You can gain mastery of your spirit and control of your life!
Most people would like to have more willpower. But building it, we often think, is about as fun as pulling a tooth or extracting a splinter. As each new year begins, millions profess yet another round of resolutions to make changes in their lives: exercise more, eat less, stop smoking or drinking, spend more time with family. So, why do so many well-intentioned goals wind up in the discard pile?
The Apostle Paul prophesied that people living in the end-time would be bombarded by a withering barrage of temptations. Many in the last days, he said, would be self-indulgent "lovers of themselves, lovers of money… unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control… lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!" (2 Timothy 3:2–5).
What exactly is "willpower"? Strange as it may sound, many social scientists no longer even believe in its existence! In their book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, authors Roy Baumeister and John Tierney describe this shift: "The will came to seem so unimportant that it wasn't even measured or mentioned in modern personality theories. Some neuroscientists claim to have disproved its existence. Many philosophers refuse to use the term… they prefer to speak of freedom of action, not of will, because they doubt there is any such thing as will" (p. 8).
No will means no capacity for making moral choices. No will means no responsibility for sin. Faults and shortcomings can be blamed on genetics, background, parents, environment, or just "bad luck." The "non-existence of the will" theory is just another way for a confused and deceived mankind to pursue its lusts without the pain of guilt and shame.
But willpower is real. God says so! He tells us that willpower (or "self-control," as the Bible refers to it) is crucial for success in life. The wise king Solomon explained that anyone who aspires to lead others must first learn to rule the self: "He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city" (Proverbs 16:32). He further recorded, "Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls" (Proverbs 25:28). Without willpower, or self-control, we are vulnerable to the ravages of temptation and sin. By contrast, self-control produces tangible benefits in happiness and well-being. Gaining control of the will is crucial to our inner peace, contentment and ultimate success.
What about you? Can you harness your thoughts and impulses and channel them in a positive direction? Or do you sometimes feel blown about by the deceptive winds of temptation? The good news is that if you want it, willpower can be developed and strengthened. And doing so may be much easier than you think.
The Apostle Paul said that we "wrestle" against principalities or spirits trying to deceive us (Ephesians 6:12). So, as Christians, we must always be ready to stand and fight the good fight of faith (2 Timothy 2:3; 1 Timothy 6:12). As the Apostle James wrote, "Resist the devil and he will flee from you" (James 4:7).
But fighting is not the whole answer. Often what is most important is to flee temptation. Here is what Paul wrote in regard to handling sexual temptation. "Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body" (1 Corinthians 6:18). Paul knew not to "hang around" to see what might happen as he was tempted—he knew to escape from it, as he would from a burning building!
Paul gave a similar explanation to the young evangelist Timothy, regarding the temptations of wealth: "But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts… But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness" (1 Timothy 6:9, 11).
Is fleeing from temptation a sign of weakness, or lack of willpower? No! It keeps our willpower strong. Rather, allowing ourselves to remain in close proximity to any sort of immorality is what will erode and weaken our resolve, little by little, until eventually we give in to temptation.
Authors Baumeister and Tierney describe research confirming this sound biblical principle. Test subjects were seated in a room to watch a movie. Some were put within arm's length of a bowl of candy; others were seated across the room from the candy bowl. After the movie, those who had been seated closest to the tempting candy were found to have significantly less willpower than the others! Researchers concluded that those seated farthest from the sweets had used less mental power to resist them, and therefore had more willpower "in reserve" saved up for the next exercise.
This underscores Paul's advice to Timothy. If we are tempted by sexual lust, or covetousness, or a desire for anything unethical, we must get out, without delay! At a minimum, we must keep the temptation as far away as possible. If you struggle with an addiction to alcohol, do not keep liquor in the house, and do not visit places where you know it is accessible. If you have trouble resisting pornography, put a filter on your computer (and let someone else whom you trust set the password). To strengthen our willpower, we must make concerted efforts to flee temptation.
Athletes prepare for sporting contests by practicing. They practice, then they practice some more. Merely knowing how to swing a bat, kick a ball, or shoot a basketball does not bring proficiency. It takes hundreds or thousands of repetitions, hour after hour, day after day, before the motions become so natural that they are practically automatic.
Paul described the spiritual journey as a race to be run with endurance (Hebrews 12:1). He emphasized that Christians do this by using God's Spirit, which brings many benefits, including self-control (Galatians 5:23).
Godly self-control is like a muscle that will atrophy if it is not developed. When we decide to forgive someone who has wronged us, we are exercising spiritual power over our will. When we do this again and again, repeating the pattern, it becomes more natural for us, and even second nature. It is no wonder why Jesus Christ said we must forgive our brother "seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:22). He wants us to develop the habit of forgiving others. He wants our self-control "muscle" to be well exercised!
Authors Baumeister and Tierney describe an experiment examining college students' desires to improve in one of three areas: physical fitness, study habits and money management. Predictably, the more self-control students exercised toward their goal, the better they progressed. But there was also an unexpected finding. Those who exercised the "self-control muscle" the most in their area of focus also began to improve in other areas of their lives! "Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life. They smoked fewer cigarettes and drank less alcohol. They kept their homes cleaner. They washed dishes instead of leaving them stacked in the sink, and did their laundry more often. They procrastinated less. They did their work and chores instead of just watching television or hanging out with friends first. They ate less junk food, replacing their bad eating habits with healthier ones… Some of the people even reported improvements in controlling their tempers" (Willpower, p. 136).
