My last post was about the saying, "Where there's a will, there's a way," and how it teaches a practical theology of works righteousness. The alternative is the gift of grace. There are really (at least) two sides to this. The first is the idea I shared in the previous post about "pushing through" something with sheer willpower. The other idea is probably more deeply personal for each of us. It's the issue of our actual will-power. The power of the will.
Most of us want to do things we cannot do, or want to be someone we cannot seem to be, and we cannot muster up what we want through sheer will. Again, this is the issue of our formation. We can catch a vision of ourselves the way we want to be, and then often our disappointment in ourselves comes from our inability to be who we want to be and do what we want to do. Here is how Paul says it:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. [Romans 7:15-23]
There is, quite literally, a war waging within our souls as we battle with the "inner person" or what Paul often calls "the flesh." And it simply isn't true that where there is a will, there is a way and we can become whomever and whatever we wish.
So that's the bad news.
But here is the good news. We are being re-formed and reshaped daily by the one who does the re-shaping. Our will - though not a muscle we can force - is a muscle that is shaped and strengthened both through the work of God on his own in our lives, and also through our participation in our spiritual formation. One the one hand, God is remaking the "old self" into the "new self" through his process of soul-making that we often call sanctification. But, we also participate in that sanctification through the soul work of spiritual practices, disciplines, and the practice of discipline in following.
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. [Philippians 2:12-13]
Just as an athlete cannot force his or her body to do the seemingly impossible, that "impossible" can actually be obtained through the disciplined, practiced shaping that comes from practice, coaching, and skill building. [1 Corinthians 9:24-27]The same is true of the will. Our spiritual will, muscle, and grit can be shaped by the regular practices of following God and submission to him and his way. His will, then, becomes our way, and his way begins to shape our will. It is, then, possible to become the people he intended us to be and to do the impossible things he has asked us to do because he is made us into the people he planned. It is never our sheer will-power that works, and we are never self-made men or women. We are specifically shaped by a God who loves us and has our best interests in mind.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. [2 Corinthians 4:16]
So, here is the challenge for me and for you. Let's stop trying to force it. Let's stop trying to make it happen and take it by sheer force or willpower. Let's instead place our souls on the anvil of God's goodness and let him shape us through the tools of his trade (fire, water, mallet, time, etc.) Let's walk in his ways through practicing the presence of God in daily training that reshapes us into the people who can act out of pure hearts and clear minds.
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