Losing Control (fourth in a series)

Will power does not change men. Time does not change men. Christ does. (Henry Drummond)

Will power is often thought of as a virtue, an asset, and therefore something to be commended and cultivated. It is usually equated with determination, tenacity and self-discipline. A person with will power can be single-minded in their pursuit of a goal, not stopping until it is reached, regardless of the personal cost to him or herself. Our culture applauds this kind of behavior.

I used to be proud of my ability to fasten onto a goal and accomplish it – often beating the deadline for completion, even when it meant finishing all the work myself. I thought such determination was serving me (and God) well until one day, about nine years ago, I woke up to the fact that I had lost a sense of the Lord’s presence in my life. The irony in this is that all my self-discipline and hard work, which I thought was of such use to God, had only served to push him out of my life.

Yet, for the faithful Christian, it would seem that will power has an important function in life. After all, isn’t will power needed when one is trying to resist the temptation to do something unlawful or unhealthy? Can’t will power be a useful resource to draw upon when difficult or tedious work must be completed – especially if it will benefit one’s family or church?

The answer to both of these questions is a resounding, “No!” The exercise of will power is not really something that is noble or sacrificial. Instead, it is a self-centered and prideful act.  The apostle Paul refers to it as “will-worship.” (See Colossians 2:23 ASV)  It is

"Determination." Sculpture by C. W. Hooper

designed (often unconsciously) to call attention to the one who displays it. Therefore, the focus is not so much on the work that is done or the cause for which the sacrifice is made but on the person who is making the sacrifice through their determined (and often intransigent) efforts. Such a person is hungry for praise and gratitude. He or she needs to feel like a “hero.” This is what I had to come to terms with in my life.

The problem with will power is that it is completely under our own direction, even though we may tell ourselves our effort is all for God’s benefit. Will power is something exercised apart from God. The “power” we use proceeds solely from our unaided judgment which, as I’ve described in the two previous posts, is corrupted by sin. As fallen creatures our point of view is always self-centered. Therefore our will, unless surrendered to Christ, is fallen. So the more will power we exert the greater our resistance to Christ.

This is why, in facing temptation, will power is of no use. While we may be able to find it within ourselves to resist something that is not good for us (unhealthy food, substances, or relationships, for example) we’ve relied on our own judgment and strength to do so. So we end up resisting one temptation by giving in to another – pride. Will power always comes down to pride – turning away from God and relying upon our own strength.

It is not a sign of weakness or laziness to rely solely upon the Lord when facing temptation or trials (or something we’d rather not do). Instead, it is an exercise in faithfulness. When we rely upon the Lord, instead of our own determination and tenacity, we are submitting our will, our perceptions, and our pride to him and allowing him to direct us as he know best. We are admitting we may not be able see and judge things clearly because of our sinfulness. Instead, we are rightly relying upon his grace to direct our thoughts and actions because our unassisted efforts will only feed our own unconscious and unhealthy needs. By surrendering our will to the Lord we avoid such traps. We call attention to him, as we should, and not pridefully to ourselves.

So many times in my life I’ve fallen for the line, “If you don’t do it, it won’t get done.” (Or, it won’t get done right.) More often than not that statement is generated from somewhere within me and doesn’t come from the mouth of someone else. And I’ve gone ahead and done the work, or accepted the assignment, or completed the project myself – responding out of guilt or pride. But I’ve learned the importance of allowing the Lord to assess my motives and now, more often than not, I wait for his answer as to whether I should proceed. If this means the work doesn’t get done – or done right – then so be it. It’s not my role to be the savior. I’m called, instead, to be the servant of the Lord.

All hard work, when prompted and directed by Jesus, is good and appropriate to do. We can safely put all of our effort and diligence into what he calls us to do as long as we continue to listen to him. When we surrender our will, instead of clamping down on it, we will gain strength from the Lord – and God’s strength will far surpass anything we could harness on our own. The apostle, Paul, affirms this in his letter to the Ephesians, where he writes that [God’s] power, at work within us, can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine (3:20). Therefore, it is only in will-surrender that we administer power faithfully and effectively.

Next week: Why losing control always involves death and resurrection. The difference between will power and disciplined effort.

About Claudia Dickson Greggs

I am an Anglican priest, author, wife and mother. Writing and teaching about Christian life and faith are passions of mine.
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8 Responses to Losing Control (fourth in a series)

  1. Susan Montgomery says:

    Claudia, You may have “lost” me today. Are you saying that initiative and perserverance apart from God’s will for your life is wrong, and that a sense of accomplishment for a job well done is just prideful?

    • Susan — great questions. Let me attempt to answer them: Initiative and perseverance should always be exercised under the direction of the Lord. Otherwise we could be serving purposes contrary to His will or exercising initiative and perseverance for reasons that have more to do with our own self-interest (pride) than anything else, despite any good we may do.

