of man.  This third realm of reality is called the psychological realm by author Ed Kurath in chapter two of his book, I Will Give You Rest (see  Kurath explains that it operates in accordance with our own powers and abilities.  Habit patterns, our intellect, and our own willpower are aspects of the psychological realm. Our willpower has been given to us as a tool to manage this psychological realm, and it only has authority there.   Kurath says,

But we have made a huge mistake, because we have believed that our willpower also has authority in the spiritual realm. However, our willpower only has authority in the psychological realm. We cannot overcome or defy the physical laws or spiritual laws with our willpower.

Our willpower is impotent in defying the laws of the physical realm, and it was never given to us for this purpose. We cannot fly by flapping our arms. We cannot lift a 500 pound weight. We discover that no matter how much we want to lift it, we can't. We can will it, but we cannot perform it.

What is perhaps harder to understand is that our willpower is as impotent in the spiritual realm as it is in the physical realm. It was never given to us for the purpose of managing the spiritual realm. We discover this impotence when we try to do a spiritually impossible task, like obeying the laws of God. We discover that no matter how hard we want to do the good that we ought to, we cannot. We can "will" it, but we cannot perform it. O wretched man that I am (Romans 7:24). Our failure to do the good that we want to do is not due to a lack of willpower, it is due to our misunderstanding about reality. We are under the illusion that we ought to be able to "will" it and thus do it.”

Willpower can be used to our advantage for some things controlled by our intellect and reason.  If we have a bad habit, for example, of eating snacks instead of healthy food, we may be able to change the foods we eat with practice and repeating the good behavior.  But when a  bad behavior or habit is rooted in a spiritually poor condition (in the spiritual realm), spiritual laws take over. Trying to stop (or even interrupt) the operation of God’s spiritual laws is a bit like an ant in the middle of a highway telling a truck to stop as it is about to crush the ant. 

Many problems people face in life (eg. very destructive habits, addictions, generational transmissions, destructive relational conflicts, chronic mood swings, etc.) are perpetuated by a delusion that willpower alone will gain the victory.  Their failure is the result of "trying hard" to quit - making a decision with their intellect and relying on their willpower to bring it to pass.  They are doomed to failure because God's laws are his, not ours to uphold. This misunderstanding is a big problem, and it is widespread among Christ-followers.  The Bible makes very powerful statements regarding the illusion of our will.  It is a universal flaw in mankind to think we can manage our own life in our own strength.  It is so automatic, insidious, and covert that we don't even realize what we are doing.   (Note some of these spiritual laws like the laws of judgment are discussed in other articles; see The Unoffendable Heart ).

            There is a power to super-cede willpower.  That power is well power.  Jesus is the well.  Jesus is the provision for obeying God’s commands.  Well power calls us to “be” like Jesus and not just “act” like Jesus.  Jesus invites us to drink from the well of living water.  A story recorded by the gospel of John about a woman drawing water at a well, says this, “Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again;  but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14). 

If someone is traveling in the desert, thirsty, and encounters a well, would they first try to dig another well beside the one that exists?  The course of action would be to recognize the problem of needing water, believe in the ability of the well to pump the water, decide to work the pump, and act by working the pump.   Similar to this physical world example, the spiritual realm works like it.  The deepest need for every soul is to re-connect with God through Jesus.  The steps to meet the need are to first recognize the need, believe in Jesus as the provision for meeting the need, use willpower to decide to activate the provision, and act by praying and waiting on God for further direction and strength. 

Leaders seem to have an especially hard time surrendering their will for the well.  One reason is the overly high expectations of perfection on the part of followers.  Leaders are expected to make things happen and implore others to make things happen (assuming willpower as the chief motivator).  By definition leaders lead.   Leaders are typically high energy, high achieving, highly will-driven catalysts, who perceive dependence on outside motivational resources as a sign of weakness.   Drinking from the well (with God as the source), can too easily become an after thought.  Whether parenting, pastoring, functioning as CEO, or just being a good friend to a neighbor in need, leadership requires first being good leaders of self. 

Like Jesus, good leaders must first be good followers of their Master.  All through the book of John in the Bible, we are told how Jesus did everything according to the will of his Father in heaven.  For all followers of Jesus this means that Jesus is the only way to eat spiritual bread and drink spiritual water.  For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:55-56).  This statement from Jesus is part of an explanation after one of the first miracles he performed.  Read it in John 6.  Jesus had thousands of people sit down on the grass and Jesus took a boy’s lunch box with 5 bread cakes and 2 fish, blessed and multiplied it, and fed the crowd to satisfaction.  After their bellies were full, they acknowledged him as the great Prophet (John 6:14).  But, by the end of this teaching people were ready to stone him to death (John 7:1), and very few disciples remained in the crowd. (John 6:60-61,66-67). 

So what made this such a difficult teaching to accept?  Jesus performed a miracle which physically fed thousands of people to demonstrate a spiritual law (truth).  God is the well.  God is the provider of eternal life, and there is no way for people to work their way to God on their own willpower.   They cannot even sustain their life on earth without his provision.   Jesus was directly challenging their self-will and self-righteous behaviors when,  Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:53-54).  Jesus is the only source of spiritual food and water that transforms our soul.  No good deed performed by a person’s will carries any significance in saving a soul--neither in conversion nor ongoing sanctification. 

We do well to ask (as did Jesus listeners in the story above), “What is our part in all this?”   Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work .., that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (John 6:29).  In sum, our “work” is to surrender to the process of transformation.  It can take much effort to change entrenched harmful “beliefs”--including false assumptions gathered, erroneous conclusions drawn, condemning judgments cast,  bad subconscious decisions made  (see other blog articles for more on this).  Sometimes I find myself (even on a daily basis) in a similar dilemma as Jesus followers in the story above.  Do I really want to change (toward God’s direction)?  Do I want to let God in control of the change?  What beliefs (assumptions, conclusions, judgments) are in the way of God working his change in me?  What ways of thinking need to change?   Our “work” is to believe by surrendering to God’s work of bringing things to our awareness, remitting the shortcomings we confess, forgiving the sins for which we repent, and giving us a future and hope for God’s name to be famed through it all.

 by Ed Hersh, Blue Rock BnB Healing Ministry