Let’s talk about will power. What exactly is it, you might ask? Most of us know in our gut what it is. But for the purposes of this discussion, I looked up the definition:
According to Webster’s Dictionary, will power is the ability to control yourself : strong determination that allows you to do something difficult.
According to psychologists, will power consists of the following:
- The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.
- The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling or impulse.
- The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system.
- Conscious, effortful regulation of the self by the self.
- A limited resource capable of being depleted.
Of late, our culture seems to reject the very notion of the will. Everywhere we turn, comments and references treat human beings as mere animals, with little but base instincts, as opposed to persons, each endowed with a will formed in the image and likeness of God.
Of all the lies being told by the world, perhaps the most dangerous are those that seek to convince us that will power is a myth. For upon the will depends our cooperation with the grace of our Good Lord in procuring our salvation.
But the lies persist nonetheless; just take a look at these excerpts from an article originally published in the The Roanoke Times, which refers to studies which denounce the very notion of will power:
Parents, teachers, coaches and ill-tempered sergeants had insisted that the disciplined exertion of willpower against the baser temptations of sloth, gluttony and other moral frailties was essential to building sufficient character to overcome most adversity. What adversity couldn’t be overcome should at least be borne with a modicum of quiet longsuffering, if not grace. Imagine my relief to read of the scientific evidence that willpower is really a myth, especially as it relates to such primal endeavors as dieting. A number of psychologists around the country consider the entire notion of willpower to be just another artifact of quaint but misguided folklore…
In other words, if you keep raiding the refrigerator every night for six extra scoops of megachocolate ice cream, you’re not a pathetic, undisciplined, weak-willed glutton. You’re merely cooperating with the brain-chemical imperative as nature intended. You can’t help it. The chemicals made you do it.
The above is about as blatant as messages come. But there have been subtle messages going on for decades. And they are severely affecting private behavior as well as public policy. Case in point: How long have advocates been insisting that birth control be made readily available in the schools? Kids are going to do what kids are going to do; they don’t have any self-control – the least we can do is help them be prepared… (Arguably, students have lived up to expectations).
Then there are seemingly innocent memes like the following:
Very cute; definitely funny; but is this the message that we should be sharing en mass on social media? And yet, countless are passed along day in and day out.
Examples abound. I’m sure you could add several to the few I’ve offered here. Regardless, the result of both subtle and not-so-subtle messages about the weakness of the will has been absolutely destructive. What one might call a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just think of a few statistics:
- According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than a third of the adults in the U.S. suffer from obesity (36.5%). This number is up 10% since 2012 (26.2%).
- Ashley Madison, a website that “caters to married people looking for an affair” boasts a client list of 37,000,000. (Not a typo – that’s 37 million people that have registered with this web site!)
- One in three Americans has absolutely no retirement savings (Time Magazine).
- As of May 2016, consumer debt reached a whopping $3.6 trillion.
And in the world of religion,
- According to Pew Research, across our nation, the number of people who pray and attend religious services consistently has dropped 3% across the board since 2007. And younger people observe religious practices significantly less than older populations.
- On a more personal note, another Pew Research report shows that people are leaving the Catholic Church in droves – there are three million fewer Catholics today than in 2007 – could this have something to do with the notion that, unlike other Faiths, the will – particularly uniting our will to that of God – plays a key role in the in the teaching of the Catholic Church?
People point to this or that reason for declining participation in Christian churches, but isn’t there likely a huge correlation between the lack of interest in the area of religion and the decrease in control of our baser desires? And my point here is not that one has caused the other; but perhaps all areas have been driven by the deeper message that we’ve been hearing in the world – that we cannot control ourselves; whether eating, drinking, smoking, lust, language – you name it – we are destined to live with our own powerlessness, and must simply go along for the ride, despite that fact that both we and our progeny must find ways to cope with the devastation left in our wake.
What a tragedy.
God gave us free will out of respect and generosity, allowing us the opportunity to choose Him, rather than forcing our allegiance to a Supreme Being through His almighty power. That choice is not a momentary decision, but rather countless daily, even moment by moment decisions to grow in love and virtue; to participate in prayer and the sacraments, cooperating with the grace of God to become better versions of ourselves.
And those choices? Made every moment of our lives? They can only be made through continual acts of The Will.
It is often said that the devil’s greatest coup would be to convince the world that he doesn’t exist. That may be true. But his second greatest coup?
Could it be to convince you that you are helpless?
To make you believe that, in this moment, you cannot put down that doughnut. You will never lose that last ten pounds. You cannot limit your coffee intake to one cup a day. You cannot succeed long-term with an exercise routine. You cannot control that temper. You cannot resist that affair. You cannot afford to save for retirement. You cannot find the time to attend Mass today. You are too busy to pray the rosary. In fact, prayer in general is just too difficult. And the idea of making voluntary Sacrifices – are you kidding me?!
But these are all lies, lies, lies. The truth is that your will is in tact. In fact, according to Archbishop Fulton Sheen, it is the only thing you have that is truly yours:
There is only one thing in the world that is definitely and absolutely your own, and that is your will. Health, power, possessions and honor can all be snatched from you, but your will is irrevocably your own, even in hell. Hence, nothing really matters in life, except what you do with your will. — Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Seven Words of Jesus and Mary, p. 25
Despite what the media says, despite what the “professionals” in the world of psychology say, regardless of what your best friend tells you,
you can put down that doughnut. You can lose that last ten pounds. You can limit your consumption. You can find time to exercise today. You can control you temper. You can resist that affair. You can save for retirement. You can find time to pray. You can grow in virtue. You can become a saint!
In order to obtain heaven, two ingredients are required:
The world has done a great job of convincing us that neither exists.
But the world is wrong.
But my will is weak, you say. Yes. I’m sure it is. There is only One Perfect Will. And while we share in God’s image, our fallen nature, like a leaden weight, seems destined to keep us from soaring to great heights. But your will is there. And God’s grace is the chisel that will cut away the lead; for through Him all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). And His power is made perfect in weakness (1 Corinthians 9).
By convincing us to disengage the will from our decisions, as opposed to actively directing the “self” toward the good, the devil has triumphantly succeeded in weakening it, if not destroying it altogether. (Ever heard the phrase, “use it or lose it“?) But just as not exercising the will causes it to become listless and weak, stepping up to the plate and engaging the will, even in small ways, will strengthen it. We can strengthen the will by actively pursuing good, and by developing habits and relationships that reinforce that pursuit and encourage us in our progress.
Freedom makes man responsible for his acts to the extent that they are voluntary. Progress in virtue, knowledge of the good, and ascesis enhance the mastery of the will over its acts. (CCC #1734) (emphasis mine)
The will plays a pivotal role in both our physical and spiritual lives. Do not believe the lies. Not only does your health depend on your ability to see the lies for what they are; your salvation depends upon it as well. For how can you unite your will to God’s if you believe you have no power to do so? God is faithful. He has provided us with everything we need in order to pursue sanctity. And the gift of the will is a necessary component:
God does not require of us the martyrdom of the body; He requires only the martyrdom of the heart and the will. — St. John Vianney
Artwork: Cupid Overcoming Pan by David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690)