Christianity: Will-Power or Desire-Power?

I know a man, a really good man, whose life is filled with drudgery. He dutifully cares for his wife and family; he dutifully pours out his life in service; and he dutifully attends to work. He resists opposing desires—like wanting to dodge a service he hates, or aching to “take it easy”—with willpower.

His life, he feels, is dull and empty. His life, he says, is “dreariness and doldrums; I go through the motions without a purpose.” Drudgery has been his life for years. He is joyless.

The driving force of his life—that which gets him out of bed each morning—is willpower, his determination to battle contrary desires. His joyless obligations rule his heart.

I feel sorry for him and his life of dreariness and drudgery. And, yes, he is a Christian. His joyless life unfortunately reflects the lives of many believers. It’s why many nonbelievers don’t like Christianity. They don’t want our dull life. They don’t want to become like us.

Yikes! The gospel is meant to be a transforming power of joy. What has happened to us?

Desires and the unexamined life (bear with me here)

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Thank you, Michele.)

Many embrace lives of passion, longing for freedom from rules and restriction, freedom to follow any desire. But unexamined desires fester. Desires become cravings, and cravings become addictions. Soon the desired pleasure is beyond reach, and the cravings become masters. Not wanting to be “slaves to rules” they become slaves—literally—to desires.

All because of unexamined desires. There is a world of desires beneath our desires, something we want even more. We need to examine what we most deeply want. G. K. Chesterton said, “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”

But Christians today—for the most part—are taught to live from will not desire.

Will and the unexamined life

Socrates’ comment equally applies to the “wills” of men and women. They’re unexamined.

Many believers mistakenly use “will” as the primary weapon against desire. Failure to examine our “will” keeps us from digging deeper. “Will” focuses on behavior rather than motivation. Tim Keller writes,

Religion operates on the principle: I obey; therefore I am accepted (by God). The gospel operates on the principle: I am accepted through the costly grace of God; therefore I obey. Two people operating on these two principles can sit beside each other in church on Sunday trying to do many of the same things—read the Bible, obey the Ten Commandments, be active in church, and pray—but out of two entirely different motivations. (Emphasis added)

Using “will” to avoid bad desires is good in the short term but it fails in the long term; we need to examine what is beneath our “will.” Stopping our self examination at willpower masks something deeper.

The most common word for “will” in the New Testament is thelo.  It can also be translated “desire.” That’s because will and deep desires are hard to separate. We skip the second scoop of ice cream due to will, but that will is closely connected to a desire to take two inches off our waist. The strongest desire wins, sometimes our yearning for ice cream and sometimes our longing to be lean.

Pharisees also used “will” to battle outer desires of the flesh, but that “will” was tied to inner desires for pride, reputation, and self justification; it was still based on bad desires.

We need to examine our will, for unexamined reliance on will can be dangerous. If we primarily use “will” to create behavior, we miss the motivations of the heart. Good external behavior can come from good desires and from bad desires.

Joy and desires

Pleasure comes from a desire that is placated. Joy comes from the deepest desires of the heart that are satisfied. Living in the shallow desires of sensuality brings some pleasure, but it is short lived and doesn’t deeply satisfy.

Coming to know the deepest desires of the heart—literally to know and be loved by God—brings deep satisfying joy. Keller also wrote, “The gospel moves you to do what you do more and more out of grateful joy in … God himself.”

Joy and Christianity

My friend (from the beginning of the article), who lives a dull life of drudgery, uses will to avoid shallow desires, but he also avoids any desires. To find deep joy, yes, we control shallow desires, but deep joy comes from actual fulfillment of our deepest desires.

In the end, the best “will” is choosing to live out the renewed heart’s deepest desires.

John Newton wrote this about the joy-filled believer’s heart:

Our pleasure and our duty,
Though opposite before,
Since we have seen his beauty,
Are joined to part no more.

When we begin to see the beauty of Christ and all he does for us, our duty and our pleasure—our will and our desire—become one.

Willpower alone leads to the joyless drudgery of restriction; desire-power leads to the joyful fulfillment of God-given desires of the heart. It leads to real Freedom.

© Copyright 2012, Beliefs of the Heart. All rights reserved.


10 Responses to Christianity: Will-Power or Desire-Power?

  1. Tim says:

    Keller’s quote of the day for today: The deepest desire of the heart is for a love that will last. #Jesus

    • Great quote. Thanks. Yes, that is our deepest desire, and that is the desire we must find in our hearts and then pursue.

      I think other shallower desires are counterfeits, attempts to find what only God can satisfy.

  2. Excellent thoughts. It’s been very empowering for me to learn that God has redeemed my heart to seek after it’s deepest desires without fear or anxiety.

    “‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence”- Col 2:22-23

    • Great passage reminder. Thanks. I love the translation, “their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence”

      What is the deepest longing beneath all our longings!

  3. Lou says:

    Wow Sam, another great topic. Lately, I have seen more and more what several spots in the Bible mean when they mention God “giving us the desires of our heart.” It is always hard for me to explain, but God does not necessarily “give us the objects we desire,” he gives us the desiring itself. So, I guess in some respects, God gives us the best things we could ever want, but do not necessarily currently want.

  4. Christi says:

    Makes me think of C.S. Lewis
    “If we consider the unblushing promises of rewards and the staggering nature of the rewards offered in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is really meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

  5. Joe says:

    Great stuff! I’m really glad I stumbled onto your site. I’m really seeking after God lately and desire Him so much. Sometimes it seems as tho I’m unable to connect with Him fully but I desire deep intimacy. Thanks for the encouragement. Do you think there is anything i could do differently or should I just keep persevering and be patient?

    • Hi Joe,

      We can all do things differently! My question, though, is whether we need to put our energies into connecting with God in our hearts. I’m learning how to do this through reflection, meditation, and even imagining–all in the context of a conversation with God.

      I believe the deepest longings of our hearts is connection with, intimacy with, God. And we find that only when God speaks to us.

      So, maybe that is the thing we need to ask for most: his voice.



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