Some years ago at a conference, my wife, Willa, was addressing a group of wives whose husbands were dealing with homosexuality.
She was discussing all of the wrong things that wives in their situation are prone to do: enabling, denial, co-dependency, protecting their husbands from the consequences of their sin, and so forth. She could see the heads nod as the women recognized their various dysfunctions. And then Willa stopped, paused and said to the women, “If you are doing any of these things, stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”
For years afterwards in Exodus circles, this became known as “Willa’s Stop It Therapy.” This was said in humor, but in truth (as with much that my dear wife has said), there was a lot of wisdom in her advice.
A number of times in counseling strugglers, when they have told me of their ongoing struggle with masturbation, pornography, or some other type of acting out, I have said to them, “Well, why don’t you stop it?”
Invariably, their jaws drop, their eyes open wide and they look at me with amazement. There are a couple of reasons why Willa’s counsel and my question have been met with humor or astonishment. One is that people in our day—including Christians—know little of the power of the will. The will is indeed a powerful force, and we all have one, but many people are like a man sitting in a car with a 400 horsepower turbocharged engine running, who leaves the car in neutral or in park. He isn’t going to go anywhere until he puts the car in gear and engages the engine. It is the same with the will; we can’t go anywhere until we engage it.
A second reason why people may discount exercising their will as a means of growing in obedience, is that they don’t know that we exercise our wills in two ways— in deciding and in doing. They are all too familiar with the weakness of their will in doing, and they have let their past failures in this area lead them to write off the power that is in their will to decide.
The Power of the Will
A number of factors lead us to overlook or dismiss the power of the will. Some are based on fundamental truths—but ones we easily distort. Others are fundamentally wrong beliefs that reflect the faulty views of our age. We rightfully recognize the truth that we cannot solve all of our problems through our own efforts. If we could, we would not need Jesus. But at the same time, Scripture addresses us as a people with a will. Every time our Lord said something like, “Let not your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1), he was acknowledging that we have the strength to “Let not.” Every time Scripture calls for us to change our ways, there is the clear implication that we have some power to do so. Adherence to such calls always involves the will.
A second valid principle that can lead us to overlook the power of the will is the 12-Step doctrine of powerlessness. “We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol (or whatever the problem)—that our lives had become unmanageable.” This is the first step in the surrender process, and it is essential if we are to gain victory over a prevailing sin. But here the distinction between deciding and doing becomes extremely important. By the very act of surrendering, the alcoholic is admitting that he cannot resist drinking by the power of his own will—he needs a higher power. But by the power of his will he is deciding to make the surrender. And if you and I have ever struggled with any kind of life dominating sin, we know that the exercise of the will in making such a decision is no passive act. Every person who has experienced any major life change gives testimony to that power to decide.
However, the biggest problems causing us to downplay the power of the will may come from our having bought into two of the prevailing beliefs of our age. Even as Christians we may have unconsciously accepted the beliefs that: 1) emotions are the governing factor in our lives, and 2) real truth is found in a materialistic or naturalistic way of thinking.
The Primacy of Emotions
The prosperity of our age and the exalted position given to psychology combine to convince people that behavior is—and often should be—determined by feelings. Prosperity has made us self-indulgent, even to the point of believing that suffering any kind of discomfort is unreasonable. Also, we tend to act more according to feelings or immediate human need than according to principle. And psychology, pointing to our past trauma, our unmet needs, and our unhealed wounds, can lead us into a victim mentality in which we believe we have no power to change our behavior until we are healed. I am sure that many women who heard Willa burst forth “Stop it!” felt that their behaviors were products of their unhealed selves, and they could not act differently until they were healed. While there is probably some truth in this, denying one’s ability to bring about any change of behavior is to deny the power of God. That we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13) is a promise from God’s word. The idea that behavior cannot change until we’re healed has no basis in Scripture.
The Influence of Materialism
Many Christians recognize the war that is going on in our culture between two philosophies: the Judeo- Christian belief in a created order established and ruled over by God, and the philosophy of materialism or naturalism, encapsulized in astronomer Carl Sagan’s famous declaration, “The cosmos is all there is, ever was, or ever will be.”
A materialist view of existence always sees a cause and an effect. We are what we are totally because of our genes and our past experiences. Even the Christian may have a hard time thinking otherwise. But such thinking leads first to the belief that no one is responsible for anything he or she does, and then ultimately to the belief that there is no right or wrong, only what is, what evolves.
But the God who made us in His image gave us minds and made us free. The mind, of course, encompasses more than the brain; it includes the will, and the will belongs to the spiritual side of man. And when we abused our God-given freedom and fell into slavery to sin, God sent us His Son to restore our freedom. “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Because of the Divine nature in us, we are more than just the product of our genes and our experiences.
The man who says, “Even though my father never affirmed me, even though my peers rejected me, even though I was sexually molested as a teenager, even though I often feel like I don’t fit in today, I do not have to have sex with a man,” is speaking the truth, and he is reflecting the nobility of man as something so much more than an accidental product of genes and experiences.
The first step, then, in utilizing the secret weapon of our will in our battle with sin is to recognize its power. The second step is to actually use it. And herein most people who come to our ministry have a real problem. Here is a multiple choice question for you: When a man says “I need to stop masturbating,” he is almost certainly saying:
a) I have stopped masturbating.
b) I will stop masturbating.
c) I will keep on masturbating for now.
d) One day I’ll try to stop masturbating.
e) I will never stop masturbating.
Answers a, b, d and e could all eventually be found to be true or not true, but only answer c is almost always true. One can be almost certain that by putting off a decision not to masturbate until tomorrow, a man has decided that he is going to allow himself to masturbate today. Of course he has made a decision of a sort, but he clearly has not made a decision for righteousness.
“Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). One reason we don’t choose or decide is because we fear we will not be able to live up to the choice we have made. We see ourselves promising something to God and then failing to keep our promise. But we are letting the weakness of our will in doing keep us from using our will in deciding. But if we never decide, we will never do. On the other hand, once we decide for righteousness, we put ourselves on the side of God, and He is there to help us do. Maybe we will fail sometimes, but we have a remedy for our failures—confession and forgiveness. We have no remedy for a passive unwillingness to decide.
In my own life, and in the lives of men and women I have known through ministry, I have seen how a simple decision has led to profound changes in a person. One day they woke up and said, “I’m not going to do that anymore,” and in fact, they didn’t. There is a mystery in how such a decision can turn out to be so life changing. I suspect that quite often the decision has come about as the outcome of an intense but unrecognized battle that has been going on deep inside the individual’s soul, a battle in which he or she allowed some cherished thing to die. Even if this is the case, however, the fruit of that battle and death will not be experienced if that person does not exercise his or her conscious, God-given will and decide for righteousness. Are you struggling with destructive behavior or sin? Why don’t you stop?
By Alan Medinger
Originally Published May 2004