Willpower is never enough

Willpower is never enough

We want to change, but willpower alone is never enough. It runs out. We need to have a stronger power – a heart power that strengthens our thinking.

I was going to change. I was determined. No more of those old habits and going down those old stupid ways. Now it was going to be different.

So with grit and determination, I tried harder to steer the ship of my life away from this behavior. And it worked for a while. I could see the changes happening. But suddenly, the steering wheel snaps back to the old ways.

It was like a magnetic force pulling me back to the old. All the willpower in the world didn’t seem to help.

But then I hear a pep talk. Someone tells me about how they have changed. I get inspired by their change, so I throw myself into the wind again and grit my teeth. This time will be different. I’ll do it right. I will try harder.

Then life happens. Stress comes. We get tired, and willpower seems to wilt away. So back we go into the old ways. The familiar is comforting. We give up and resign ourselves to being like this forever.

Let’s understand Willpower.

So what’s this thing called Willpower.

For me, I would define it as an internal resource we draw on to make a change in our lives. 

Internal in the sense that it comes from within ourselves. Something we own and have responsibility for.

It’s the power, energy, or strength to say ‘No’ to what we know is not good for us.

It’s also the power, energy, or strength to say ‘Yes’ to what we know is good for us.

The temptation comes with a choice to go with the old, familiar, and easy. But there is a moment in time. A brief slither of time where the choice we make is vulnerable.

Willpower is not on will call.

This willpower seems to wane too. It comes and goes. Sometimes it’s easy to ‘do the right thing,’ but at other times, it feels just impossible, and we don’t have the energy or the strength to keep to the plan.

All too often, our willpower is compromised by the H.A.L.T.S. Times when we are …

  • H – Hungry
  • A – Angry
  • L – Lonely
  • T – Tired
  • S – Sick, Sad, Stressed

We find that we need relief, quick relief in those times, and the old and familiar pathways are wide, expansive, and oh so welcoming.

We comfort eat, drink and drug till the pain is numbed. Control until we think we are safe. Lust and linger until we feel known.

There is a desire to change, but it seems so hard and feels impossible.

We go the cognitive path. Review the potential consequences, attack it with logic, problem solve, remove the temptation, push through and tough it out. BUT there is still something the heart is craving.

This candy bar temptation with a pull is only the facade of something much deeper that the heart legitimately needs.

There is a pain in the heart like a vacuum. We know what we do to fill the emptiness has negative consequences for us and those that care about us, but that vacuous space needs filling, and I will ‘damned well will do it in my way and in my time.’

A sense of entitlement sits in our souls.

I remember a conversation with a man struggling with sexual addiction and his comment, ‘I’m a man, and a man has needs.’

All the willpower in the world is nothing compared to the sucking power of the vacuum.

There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ. Blaise Pascal

Create in me a new heart

David, one of the Bible’s greatest characters, had a vacuum in his heart. Let’s be deeply honest here. We all have a vacuum in our heart. There is a sucking sound in you that needs satisfaction.

I’m not sure what David’s heart was longing for. Maybe it was love, to be known, affirmed. Perhaps the vacuum was loneliness, and the outworking was lust. His wife Michal despised him and was certainly not a soul mate. (Not blaming Michal here for Davids choices, but we do live in an imperfect world with imperfect relationships)

But when David saw ‘a very beautiful young woman bathing on a rooftop’, the vacuum found an option for relief.

He took her, had sex, and she became pregnant.

He then went on a manipulative, murderous program to try and cover up what he had done.

It was an abuse of power. His vacuum had consumed him, and he was in a Grand Canyon of a thinking track being swept along by the current.

His one focus – fulfill my needs my way.

Then there was a mess to clean up. He chose to manipulate and fabricate a story. Control the narrative. Spin a tale, create fake news, make it all go away.

The reality of what we do is always seen by others, who are not fooled. I think of the children’s story of The emperor with no clothes on.

David’s sin becomes known, and his abuses are laid out for everyone to see.

