On the Limits of Willpower



Lately there’s been a lot of research on willpower and one of the big discoveries has been that it’s finite. Turns out we only have so much available each day, and every time we use it we deplete it just a bit. All those little battles to do what’s right and resist what’s wrong take their toll and slowly weaken our resolve. And so we find ourselves eating the proverbial tub of ice cream at the end of the night (or whatever your particular vice might be) because we’re just too drained to say no.

Right on cue, we’ve seen tips and tricks emerge to manage one’s willpower to get ahead in business and life. It’s not surprising, but I do find it interesting that there’s a whole secular industry taking shape around self-control, discipline, and saying no to temptation when these have traditionally been in the domain of religious life.

The Scriptures are clear: we are to be disciplined, self-controlled, and holy. But unlike in the world’s system, we are not expected to do this on our own. It’s supposed to be done in partnership with the Spirit, through his power (2 Timothy 1:7, Philippians 2:12-13, etc.).

The Apostle Paul wrote,

“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” 1 Corinthians 15:10

One of the things I’ve discovered in my walk with God is that my own efforts can only take me so far. At best I can only hope to manage willpower, manage discipline, manage temptation. And managing is not the same thing as conquering.

The Bible says that through Christ, we are more than conquerors. We don’t have to settle for barely getting by. Through him we have access to an infinite reserve of discipline and self-control. We can win every fight instead of just hoping to survive.

Yet we are still tempted to go it alone. One of the dangerous things about doing so is that we can come under the illusion of success. You might be very disciplined in some area of your life and feel like you don’t really need God’s help. But if it’s you-powered then it’s ultimately you-centric and you-limited. The very fact that you are doing it apart from him is an open door for you to be prideful, for you to take control instead of surrendering it, for you to miss out on the direction he wants to give you, and for you to fall flat on your face when your willpower is no longer enough.

I don’t think Jesus was kidding when he said,

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

There is a sense in which this is literally true. See Colossians 1:17. But there is also a sense in which this applies to our productivity in the kingdom of God. The fruit we’re called to bear is both inner and outer; that famous list found in Galatians 5:22-23, but also the good works God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

So yes, we can exercise our willpower up to a point. God’s given each of us a limited allotment. But it’s only as we work in and through Christ that our efforts to do what’s right will bear any fruit that lasts. And honestly, wouldn’t you rather cooperate with God out of his grace, strength, and abundance than work alone out of your own diminishing resources?

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