Spiritual Formation Part 5: Willpower Christianity

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” -John 15:5, NIV.

5. The Problem With Willpower Christianity

Sometimes well-intentioned Christians put all their energy into changing their actions, without ever addressing the condition of their hearts. 

To be honest, with enough practice and sheer will-power, they can probably manage to change their behaviors without experiencing a real change of heart, at least for a while. But Scripture teaches us—and experience shows us— that changing your habits without a genuine transformation of the inner spirit will always be a short-lived victory. 

When the inner world and outer world are in conflict, the inner world always wins out. And trying to fight against your deepest desires ends up being absolutely exhausting. 

Willpower Christianity: Walking Up A Downward Escalator

Have you ever tried walking up an escalator that was moving down? That’s what it’s like when we try to change our actions without allowing God to transform our hearts. Our hearts have strong, ingrained desires that are leading us in one direction (like the escalator moving it downward). Forcing ourselves to go against the grain of our deepest desires is fighting an uphill battle. 

Richard Foster makes this point in his book Celebration of Discipline: 

“Willpower will never succeed in dealing with the deeply ingrained habits of sin,” because “it is incapable of bringing about the necessary transformation of the inner spirit,” (p. 5, 6).

The Joy of Spiritual Transformation

If we want following Jesus to be a joy and not a burden, the answer is not running faster or trying harder or digging deeper to climb that downward escalator. That is the path of burnout and spiritual exhaustion.

The real answer is opening ourselves to the transforming work of God, who has the power to change our hearts from the inside out. God has the power to reverse the escalator and give us a heart that genuinely desires to follow in his footsteps. When that occurs, following Jesus becomes the thing we naturally want to do!

Notice how often Paul uses the passive voice when he talks about spiritual formation. The passive voice is a way of saying something is done to us by God, rather than something we do to ourselves:

  • 2 Corinthians 3:18 “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
  • 2 Corinthians 4:16, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”
  • Ephesians 4:22-24 “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
  • Galatians 4:19-20, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!”
  • Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

We do not transform ourselves—rather we are being transformed by God (2 Corinthians 3:18, Romans 12:2). We do not renew ourselves—rather we are being renewed by God (2 Corinthians 4:16). We do not make ourselves new—rather we are made new by God (Ephesians 4:22-24). And we do not form Christ in our hearts ourselves—rather Christ is formed in our hearts by the power of God (Galatians 4:19-20).

The fifth principle of Spiritual Formation is this: Willpower changes our behaviors for a time, but God transforms our hearts for eternity. 

When we allow God to change us from the inside out, our hearts begin to lead us in the way of Jesus. The escalator will then stop moving down, it will reverse course, and it will move us in the right direction. When God changes a person’s heart, following Jesus truly does become a joy.

It’s in that moment that we begin to live a spiritual life from the heart.