“I delight to do your will, O my God. Your law is within my heart.” ~ Psalm 40:8
As we press forward, I know some of you are feeling a sense of, “Whoa! Slow down.”
I get it. Pastor Peter Scazzero has written entire books and designed weekend seminars built around the subject of emotional healing, and here we covered it in a brief essay. Most of the topics we cover each day assume a long learning curve just to get acquainted with some of the concepts, let alone trying to put them into practice.
These are truths and principles that God has taught me over years of walking with Christ, and years of struggling to overcome very specific sins. But this is why learning how to stick close to Jesus in the ways we’ve discussed remains the baseline of your hope and healing.
Of everything we’ve discussed, what I want you working on most right now is establishing that habit of spending twenty minutes a day with your Lord – ten in Bible reading, ten in prayer, and then getting your butt into a church where Jesus is loved, the Bible is taught and you can find a small group of friends for accountability and encouragement. If you lay down that baseline, then everything else we discuss in here will build off of that.
Today we need to talk about the portion of our hearts that is called the will. While emotions are easy to spot because they bleed out all over our sleeves, the will is inscrutable, scarcely detectable. It’s black-robed and silent, like a Judge holding court.
When you have a choice to make, attorneys representing the various options present themselves before Judge Will. The Emotions give their side. Reason is given a chance to plead its case. The Body bursts into the courtroom, demanding an audience, cheered on by hormones and chemicals. Faith may or may not be allowed to speak (it’s often under a gag-order.) And then, Judge Will announces his decision. And there is no appeal.
This is what goes on inside of you, sometimes in the twinkling of an eye (as you decide to change lanes on the highway), and sometimes after long and steady deliberation (as you decide to power up the computer for another round of Flog the Porn Addict). When all is said and done, the battle is won or lost right here – with the decision of the will. The problem every one of us sinners must contend with is that our will by nature is weak and corrupt. It’s been bought off by our sin nature. Unless compelled by a higher authority, or unless a new sheriff comes into town, it will invariably rule in favor of sin and self.
Paul poignantly described the bondage of his will in Romans 7. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” (vvs.15,18).
Augustine likewise realized this was where the rubber met the road within his own heart. When he said to himself, “Make me chaste Lord, but not just yet,” it was because his will was still too enslaved to make the right choice.
In his Confessions he writes, “The mind gives an order to the body, and the order is obeyed immediately. The mind gives an order to itself, and there is resistance…What can be the explanation of such absurdity? The fact is that it does not will the thing entirely. Consequently it does not give the order entirely. The force of the order is in the force of the will, and disobedience to the order results from insufficiency of the will. So it is not an absurdity partly to will and partly not to will. It is rather a sickness of the soul which is weighed down with habit so that it cannot rise up in its entirety, lifted aloft by truth.”
I can’t count the times when in the thrall of my lust, I knew full well hours before the deed was done that I was going to do it. I would put up token resistance to the thought, and throw up token prayers for help, but I had crossed a line somewhere in the inner machinery of my decision-making where a switch was toggled, and the decision was made. The will had ruled.
There were quite a few occasions where God would then step in and overrule my will by providing some unexpected escape hatch. One time just as I was settling in for a long winter’s nap, a group of carolers came to the door, like the Magnificent Seven riding in to save the day. On another occasion the power went out. Yet another – a worship song parachuted in out of nowhere and wedged itself stubbornly into my craw and refused to budge. God was remarkably faithful as I look back on that time.
But here’s what’s chilling. God won’t keep on endlessly rescuing you. Three times in fast succession, Romans 1 tells us that God will “give us up in the lusts of our hearts, to the dishonoring of our bodies…to dishonorable passions…and to a debased mind” (vss.24, 26 and 28). C.S. Lewis said that the time must come where we say to God, Thy will be done, or he will say to us, Thy will be done. Sooner or later we are going to have to win the battle of the will. If at some point we don’t arrive at a place of Spirit-led self-control, then other things will eventually have to control us – a divorce court, bankruptcy court, a predator watchlist, prison, or worse.
How then can our will be trained and conditioned? In the darkest hours of my struggle, I could not go a day without torment. I could scarcely ever sit at a computer at home without gnats of impurity buzzing in my brain. My wife could not go away for a night to visit family without me knowing for a certainty that I would fall. Yet all of that is long past. My mind is at rest. The gnats still buzz me now and then, but they are easily shooed away. I could still access the images from those days if I chose, but they’re locked up like the ark at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in a vault so deep and hidden I would have to make a considerable effort to retrieve them. I could think of them if I wished, but I choose not to. My will is strong. And can’t be bought. How did I get there?
Let me give you a roadmap of sorts for training the will. Again these are brief steps describing a lengthy journey, but the journey looks like this:
Step One: Pray for God to join his will to yours.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying by Benjamin Franklin, the Lord helps those who help themselves. Franklin was suggesting that we go first, then God responds. God waits to see who gives it their best shot, and then comes alongside to help out. But that’s not what the Gospel teaches.
Look at how Paul describes the training of our will in Philippians 2:12-13. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Though the God-part and the human-part are as tightly wound together here as the double-helix of a DNA, notice how Paul says that before I can even will to do the right thing, God works in me, fanning the embers of my faith into flame. The truth is, God goes first, then we respond. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).