Yes, you can improve, as these students did! Commit to taking control of one area of your life, and the benefits will flow to the rest of your life! Paul wrote that spiritually mature people should "by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil" (Hebrews 5:14). So, set some goals, however simple. Maybe you want to go to bed earlier, or to be more courteous to other drivers, or to sit up straight and maintain better posture. As you focus on putting into practice even the simplest of goals, the resulting gain in self-control can start to carry over into the more difficult struggles in your life.
Every parent knows that if you want small children to behave better, make sure they have full stomachs. So, feed your body in order to feed your willpower. Nutritionally balanced meals, eaten in moderation, help us make good decisions, function well and exercise our willpower effectively. If willpower is like a muscle, it needs energy. Our brains, through which we transfer our willpower into physical action, need glucose in order to perform. Without proper fuel in adequate quantity, our brains will not function and our willpower will be weakened.
The authors of Willpower explain: "No glucose, no willpower. The pattern showed up time and again as researchers tested more people in more situations… Glucose depletion can turn the most charming companion into a monster. The old advice about eating a good breakfast applies all day long, particularly on days when you're physically or mentally stressed. If you have a test, an important meeting, or a vital project, don't take it on without glucose. Don't thrash out serious problems with your partner just before dinner" (pp. 49, 57).
Physical fuel, however, is only the beginning. It is necessary, but not sufficient. Jesus Christ cautioned His followers not to place too much focus on life's physical aspects while neglecting the spiritual. He said, "Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him" (John 6:27). What is the spiritual food that lasts forever? "'For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…' And Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst'" (John 6:33, 35).
How do we feed on Christ? By surrendering our will to His, and by asking Him to live His life in us (Galatians 2:20). We develop willpower physically by providing fuel to the brain. We develop willpower spiritually by taking in the "fuel" of prayer, Bible study, meditation and occasional fasting. Christ Himself said, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). We strengthen our willpower by having regular contact with God, and by doing His will in our lives. Jesus said, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work" (John 4:34). Prayer, Bible study, meditation and fasting are the spiritual "food" we need to draw closer to our Savior.
An exercised muscle needs time for rest and recuperation. This principle of physical activity also applies to mental activity, and to the exercise of our willpower. We cannot expect to operate at high levels continually without "recharging our batteries" regularly. Baumeister and Tierney remind us, "We shouldn't need to be told something so obvious, but cranky toddlers aren't the only ones who resist much-needed naps. Adults routinely shortchange themselves on sleep, and the result is less self-control. By resting, we reduce the body's demands for glucose, and we also improve its overall ability to make use of the glucose in the bloodstream. Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair the processing of glucose, which produces immediate consequences for self-control… Not getting enough sleep has assorted bad effects on mind and body. Hidden among these is the weakening of self-control and related processes like decision-making. To get the most out of your willpower, use it to set aside enough time to sleep. You'll behave better the next day—and sleep more easily the next night" (Willpower, pp. 59–60).
Our modern Western culture is a sleep-deprived culture. It is no wonder that we have less self-control than ever! When we grow depleted mentally, our strength of willpower will decline. We need to take time to recharge and recuperate.
Sometimes that just means taking care of our physical health, getting adequate rest and sound sleep. But physical rest goes only so far in rejuvenating our depleted spirit. He promised, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matthew 11:28–30).
Is life stressing you out? Are you burned out from handling all the problems and decisions and temptations that you face every day? Jesus Christ tells us, you do not need to "go it alone." What will truly revive us is our surrender to His will, empowered by His Spirit to experience the fruit of obedience to His laws in our lives.
Paradoxically, we have willpower most fully when we come under the power of God. Living under and by His power is freeing, calming, and settling as we experience the power of His Spirit in our lives. In the final analysis, growing in willpower means totally and unequivocally trusting in God and His power to lead us.
Have you really handed over the reins of your life to God? Have you come to the point in your life when you are willing to submit to Him totally and obediently? Do you really trust Him to direct your life, knowing that He knows what is best for you?
When you are faced with temptation, consider what ancient King David wrote: "Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land, and feed on His faithfulness. Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass. He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for Him" (Psalm 37:3–7).
We live in times of stress, not of "rest." We see constant turmoil around us—violence and war in every corner of the globe and growing fears of global economic meltdown. We face constant temptations to compromise our Christian values. So, what can we do? We cannot resist temptations and endure trials solely on our own power. We need the stamina, strength and willpower that can only come from God.
Consider Christ's example. The night before He laid down His life for all mankind, He faced the most difficult choice of His life. To become our Savior, He would have to go through an agonizing death. The temptation to turn back and walk away must have been enormous. He went to the Mount of Olives with His disciples, telling them "Pray that you may not enter into temptation." He walked on a little farther, and then cried out, "'Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.' Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:40, 42–44).
Did Christ just "grit His teeth" and "force" His will to do the right thing? No! What allowed Him to pass this excruciating test was His willingness to surrender to the will and the power of the Father.
This is how we, too, can find the willpower to resist and overcome temptation. As we surrender our lives in true obedience to the One who made us, we can be imbued with His spiritual power. Paul wrote to the brethren in Philippi, "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12–13).
If we seek and obey Him, God will work through us "to will and to do" His will in our life. We can overcome; we can direct our spirit and our life. Through God's help, we can have willpower!