Willpower is one of the most valuable character traits a Christian can possess. How can you develop this important quality?
Today's overweight person has available to him every conceivable aid that science can muster to help him lose weight. Dozens of magazine articles and whole racks of books are devoted to this or that type of diet, or various programs for getting in shape. Calorie counters, charts, scales, pills and high-priced gyms and exercise equipment are offered. Yes, the modern dieter can come by (or should we say buy?) just about anything he needs to lose weight — anything, that is, but the one thing he needs most of all — willpower! Yes, lack of plain old willpower has stood in the way of more than one would-be dieter. And, in this or other areas, it has stood in front of you and me, too! Lack of willpower has stopped us from accomplishing what we want to on our jobs or on our days off. It has stopped us from cutting the grass, getting the exercise we need or painting the house. But, more important, a lack of willpower can stand in front of us and block our access to God's Kingdom. The apostle Paul realized this weakness of human nature. He saw that the good intentions with which the proverbial road to hell (death) is paved are no substitute for the spiritual zeal that builds dynamic growth, the zeal that is founded in willpower (Heb. 2:1-3). Christ said, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matt. 7:21 ). To do the will of our Father in heaven, we need to bend our own willpower to the task. That is, if we have the willpower in the first place.
Needed: real willpower
But do not misunderstand. We cannot make it into God's Kingdom on our own power, or by the strength of our own will or works. No, we are saved by faith through grace (Eph. 2:8). And you and I cannot, of ourselves, somehow conjure up the fruits of God's Spirit that we must exhibit in our daily lives. Those fruits come only from that Spirit, which lives in us. But willpower is necessary. We need willpower to force ourselves to pray and study the Bible, so we may grow in faith. We need willpower to overcome bad habits like smoking or excessive drinking or overeating. We need willpower to keep ourselves in good physical health, so our minds might function effectively as we try to grow spiritually. And willpower is necessary to keep at least the physical element of God's commands (e.g., "bodily exercise profits" — I Timothy 4:8) as we strive toward God's Kingdom. Even the willpower that some in our society exhibit can sometimes prove to be wispy indeed. The willpower many call upon is in reality often a mere shadow of strength, and it is hammered at by destructive enemies.
What are the enemies of our willpower? Bad habits perhaps lead the list. After repeating something for a long time, our "automatic pilot" tends to take over. When it does, it can be difficult to return the control to our conscious minds. And when our automatic pilot has been set on negative, we can end up staggering under the weight of numerous bad habits. Peer pressure is another destructive force hammering away at our willpower. It's just plain hard to buck a crowd that's going the other way than you are. If the world around you was traveling the proper direction instead of the wrong one, it would be far easier to chart a steady and positive course. Procrastination is another enemy. Too often we avoid doing what we should by simply delaying our actions for one more day. One day adds upon another until we have successfully avoided the project altogether. Plain laziness afflicts a lot of people. Laziness is not necessarily the opposite of willpower — the opposite of willpower is weakness. Laziness is not necessarily a lack of strength, but it does reflect a lack of ambition. Even Moses fell prey to one of the enemies of willpower — excuses. Our excuses for not doing this or that are rarely good. And neither were Moses'. See how many excuses Moses found when God told him to rescue the children of Israel (Ex. 3-4)? You and I are just as susceptible, or more so, than he was to offering excuses for not doing things we don't want to do. More and more people don't take positive action these days because of doubt. They doubt that they have the ability to reach the goal that is set before them. They don't pray or study as they should, they don't fast as they should and they don't try to overcome their bad habits because they don't really believe they could make any progress even if they wanted to. Certainly such an attitude denies God's power as well as their own, for Paul set us the example of "being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). If God is confident that we can reach His Kingdom with His help and a little human willpower, why should we doubt? Closely coupled with doubt is another enemy of willpower — fear. Fear overwhelmed our spiritual forefathers, the ancient Israelites, causing their hearts to melt for fear of the "giants" in the promised land (Num. 13:32- 14:4). Our hearts can also wax weak at the daily trials we face. Fear of our trials can simply shred our paper-thin willpower into a heap of confetti.
Where there's a will...
