Strength Is More Than Just Willpower

“The problem is you’re just not trying hard enough!”

How many of us have heard these words from well meaning (and sometimes not so well-meaning) family members, friends, and acquaintances? How many of us have said the same thing to ourselves, frustrated that we just can’t seem to do whatever it is that we think we should?

This line of reasoning can be applied to almost any struggle we face. If only I tried a bit harder, I would be able to control my temper, get up on time, reduce my alcohol intake, quit smoking, meet my deadlines. The list goes on. But the thing that remains stubbornly the same, whatever our individual battle is, is the fact that, however hard we try, in the end we always seem to end up back at square one.

You may be able to treat your husband or wife with kindness and respect for several days or weeks, but in the end, something always snaps. You’re feeling tired and stressed and don’t have the energy to rein in the anger that seems to come from nowhere when your partner speaks to you in that tone of voice or looks at you in that way. Before you know it, you have launched into a tirade of verbal abuse, once again trampling upon the relationship you’re trying so hard to save.

You may be able to stick to your new diet long enough to achieve significant weight loss and go down a clothes’ size or two. You may look at other people ordering deserts at a restaurant and experience what feels like genuine sorrow that they lack the self-control that you have. But somehow, your healthy eating streak never seems to last. And each time the pounds start piling on again, you are overcome with shame that you are so weak-willed.

The truth is that the real battles in our lives are never as simple as just not trying hard enough. And our willpower by itself, however determined we are, is never enough to bring permanent change.

For every quagmire we can never quite pull ourselves out of, there’s always some underlying force that’s keeping us in there. It’s getting to the root of this cause and breaking its power over us that really is the key to lasting freedom.

As a believer in Jesus, I consider God to be the ultimate source of my strength and deliverance. I believe there are spiritual dynamics involved whenever we feel totally stuck in any area of our lives.

But I also believe that there are certain emotional and cognitive processes that we can go through to help get unstuck. And these can be useful for all of us, wherever we are on our journey of faith.

Christian believers sometimes fall into the trap of expecting God to set them free from their struggles without needing to do any deep inner work. This way of thinking can lead to great pain and disappointment, as well as a sense of shame and secrecy among believers. So often in churches, people feel ashamed about their lack of victory in certain areas of their lives and try to hide the reality of their ongoing struggles from others. Even more tragic is the judgment that these believers sometimes face when they do try to share with someone else. Sometimes they are met with rebuke for not having enough faith, not praying enough, not trying hard enough… and it’s right back to the willpower loop.

The God I know is far more gracious than this. And he is also expert at guiding us through emotional open-heart surgery.

I read an excellent book recently called “This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace. It aims to help people break free from alcohol dependency. Grace argues that teetotalism will never work all the while the individual is still convinced that alcohol helps them feel happy, relaxed and more confident. They may know in their head about the dangers of alcohol, and they might hate the devastation it causes in their life. But if, deep down, they still believe that alcohol provides them with benefits that they lose out on when they abstain, they have an inner conflict, which leaves them vulnerable to relapse.

The key to breaking free from alcohol dependency, according to Grace, is for people to dismantle their underlying false beliefs about the benefits of alcohol, and to realise how much more enjoyable life is when they’re not drunk. Once they internalise a different set of beliefs about alcohol, they are no longer using all the strength they can muster through their own willpower to resist something that, deep down, they believe is helpful for them in some way. The illusion is broken, and the desire is gone.

The husband or wife who struggles to control their temper will also have underlying beliefs and thought processes influencing their behaviour, even if they’re not consciously aware of them. Becoming aware of these subconscious processes is key to releasing them and breaking free.

Maybe the spouse who struggles with irrational anger was shamed and belittled as a child. Maybe this has left them with a deep sense of insecurity that gets triggered every time their partner says something that they perceive to be critical.

Maybe the spouse is dealing with a problem that they prefer not to disclose to their partner for whatever reason. A health issue they don’t want anyone else fussing over. A problem at work. A financial debt. More often than not, the energy it takes trying to keep these things secret puts a severe strain on our close relationships.

Whatever the underlying issues are, if we think that we can maintain close, healthy relationships and keep our inner storms harnessed in by willpower alone, we’re mistaken. If we really want to see breakthrough, we need to take an honest look at what’s actually going on.

In itself, willpower is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s important that we all learn how to cultivate willpower. But if our inner beliefs and the desires of our heart are pulling in the opposite direction, something is going to snap. Trying to withstand these forces with willpower alone is like trying to go up an escalator that’s heading down.

Looking honestly at ourselves, our own motives and beliefs may be painful and even frightening at first. But if we follow through on this deep, inner work, we will the see in our lives fruit that will last.

4 thoughts on “Strength Is More Than Just Willpower

  1. Thank you for your open and honest approach. So many people, especially Christians, act as if they’ve got everything together, and can handle everything. We’ve been trained in that way, and have been told we aren’t walking in faith if we ever show our weaknesses. I appreciate your sincerity in dealing with the realities of our lives, that will truly make us stronger.


  2. Oh wow. This is such an important topic, Helen. Too often we think Christians should just “give it all to God” and voila, problem solved. But God needs us to take responsibility for our own part of learning and growing and changing. It’s a team effort. Neither willpower alone nor prayer alone can take the place of taking the steps we need to take.

    I’ll be featuring your post this week at my blog for Friday’s Grace and Truth linkup featured post!


    1. Thanks so much for this, Lisa! I really appreciate your encouraging words… and thanks so much for choosing to feature my post. That’s amazing!


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