      In regards to a sense of accomplishment: it depends on what you mean by that. If you accomplish something in order to feel better about yourself, then you have turned that project — and the anticipated praise for doing it — into an idol. And that need to feel better about yourself will keep reasserting itself, over and over again. It is insatiable. Only Jesus can truly satisfy that need — and set you free from it. (I’ll write more about this when I do a series on “idolatry.”) If, on the other hand, you feel a sense of joy in having used the gifts God’s given you and in being given the opportunity to glorify Him, then this is a good thing. The key for me in determining whether I’m prideful or joyful is whether I’m thanking and praising the Lord over the job well done — or myself. Joy is so much richer than pride. Joy is expansive; pride turns us inward.

      Is this helpful? If not, I’ll give it another try. Claudia

  2. Siri says:

    Hi Claudia,
    I’m sure you’re right, and I expect I need to hear this. But it is a sort of foggy area to see clearly — what would you say are signals that you are heading off on your own steam instead of depending on the Lord’s strength? Sometimes it seems that willpower is just ignoring the old man and keeping on with what you know is right. Or finishing the task the Lord has set before you, whether you feel like it or not. How are you discerning the difference between willpower and having discipline?
    And, PS , I love this topic of “losing control.” Please have as many posts about it as you can!

    • Siri, I’m so sorry it’s taken me all day to respond to you, but I’m dealing with a virus on my computer. But let me quickly add that your questions are so perceptive! I’ve been praying about the best way to respond and I’ve decided to address your questions in my post for next week. (I hope you don’t mind waiting until then.) I’ll begin with discerning the difference between will power and discipline and if necessary, take another week to address recognizing the signals that indicate one is heading off on one’s own steam instead of depending on the Lord’s strength. I thank you for posing these questions — they will help to make this series more effective. Keep them coming! Claudia

  3. Rick says:

    Yeah, this one really has taken me some time to process, and I’m glad I just read the other comments and your answers.

    I think that what you’re talking about is just getting a good idea and running with it, or doing something without receiving guidance and wisdom from the Lord to do it because it won’t get done otherwise, and we can see, of course, that it must be done. I’ve seen that one come up in some churches.

    The one I have a hard time with is doing something myself because I know I’ll do it right.

    But what I think you’re saying is that we have to seek the Lord and receive His wisdom and direction, and only do something because He tells us to, not because it’s obvious it needs to be done, or done better. This seems to me to tie in with the idea of the Body of Christ, where each part has its own function. A hand can’t do what an ear can do, and should not even think it can, and vice-versa. If we only do what God is directing us to do, and do not do all that other stuff that is out there to do, then we work as the part of the Body we are made and called to be. If we don’t, we make a mess of things, and the Body looks somewhat funny/peculiar, and not in a good sense.

    But the issue of us doing things in our own power and not God’s is also woven through this whole discussion. That is something God seems to be taking me deeper and deeper into – doing things He instructs me to do in His power, and not what I want to do or even what He wants me to do, but in my own power. His goal is our dependence on His wisdom and power, not on our own.

    In everyday life, there are issues in the world at large that call out for me to do something about them. Sign this petition, write this government official, pass along this email, etc., etc. But unless God is telling me to do it, I need to let it alone and do what I know He wants me to do. Even doing the dishes needs to be done in His power.

    I agree that our attitude while doing something is indicative of whether we are doing it at His direction in His power or not. One instance came immediately to mind when I first read this posting. It was doing my CD project. During this time, I had to be disciplined. I had to shut out distracting things, and do the work. I wondered when I read your posting if I was working on my own will-power. At times it could have felt like it. But as I look at my attitude as I listened back to what I did, I was continually amazed and really humbled and thankful that God would allow me to make the music I heard, to write and create it. I continually asked for His help and wisdom throughout the process, and I asked for Him to work through me for His purposes. There were many, many times, I did not feel His working in and through me, but as the process went on, and I saw and heard what He had created through me (and that was really what had happened), I was humbled and in awe, and thankful to Him for allowing me to be a part of what He was doing. So, I believe that, though it didn’t always feel the way one might imagine it would feel to be working in His power, it seems that I was. As the parable says, I, like the farmer, did what I knew how to do under His direction, and God did what He knew how to do.

    I think the key, for me, is constantly, daily seeking God’s wisdom and direction, and knowing we can do nothing of lasting quality of ourselves, but in Him we can do all things.

    So, that’s my two cents worth. It’s taken me some days, but I am thankful for your posting of this, and for the chance to work through these thoughts.

    Looking forward to the next installment!

    • Rick, You’ve summed up so well what I’m trying to say! Just this morning during the service I prayed, together with the other members of the congregation, the Lord’s prayer: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done (not mine or anyone else’s) on earth as it is in heaven. This leaves me no option to go off under my own power. I agreed to be yoked to Jesus, when I confessed him as my Savior — and his yoke is a good thing. Although I’ve surrendered my will, and I’m allowing it to be conformed to the will of Jesus, I’ve not turned into a robot. Instead, I’m becoming the joyful, creative, kind, generous, content person God created me to be. Life is so much richer now, not poorer. I’ll be writing more about this in a future post, but just wanted to say that life yoked to Jesus is so much better than life “free” on my own. I didn’t really have “freedom” back then, although I believed, at the time, the lie that told me I did. Thanks again, for your most helpful comment. Claudia

  4. Pingback: Losing Control (eleventh in a series) | Careful For Nothing

  5. Pingback: Losing Control (thirteenth in a series) | Careful For Nothing

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