But there is hope! With God's help, you can build firm resolve and strong determination to exercise your spiritual muscle. You can learn to be the master of your own body! You can build a healthy prayer and Bible study schedule. You can exercise your body and your mind and you can bring yourself under control. But willpower does not spring up through spontaneous combustion. No, it takes work. But without the knowledge of how to build the willpower, our sincerest hopes for strength of character will go unfulfilled. The real way to- building willpower is found in the old phrase: "Where there's a will, there's a way." The reverse is also true: Where there is a way (i.e., an earnestly desired goal firmly in mind), there is a will (the willpower to strive toward it). The goal you and I should center on is that of the Kingdom of God. Planting that goal deep within our hearts and minds will cause a burning desire that can light the fire of ambition toward that goal. Remember the story of the man who found treasure hidden in the field? Read it in Matthew 13:44: "Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field." To seek God's Kingdom with the alacrity and zeal — the willpower — pictured by the man who sold all he had to buy the field, we must feel the same way about the Kingdom as the man did about that treasure. We must want it above all else. If you want God's Kingdom and God's way badly enough, you will find a will to make yourself pray and study. You will find a will to overcome your smoking habit or your overeating. If you want the Kingdom badly enough, you will develop the willpower to seek it. But the strong desire, the earnest yearning and zealous action of willpower to reach that goal, does not, even then, come merely from within ourselves. Paul explained this when he wrote, "It is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13).
A simple solution
Our society is so accustomed to expecting man's intellect to solve his problems that we can come into God's truth expecting answers to our problems to be quite complicated. We tend to think we should read some special book to build willpower or go through a deep psychoanalysis to find what event in our early years doomed us to be weak-willed for the remainder of our lives. But God's way of solving our problems is more simple. When it comes to spiritual willpower, the simple truth is that God will give us all we need, if we ask Him: "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened" (Matt. 7:7-8). Even though true spiritual willpower must come from God (for man of himself has neither the will or desire for God's Kingdom nor the power to get there), nonetheless there are things you can do to make yourself a more fertile resting place for God's Spirit. You can, in fact, turn many of the enemies of willpower into your friends. You will realize that repetition and habit, for example, while they can be destructive when you are locked into a negative habit, can also be put to positive use. If you pray an hour a day for 30 days, it will be that much easier to pray the same amount on the 31st day. And, you can learn to discipline yourself through well planned prods on yourself. Pastor General Herbert W. Armstrong has written about how he trained himself — forced himself — to develop the habit of getting up bright and early in the morning. He paid a bellhop to wake him up, and told the bellhop he would not give him the money until he was up and starting to get dressed. Mr. Armstrong kept this system up until the "early-bird" habit was established. Think of methods you can apply to your own circumstances to get you started building good habits. Develop the way, and watch your willpower blossom. You can use peer pressure to your advantage, too. True, it is hard to buck the crowd if they are going in the opposite direction from you. But sometimes the solution is to travel down another street. If you pick friends who are trying to build positive habits, positive habits will be easier for you to build (Prov. 13:20). Also, learn to replace with courage the doubt that drags down your willpower. Courage comes from preparing to face the future and learning through positive experience (Rom. 5:1-5). In place of your fear, ask God for faith. He is the author of faith, and He alone can give you a believing and positive attitude (Gal. 5:22). Replace procrastination with a do-it-now attitude. From a good time-management book, you can learn to organize your time and energy so you can do it now, as well as do many other things later. You will find that doing something now means that you do not have an overwhelming load of things to do tomorrow. Finally, as you see yourself accomplishing things through applying the principles of willpower, take a bit of humble satisfaction in the accomplishments. Seeing accomplishment encourages one to greater growth and greater zeal: "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when the desire comes, it is a tree of life" (Prov. 13:12).
You can do it
Yes, you can build willpower. You can build willpower if you want God's Kingdom badly enough, for where there is a burning desire for a "way" (a goal), there is willpower to back it up. But remember, no matter how hard you try (and you should try hard!), you cannot build the willpower necessary for attaining God's Kingdom without God's Spirit, the source of all power, in you. For, as Paul said in II Timothy 1:7, "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power [including willpower] and of love and of a sound mind." So it is God who gives us both the will and the power — the willpower, if you please — to strive toward His Kingdom. Ask God for that willpower and He will not deny it to you. Yes, feeble men can package diets, pills, books, scales or exercise equipment to help the dieter reach his goal, but they will never be able to market willpower. But don't worry! For God will give it to you, if you want His Kingdom badly enough and if you ask Him for the willpower to attain it.