Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why "Will Power" Doesn't Work

Have you ever been unable to live up to your own standards? It’s quite a frustrating experience. Many of us have attempted to go on diets, to stop swearing, to eliminate our negative attitude, etc. only to discover that we just can’t do it. Despite our best efforts, we cave in and revert to our old ways. When this happens, it feels like something is preventing us from succeeding, because we genuinely want to change. But what could possibly be preventing us? When I fail to keep diet, it’s not as though a cruel tormentor ties me to a chair and stuffs junk food down my face. I myself am responsible for my actions. I choose to eat food that I shouldn’t, knowing that this contradicts my values. Nevertheless, I feel incapable of making the decision that I set out to make. To describe and make sense of this puzzling experience, our society has adopted the metaphor of will power.  [E1]

This metaphor teaches us to think of “the will” as a machine that requires “power” to work. Following this metaphor, we might compare our decision-making to driving a car. I (the driver) may be doing a perfect job steering toward my goal, but if I run out of gas (will power), then my efforts come to a grinding halt. This is how we tend to interpret our ethical failures, as scenarios in which we don’t have enough motivation/drive/energy to stick to our values. When we think of ourselves in these terms, it causes us to respond in a couple of ways. One is that we try to use hope, fear, or shame as “fuel” to keep us going. But in my experience, these “fuels” rarely make a lasting difference, except insofar as they make me feel less hopeful, more fearful, and more ashamed about my life. Another effect of this metaphor is that it encourages us to envy rather than study people who are morally successful. Because we attribute their success to their having more “will power” than us, we don’t think it has any value for us.

This is very different from the way Jesus describes our ethical failures. Instead of using the metaphor of “will power,” he prefers to describe moral actions in terms of “bearing fruit.” [E2] For example, he says in Matthew 7:17-18, “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” [E3] The point of this metaphor is that our actions (fruit) naturally grow out of our character (the tree/branches). But this raises the question, what determines whether we have good or bad character? To answer that, Jesus extends the fruit analogy: “I am the vine, you are the branches. If people remain in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.” [E4] Jesus says that our character “flows” out of what we are “rooted” in. If you are rooted in Jesus, then you will develop good character and bear good fruit/behavior. Otherwise, you won’t be able to produce the changes you aspire toward.  

Now here’s the million dollar question: What does it mean to be rooted in Jesus? Evangelicals claim that it is having “personal relationship with Jesus,” by which they mean assuming that Jesus is invisibly present in every moment of your life, then praying to him frequently throughout the day and looking for “signs” – such as strong intuitions and intriguing coincidences – by which Jesus communicates his will for your life. The problem with this interpretation is that it has little basis in Scripture. [E5] A more biblical definition of “being rooted in Jesus” is to immerse oneself in the community that Jesus founded, the church. [E6] By spending time around Christians who are themselves following Jesus, we begin to absorb their values and character to the point that our behavior starts to change. [E7] Evangelicals are right to claim that prayer is a part of the process. The Christian community prays in order to stay “rooted” in Jesus, who is himself “rooted” in God. [E8] But to talk about a “personal relationship with Jesus” is to try to cut a link out of the chain, to go from God to Jesus to the individual, without going through the body of Christ.

Individualism is precisely the problem with the “will power” metaphor. By conceptualizing ourselves as independent machines, we fail to see how our actions flow from the societies in which we participate. However, we get a glimpse of our deeply social nature in those moments when we experience a radical shift in our community. For example, I got a job with a sales company one summer, which I never intended to embrace as a part of my identity. For this job, I spent a lot of time around other salespeople, I attended regular sales meetings, and I practiced and performed sales pitches on a near daily basis. As the summer went on, something strange began to happen. My sales mentality began to infiltrate every aspect of my life, so that I interpreted all human relationships through the lens of sales transactions. This phenomenon happens to people in all kinds of careers – our personalities change when we join the military, attend medical school, go to Hollywood, etc. It also happens when people move into a radically different culture or when they join/leave an intense religious community. You see, it’s not our “will power” that determines our actions as much as the habits we have inherited from our communities. Thus, the most important moral decision to make is what community to join. That’s how obese people succeed in losing weight on the Biggest Loser, it’s how rowdy young adults become disciplined and organized in the military, and it’s how people overcome addictions in twelve-step groups. [E9] It’s not that these communities fuel us with greater will power; they plant us in different soil.