It’s black—blacker than black. It’s like being stark naked and exposed with everyone throwing black mud at you. It is jeering at you, hurling abuses, mocking.

In that darkness, David pours out a song of pain.

You can read it here Psalm 51, but there is a pivotal point in the song. An awareness that something had to change within David’s heart, in that place with a vacuum.

Willpower alone would not be enough. It never is.

Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me. Psalm 51:10

Create – ongoing creation, new work every day, creating.

Clean heart – pure, unblemished, vacuums filled, complete, peaceful

Renew – renovate, rebuild, restore to as close to Eden completeness as humanly possible

Loyal spirit – motivations, energy, life totally in line with God

I want heart power

Yes, there is willpower, but I want something greater to fill the vacuum. That place in my heart that I try to fill with fluff needs the solidness of God.

I marvel at how Jesus faced up to the temptations and easy, quick fixes to when he had the H.A.L.T.S.

The temptations laid out to him in the desert by satan were only part of his temptation trial.

Daily he would have had to draw from somewhere to find the strength to keep going the narrow path.

Jesus had what I call heart power. He was fully human – subject to knowing the H.A.L.T.S., but he was also fully divine. He knew the fullness of what God’s beauty and purpose was like.

Sorry to all the non-meat eaters, but it was like comparing mince to steak. Why would you have mince when you could have steak.

I want heart power. It’s a strength that slowly comes from feeding on God’s goodness. It’s not a hype power you get from a charged-up worship service. No, it’s a steadily growing inner strength that comes from spending time with God alone—feasting on scripture, meditation, silence, prayer, stillness.

It’s noticing the H.A.L.T.S. and asking God to meet you in those places.

It’s having conversations with a few safe others about the H.A.L.T.S.

Times of connecting at a heart level where we pray for each other. Not for more accountability but for more solidarity that this battle is hard going.

I want heart power to grow and solidify in my life so that when I see ‘a very beautiful woman bathing on a rooftop’ (insert your vacuum default here ______), I will not be swept away by the pull. Instead, I will know heart power that meets my human frailty with grace.

Teach me your ways

Out of that penitent heart, David has a new song.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
    that I may walk in your truth;
    give me an undivided heart to revere your name. Psalm 86:11

David comes to a place of humility where he sees that deep change comes only from being taught a new path that is ancient old.

There is a way that relies solely on one’s willpower to make the changes. It’s flimsy and vulnerable to H.A.L.T.S.

But there is another way where heart power steadily grows and strengthens us. We learn to rely on God’s quiet power within us to help us in that moment of decision. I want God more than I want ‘a very beautiful woman bathing on a rooftop’ (insert your vacuum default here ______).

Out of this heart comes insights and new self-talk to help us. We build new thoughts for our thinking compass. 


Quotes to consider

  • Willpower is not enough in itself. When used as the only tool in the toolkit, it inevitably leaves many men [and women] feeling defeated and hopeless. Paul Crawford
  • The men and women who are truly filled with light are those who have gazed deeply into the darkness of their own imperfect existence. Brennan Manning
  • Despair is what happens when there is a lack of new creation. When things are just are what they are, and there is a deep sense of impotence that there is nothing you can do about it. Rob Bell
  • Despair is a spiritual condition. Despair is when you fall under the belief and conviction that tomorrow will simply be a repeat of today. Rob Bell
  • Groups tend to emphasize accountability when they don’t know how to relate. Better behavior through exhortation isn’t the solution, though it sometimes is part of it. Larry Crabb Connecting
  • Supernatural goals need supernatural resources. Dr. Larry Crabb
  • Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Questions to answer

  1. What is your default when the H.A.L.T.S. moments happen?
  2. Is there a verse of scripture that helps you?
  3. What is your understanding of what willpower is?

Further Reading

The Cup. Paying Attention To What Fills and Drains

There is None so Blind as Those that Will Not See

Crossing Boundaries Crushes the Shape of the Heart


Barry Pearman

Photo by Tobias Rademacher on Unsplash

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