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Do you want to have more willpower? You can—if you rely on the ultimate source of power!
Most of us 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 make yet another round of resolutions to change their lives: exercise more, eat less, stop smoking or drinking, spend more time with family.
Sometimes, even the simplest goals may seem maddeningly out of reach. In their January 2021 book, The Power of Bad, authors John Tierney and Roy Baumeister observe, “In our book on self-control, Willpower, we noted that junk food may well be the most difficult of all temptations to resist, but people are learning to do it” (p. 244). Indeed, just as we can learn to keep junk food out of our bodies, we can develop the willpower to resist junk thoughts and junk actions!
Why does willpower matter? Without it, we lack the capacity to make moral choices. Faults and shortcomings can be blamed on genetics, background, parents, environment, or just “bad luck.” The “nonexistence 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.
What exactly is “willpower”? And why do many social scientists no longer even believe in its existence? Baumeister and 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” (Willpower, p. 8).
But willpower is real. 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).
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, we must flee temptation. Paul cautions us, “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). Fleeing from temptation does not indicate a lack of willpower—in fact, it keeps our willpower strong. Those who make excuses for staying close to temptation are the ones most likely to give in to it.
There is even scientific 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 (p. 225).
If we are tempted by sexual lust, or covetousness, or a desire for anything unethical, we must get away from it 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, which 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 that 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!
Studies have shown that practicing self-control in one area helps us gain self-control in all areas of our lives. The same discipline that we develop to avoid a bad temper, to resist sexual temptation, to avoid drunkenness, or to resist gorging on unhealthy food has been shown to lead to happier marriages, better jobs, greater health, and sounder finances (Willpower, p. 13).
So, 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). 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 as they should, and our willpower will be weakened.
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). Our physical willpower can be strengthened as we provide fuel to the brain. Our spiritual willpower can be strengthened as we take 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.
And don’t neglect the importance of rest. In many areas of the world, modern culture is sleep-deprived culture. It is no wonder that we have less self-control than ever! When we become 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. Christ 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).
Paradoxically, we have the greatest willpower when we submit to 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.
When you are faced with temptation, consider something that 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).
Never forget that God Himself exercised perfect willpower in His plan to save mankind from its sins. The night before Jesus Christ died 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 lives. We can overcome; we can direct our spirit and our actions. Through God’s help, we can have all the willpower we need.