Now, the reason I raised this discussion is because I’ve been asking the question, “What does it mean to say that Jesus saves us, if heaven and hell are simply self-inflicted realities that flow from our own moral character?” An important piece of the answer is that Jesus provided the soil that we need to grow into good people; he created a community – the Church – in which it is possible for individuals to join and be transformed into good people. [E10] Of course, this depends on a particular definition of goodness. All communities, in fact, aim to shape their members into a certain ideal, a vision of the “good” person, but this ideal looks different in the military than it does in the world of sales or in the medical community. So, in his earthly ministry, Jesus had to both teach us “What It Means To Be a Good Person from God’s perspective and create a society that we could join to become good.

But there’s one more element to salvation that I have to describe before this picture is complete. Even the decision to plant yourself in Jesus’ community is not an easy one to make because there are forces in the universe that try to keep this from happening, forces that struggle to uproot us even after you’ve been planted. Consequently, as a third component to his earthly ministry, Jesus had to defeat those forces to make our moral transformation possible. This will be the subject of my next post.



[E1] My approach of critiquing the metaphors we use to interpret reality was inspired by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). Lakoff and Johnson argue that metaphors form the structure of all of our thoughts, and my speculative proposal here is that “will power” is one of these foundational metaphors. I am aware that other medical, psychological, philosophical, and theological concepts further influence our thinking on this issue, but in the American setting, I would argue they are all dependent on a prior metaphor like will power.

[E2] Philosophically, this interpretation of morality is called virtue-ethics and is often attributed to Aristotle. For a good Christian introduction to this concept, see N.T. Wright, After You Believe (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

[E3] For other uses of the “bearing fruit” metaphor, see Matthew 3:7-9, Galatians 5:22-23, Colossians 1:6, and James 3:9-12.

[E4] John 15:5. See also “The Parable of the Sower” in Matthew 13:3-23, Mark 4:2-20, and Luke 8:5-15.

[E5] The Bible certainly supports the notion that we should cultivate a healthy prayer life, both with others and by ourselves. However, Evangelicals frame this in highly individualistic terms, which is what is foreign to Scripture. Phrases like “a personal relationship with God” aren’t found in Scripture because Scripture does not privilege a private relationship with God over a communal one. Similarly, it is not highly concerned with establishing “God’s will for your life” as an individual, but only what gifts you can contribute to the body of Christ. In fact, most of the commands in Scripture are given to communities rather than individuals, but this is obscured in English because the pronoun for “you plural” is the same as the pronoun for “you singular,” and we just assume that God is speaking to each of us rather than all of us.  

[E6] See Matthew 18:19-20, John 17:20-23, Romans 12:4-5, Ephesians 2:19-22.

[E7] See 1 Corinthians 11:1, Hebrews 13:7, 1 Timothy 4:12-15.

[E8] See John 17:20-23, 1 Corinthians 3:11-14, Ephesians 2:19-22.

[E9] Of course, we hear examples of people making radical changes without the clear influence of a community. For example, some people claim to have quit smoking cold turkey and others say that they lost a ton of weight by their individually-devised program. While there is some truth to these stories, I would argue that the only way such changes can last is if these people quickly find others who share their new values. The former smoker must find non-smoking friends and the dieter must find health nuts, or else they will revert to their previous modes of existence.

[E10] “But what if a particular church or even the Church has become morally corrupt, so that the Christians there do not act like Jesus and the environment is not conducive to the kind of moral transformation you describe?” This is an excellent question, and one that is not hypothetical, as there are quite a few American churches that fail to look anything like Jesus. However, I wouldn’t do it justice to answer it in a footnote, so you’ll have to wait for another post for my full response to that one.

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