What that means on a practical level is that we must learn to approach God and talk to him with this understanding firmly in place. In words of your own making, you pray, “Lord, I’m going to blow this unless you come and help. Lord, apart from you, I can do nothing. Lord, I’m lost before I even take one step, unless you come and help me to feel rightly, and think rightly and act rightly.”
Step Two: Practice taking the right steps.
Though God is the great Initiator in the training of our will, there is still a real work for us to do. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
As much as we might like to cry out, “Jesus to take the wheel!” he wants us to learn to drive, though he’ll be right there beside us. As much as we might prefer for God to just give us a spiritual lobotomy, or download some new Matrix software into our brains, he wants to renew our minds by teaching us how to take captive our thoughts (2 Corinthians 10:5). God wants sons and daughters who will love him freely, not robots who operate according to programming.
What that means is that in the battle for holiness, after you have prayed and asked God to join his will to yours, you must then propel your will forward by taking actual steps and making real choices. You must experience resistance, and push against it. You must learn to say no, when everything inside of you is screaming yes.
Those lost in porn have developed terrible habits of heart, mind and body. The first time you try to fall asleep without masturbating will strike you as very awkward. But you must feel that agitation, that emptiness, that irritation deep in your bones, and not give in to it.
The first time you walk away from the computer without saying hi to your ‘friends’ will be agonizing. Your ‘friends’ will plead for you to return.
Augustine heard them speak. “Toys and trifles, utter vanities had been my mistresses, and now they were holding me back, pulling me by the garment of my flesh and softly murmuring in my ear, ‘Are you getting rid of us?’ And, ‘From this moment shall we never be with you again for all eternity?’ And ‘From this moment will you never for all eternity be allowed to do this or do that?’
This will require genuine effort on your part. Jesus, in an admittedly obscure verse, said that the kingdom of God must be taken violently, by force (Matthew 11:12). Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:27 said he “beat” his body and made it his slave, using the strongest of language which is lost by some English translations.
Picture a toddler learning how to walk with the parent directly above them. The toddler is allowed to feel the floor under their feet, to experience the unsteadiness of trying to balance, to take a step or two on their own, perhaps even fall flat on their tush. Without experiencing this for themselves, the child’s muscles cannot learn, the brain cannot calibrate, and the child will not learn. Yet all the while, the parent is with, under and above the child.
So practice. Picture in your mind what it would look like living a porn-free life, then do those things. I suppose rather than writing a whole page on this, I could have just said: Fake it till you make it. That’s the idea.
Step three: Persevere through failure.
Because our salvation is secure in Christ – he lived the perfect life we can’t, and paid the price we couldn’t – we are given a literal ‘grace period’ to grow. Psalm 37:3 says, “Trust in the Lord and do good.” Forget John 3:16. This verse is the gospel in a nutshell and should be held high in football stadium end zones. We are saved by trusting in the Lord and what he did for us. As a result, we are given space and time to learn how to live like him – to do good.
Because of this, when we fall we have every reason to pick ourselves up, let the Lord dust us off, then try again. This is good news to a professional sinner’s ears. More than this, you must never forget that even in failing, there is learning. If it’s going to take you 71 falls and 13 skinned knees with a bike before you can ride it on your own, then each fall is one closer to getting there. If it’s going to take you 51 practices before you learn to play Miraculum on guitar, then each practice brings you and Lincoln Brewster that much closer. If it’s going to take you 37 shorter runs to condition your body to run a 5k, then know that with each run things are happening to cells in your muscles, lungs and brain that are taking you that much closer to the breakthrough you are seeking.
As Augustine kept wrestling with God prior to his conversion, he noticed that progress of sorts was still being made in his heart. “I was saying inside myself, “Now, now, let it be now!” And as I spoke the words I was already beginning to go in the direction I wanted to go. I nearly managed it. But I did not quite manage it, yet I did not slip right back to the beginning. I was a stage above that, and I stood there to regain my breath.”
What was happening? His will was growing incrementally stronger. A capacity to respond to the Spirit of Christ was growing within him. As it will grow within you, provided you keep on repenting with each failure (for each failure is sin), keep running back to Jesus, and asking for his mercy to move you forward and make you more like him.
Perhaps you’re wondering what the difference is between the person who fails but perseveres and the person whom God ‘gives up to their sin’. The difference is that one runs to Jesus, and the other runs to his or her sin. On the last day, Jesus will turn people away from his presence by saying, not, “You did this wrong and that wrong,” but by saying “I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:23). It’s all in the relationship.
What ideas in this reading did you find helpful or challenging?
Can you relate to the feeling of helplessness that Paul writes about in Romans 7? Put it in your own words.
Write out the 3 steps for training the will, and one sentence for each describing why it’s important to know.
Prayer and Worship
“Father, I thank you for…”
“Father, please help me with…”
“Father, please be with…”
“In the name of Jesus, who died for my sins, who rose from the dead and who is with me now through the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Today’s Worship Suggestion: “Refiner’s Fire” (Brian Doerksen)
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