It’s that time of year when somewhere around 92% of us who made New Year’s resolutions, have lost the momentum of our efforts to change and are commiserating with St. Paul, “My own behaviour baffles me. For I find myself not doing what I really want to do but doing what I really loathe.” (Romans 7:18,19 – Phillips) Despite the promise of better days ahead, the urgent effort for reform is dropped and we return to the old ways, in many cases with feelings of remorse, failure and guilt.
What does this say about the effectiveness of willpower? Why does willpower tend to fall short in carrying out our good intentions?
Some mental health professionals have discredited willpower, even claiming that there is no such thing. Other research shows that willpower defined as self-control is the key to one’s success. In his ScientificAmerican article of April 2015, Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist, reports on decades of research–both his own and others’, demonstrating that humans who exercise more self-control generally lead more successful lives. (Willpowerandhowtomakeitworkforyou) The caveat, though, is that it doesn’t perform reliably.
Amid such conflicting conclusions, I wonder if that irresistible drive to keep trying could be something other than my own flaky will to be better, and that the answer to better self-control lies in discovering more about what impels real reform.
The Bible points to the idea of dropping self-will and yielding to God’s will. It also implies that the consistent desire to do right and the self-control needed to make a change, are spiritual qualities that God imparts to everyone. St. Paul found this true and resolved his behavioral dilemma when he thanked God for His help through Jesus Christ and rejoiced, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:13)
In the gospel of Luke, there’s a great story of a crooked tax collector named Zacchaeus, who sought out Jesus among a dense crowd and was surprised when Jesus chose him as his dinner host. Before it was over, Zacchaeus had a complete change of heart and decided to make amends for his greedy, crooked schemes.
I love this story because Zacchaeus was irresistibly drawn to the goodness Jesus represented, which caused genuine reform through a power outside of himself. It was not willpower that transformed his character, but the willingness to yield to the spiritual attraction of goodness. This naturally resulted in a moral change. Zacchaeus’ transformation was beautiful and fearless. He was lifted out of his rut instantly and was blessed with the inspiration and practical action plan to carry out Jesus’ vision of him as a son of faithful Abraham.
That’s how I want it to be for me. I believe that the same opportunity for spiritual growth belongs to each of us. For me, there is a peaceful assurance when I pray to yield to God’s good will. Then I feel God’s love for me and I find that the motivation and stamina to implement my life changes come naturally and from a power outside of myself.
Theologian Mary Baker Eddy, whose life illustrates the limitless potential one can realize through obedience to God, writes, “…progress is the law of God, whose law demands of us only what we can certainly fulfil.” (ScienceandHealthwithKeytotheScriptures, p. 233)
With the confidence that we can “certainly fulfill” God’s demands for our better lives, why not be willing?
My friend had an interesting experience with this kind of approach. She writes code for web design, and in the past, resolving high-level technical issues gobbled up days of work. Although she “soldiered through” to solutions, these problems stymied her productivity and wore on her. Rather than stay in the rut, she decided to try a new approach. When she met with the next impasse, she reasoned that “progress is the law of God, whose law demands of us only what we can certainly fulfil.” Then she allotted a reasonably brief time to solve the issue. When the solution did not come, she reaffirmed her relationship with God as His child, obedient to Him, and moved along to another task. She revisited the problem later, but in the meantime consciously anticipated an inspired solution. And that’s exactly what occurred. Her new practice of putting aside her own will and yielding to God’s will has improved her productivity and made her freer, happier, and more willing to tackle tough jobs.
Listening for divine inspiration and acting on it fulfills God’s law of progress and brings us naturally and gently into bettered selves— “…with God, all things are possible.” (Matt 19:26 – KJV) There is hope for this year’s waning resolutions. No willpower is needed, just the willingness to do God’s will.