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  • Peter Bai

Willpower: How can we actually do what we already know we should do?


Problems in life isn't so much about knowing the right thing to do (though that CAN be a hard thing to discern at times). More often than not, it's about being able to actually do what you already know is the right thing to do. Right? We already know how to live this life right. Work hard, be honest. Believe in something worthwhile. Keep hope. Love beyond yourself: God and others. Or even more basic: eat healthy and exercise regularly. Pretty straight-forward, right? But how do we actually do it?

Let’s do a little travel down the road into the world of psychology (I recently took an on-line course called "The Science of Willpower and Change" at Stanford Continuing Studies taught by Dr. Kelly McGonigal. Much of my learning here is stimulated by taking this course.)

First, what is willpower? Is it something you are born with (i.e. some people have more willpower and some less)? That's true to a certain extent. Some kids are just born with a strong will. BUT, psychologists are finding out: willpower isn't some finite commodity you were born with. It's not a thing you either have or not have. Instead, it's your "learned skill” in life that you can develop and grow. It’s more about learning how to apply it in your life than whether you happen to have it or not. It’s like a muscle. YOU CAN GROW IT! Because psychologists are finding out that there are factors in life that grow/increase willpower.

What are these factors?

1. Rested soul (physical rest, less distracted mind, gratitude, trust): When tired and distracted, you are less disciplined. When feeling more grateful, you have more willpower. Interesting enough, when in a more trusting environment, your willpower also increases. So, when your body and therefore your soul is well rested and filled with gratitude and trust (i.e. in a safe environment), you are more prone to follow through with your actions that you want. Perhaps, when you are secure in God and growing in spirit of gratitude and trust, your willpower will grow too? (It's a spiritual truth supported by psychology. But, I'm getting ahead of myself here).

2. Paying attention to how your mind works can help with your willpower.

First, when feeling weak against a temptation: Know that what you are feeling is really a surge of dopamine in your brain that needs to be satisfied. You think it’s what you need right now to be happy but it’s not necessarily true. It might just be the need of your dopamine in your brain. It’s just a promise of happiness but not real happiness. So don’t be tricked.

Second, when you have failed against a temptation, acknowledge the struggle with self-compassion rather feeding yourself with shame. Sense of shame leads to even less self-control. On the other side, when feeling good about having accomplished something, don’t pad yourself too much and fall into “moral licensing” (i.e. “reward” yourself with something bad because you now "deserve" it).

Third, you want to know WHY you want to do something instead of just knowing WHAT you want to do. (“Autonomous" vs "Controlled" motivation). You want to be motivated by something inside of you, something that is real and meaningful to you, instead of just by some externally force.

Ok, you might be asking by now. Peter, these are all very interesting. But what does any of these relate to what we have learned from the Bible about God, power of the Holy Spirit, and our Christian living? I'm glad you asked. Because that was also the number one question on my mind all along. And here is my attempt to make sense of it all. Because, I believe God works through psychology (how our mind works). Psychology isn't supplementary to theology (our understanding of God) nor inferior. When we can see how psychology and theology is integrated, we have the real power and skills to finally do the things in our lives that we already know are the right things to do.

Here is how I have integrated theology and psychology of willpower.

We all know Jesus' greatest commandment to us: Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and will. But, what does it mean to love God with our will? Loving with our heart, and mind, we can kind of understand. But, to love with our will? You mean use our will to make good decisions in life? Of course, making good decisions in life is vital. But, is it all about making good decisions in life? Is God up in heaven grading the decisions we are making throughout our life? Or, perhaps as we've also been taught, it's about submitting our will to his will for our lives? Yes, but what does it really mean to submit our will to God and how do we really do it?

I think the answer is in the PROCESS of it all, not in the end result. Remember, willpower is something we can grow. So, to love God with all our will isn't so much about how correct or right you are with your decisions but how prayerfully engaged with God's spirit you are when you are exercising your free-will to make decisions. In other words, did you love God in all your process of exercising your will? Are you doing this with God? Are you trusting God and learning to grow in this area of exercising your willpower by the Spirit God has given you?

In a famous passage by Apostle Paul in Romans 7, we see how the inner conflict of our WILL is very real. And, how this inner conflict can only be resolved by Jesus Christ who died for us and the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

What is the Holy Spirit's main job with us? Yes, miracles, but mainly he is in the business of GROWING our spirit. He is watering and growing the spirit of new life we received in death and resurrection of Christ. You see the picture! Holy Spirit is not bypassing our spirit and doing things on our behalf apart from us. For that Jesus didn't have to come. God chose a more sticky, inside-out way. He chose to enter INTO us, die with us and be risen with us, so that our spirit will, yes very slowly at times but surely, grow by the working of Holy Spirit. God is intrested in changing us not just changing things for us!

So, it is our will that God wants to grow. The little "willpower" we have at this time, God wants to grow through the power of the Holy Spirit. He wants US to learn, understand, and accept the deeper truth in life. He wants US to make the right choices in life. He wants us to grow our willpower, and psychologists are saying it can happen through gratitude, humility, and beliefs. We know what they are really talking about is growing in our love for God and our relationship with the Holy Spirit that lives in us!

So, here is the conclusion of it all:

1. BELIEVE that you can love God with your will - not just on what you decide in life but how you make decisions in life. And that you can GROW in this love for God.

2. SELF-COMPASSION: When feeling weak with your willpower, be compassionate towards your self as God is to you. Don't listen to the tricks of your mind that says you really need and want this thing you are feeling weak toward. Rest in God's grace, thanksgiving, humility, and trust more. And remember that the Holy Spirit doesn't overpower your will but wants to come inside your spirit to grow your willpower. He will stay with you through the process of your growth so that you can do what is good out of your changing and growing heart. If you fail, don't dwell in shame. If you succeed, don't "reward" yourself. Thank God in either cases.

3. KNOW YOUR "WHY": Discover what you really want in your life and why you want it. Not just for the big items in your life but even in small, daily stuff. Focus on your deeper desire - more than on resisting evil (i.e. “overcome evil with good”). If you stop and think about it, you actually really want to do what is good, not what you are being tempted to do. Follow your deeper "why"!


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