“Unlimited willpower” and the power of intimacy with God

This is the season for New Year’s resolutions, diets, and exercise plans. To this end, I saw an article on the BBC platform that caught my eye: “The mindset that brings unlimited willpower.”

According to the article, some people believe that when they are challenged by temptations, it gets more and more difficult to resist. They also believe that strenuous mental activity exhausts resources that they need to refuel afterward.

Others believe that resisting strong temptation strengthens them to withstand new temptations. And they feel that mental stamina feeds itself so that even after strenuous mental exertion, they can continue doing more of it.

The former have a “limited” view of willpower; the latter have a “non-limited” view of willpower.

Extensive scientific testing demonstrates that our mindsets about willpower are self-fulfilling prophecies. If we think our ability to resist temptation is depleted quickly, we soon find ourselves yielding to temptation. If we think that resisting temptation strengthens us to resist further temptation, we find this to be true.

I have no doubt that choosing a “non-limited” view of willpower will be helpful in the new year. But there is an even more foundational choice we can make that will be empowering and transforming in ways self-control can never produce.

“Our single object and ambition was virtue”

St. Gregory Nazianzus was Archbishop of Canterbury in the fourth century. A Christian leader known to history as Basil the Great was his dear friend. Gregory said of himself and Basil, “Our single object and ambition was virtue and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it.”

He added: “Different men have different names, which they owe to their parents or to themselves, that is, to their own pursuits and achievements. But our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christian, to be called Christians.”

How can you and I be known as followers of Christ? In the same way we become known as the followers of anyone: by spending time with them and following their example.

In Jesus’ day, rabbis had schools of followers who spent their days following their teacher and learning to be like him. The schools of Hillel and Shammai are the most famous, but there were many other such schools in his society.

When Jesus invited his first disciples to “follow me” (Matthew 4:19), he was actually inviting them to join his “school.” In response, “immediately they left their nets and followed him” (v. 20).

But if we cannot leave our jobs to follow Jesus, can we still be his followers? Absolutely.

Practicing the presence of Christ

God’s word commands us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). However, Western culture separates religion from the real world and codifies religion into religious acts performed by religious people in religious settings. As a result, we think of prayer as time spent with our eyes closed at church or during our “quiet time” at home.

We obviously cannot do this and do anything else such as go to school, work at our jobs, drive a car, and so on. And so, how can we possibly “pray without ceasing”?

There should definitely be times in our day when we “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father” (Matthew 6:6). But we can also pray privately in our minds while we are working publicly at our jobs. We can speak briefly to God all through the day, praying about the decisions, opportunities, and challenges we face as the day proceeds.

We can cultivate the practice of listening to God, asking his Spirit to speak to our spirit and to guide us intuitively and personally. We can imagine ourselves in his presence wherever we are, whatever we are doing.

In these and other ways, we are “practicing the presence of Christ,” as Brother Lawrence famously advised.

“The motto for this year”

When we do this, we experience the empowering transformation Jesus brings to those who are close to him. Just as plugging an appliance into an outlet powers the device, so living in intimate union with Jesus powers our souls.

The result is strength over temptation that self-control can never produce, a godliness that honors God and draws others to him.

This is why Scripture instructs us to “continue in prayer” (Colossians 4:2 KJV). Commenting on this command, Charles Spurgeon wrote: “A prayerless soul is a Christless soul. Prayer is the lisping of the believing infant, the shout of the fighting believer, the requiem of the dying saint falling asleep in Jesus. It is the breath, the watchword, the comfort, the strength, the honor of a Christian. If thou be a child of God, thou wilt seek thy Father’s face and live in thy Father’s love.”

As a result, he concludes, “The motto for this year must be, ‘Continue in prayer.’”

Will this be your motto this year?