When Will Power Isn’t Enough

Stop it!

Is this the way we handle behavior issues as Christians? Is it just a matter of will power?

Yes, there are times when Jesus says to stop (John 5:14 and 6:43 are two examples).

Think about this brief interchange between Bob Newhart (longtime comedian), playing a therapist, and his patient. When I saw this video, I didn’t immediately apply it to therapy but to preaching and teaching in churches. Sometimes, preaching and teaching in churches has said “Stop it.” but never given people the power and motivation that comes with the Gospel.

I remember the first time I noticed this in Paul’s teaching in the book of Ephesians. The indicative precedes the imperative. In other words, before there is a call for these people to do something or to not do something (Stop it!), they first hear what God has been doing in this world and through the church. For example, notice how he begins the book of Ephesians (1:3-10).

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment — to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

He continues in chapters one through three speaking of all the provisions that God has blessed his people with in Christ. It is a grand picture of what God has been doing in such a powerful way through Christ. He closes chapter three by praying for the Christians in Ephesus (Ephesians 3:14-21).

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Chapters four through six are full of imperatives. Yet, these imperatives are more than Paul saying “Stop it.” Rather, he is inviting these people to live out the power of what God has done in Christ through the Spirit. The power to do the imperatives comes from the indicatives. The power to do what he commands comes from what he has already done.

To speak of the imperatives without first talking about what God has done in Christ (the indicatives) does not help anyone. In fact, it often leaves people frustrated and defeated. To say “Stop it.” outside of the power of the Spirit and the story of the Gospel leaves a person with little more than sheer will power. However, to only speak of what God has done and not deal with his desire, his command, and his instruction is to participate in an incomplete Gospel.

Have you experienced trying to change behavior by will power alone? What is the downside of relying on will power rather than God?

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12 thoughts on “When Will Power Isn’t Enough

  1. The Ten Commandments seem to operate according to the indicative-imperative pattern — Exodus 19:3-20:2 precedes the actual Ten Words, and Deuteronomy 1-4 precede Deut 5. I have always loved how neatly Ephesians is shaped, but I hadn't considered it as a pattern of revelation.

    • Nick– Thank you for this observation regarding the ten commandments. Exactly! And–does it ever make a difference for command to be rooted in who God is and what he has already done.

  2. I see this in Romans 7 and 8, with Romans 7 talking about the hopelessness of trying to be holy by mere human power and Romans 8 talking about life with the Spirit's power. I think it's a crucial concept in Christianity, that God now empowers us to do what he asks of us. It's not up to human will power.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

    • Thank you Tim. I like the way you put this, "…it's a crucial concept in Christianity, that God now empowers us to do what he asks of us." Encouraging.

  3. Having my graduate degree in counseling, that approach is about as effective as some therapies I've studied. It's one of my favorite Newhart skits and I LOVE Newhart. I think we tried for years to replace the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit with ministries and activity and we're finally figuring out that it just doesn't work. In Colossians the power to live out the imperatives is "Christ in us." I will never be able to love the way Christ expects and even demands that I love. But Christ in me can love others who, to me, are simply unlovable. Good post, Jim.

    • Greg, I tried for a long time to do ministry by working hard enough, reading enough, and by being smart enough. No only was I never enough, it left me tired, bored, and defeated. Took me awhile to learn to rely on what God has done and wishes to do in my life.

  4. Not long ago, I found myself engulfed in the question of how I'm supposed to remove wrath, malice and anger from my life. Paul says to do it, but doesn't say how. But coming to better understand God's role in my life, and thinking of him in terms of a more intimate relationship, I found that some of the tension, anger, and etc., worked itself out. Having no other explanation, it made sense that the fruit of the Spirit forced it out on its own. There wasn't room enough for both to reign in my life. This I know, I consciously did nothing to extract it from my life.

  5. Thanks Doug. I think many of us face these issues just as you did—seeing yourself in the mirror. Thanks for your personal application in your comment.

  6. Thank you so much for this post! I have a tendency to try to earn God's love with my "good" behavior, when God simply loves me, even with all of my messiness.

    Recently I began a job at a Christian school. One of the biggest areas of frustration for me is this tendency to spend so much time telling students never to lie, or be proud, to always obey parents, etc. While that certainly has its place, it would be so nice to hear more lessons about God's love and grace–the love that spurs us on toward good deeds…or perhaps lessons about serving one another.

    Unfortunately, we sometimes lose sight of the differences between "saved" and "well-behaved."