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Biblical, battle-tested, real-life help for "living by faith in the Son of God" (Galatians 2:20). — Steve Fuller

Why Willpower Alone Can’t Produce Obedience

friends on everystockphoto by Mike TigasThe Importance of Feelings

In my early years as a Christian I relied on my own will-power to obey Christ, and did not see much need for Spirit-power.

But that changed when I saw that God’s commands focus not just on actions, but also on feelings.

Take Deuteronomy 28:47-48 as an example —

Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies…

So God does not want sullen obedience, or lethargic obedience, or I-can’t-wait-for-this-to-be-over-so-I-can-do-what-I-really-want-to-do obedience.  God wants obedience that’s full of joy in Christ.

Passage after Passage

And then I started noticing this emphasis on feelings everywhere — in passage after passage.  Here are some examples —

  • Isaiah 41:10 — Fear not, for I am with you …
  • Matthew 5:6 — blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness …
  • Matthew 6:31 — therefore do not be anxious, saying, ’What shall we eat?’
  • Romans 12:10 — love one another with brotherly affection
  • Romans 12:11 — do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord …
  • 2 Corinthians 9:7 — for God loves a cheerful giver.
  • Ephesians 4:31 — let all bitterness and wrath and anger…be put away from you…
  • Colossians 3:12 — put on…compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness
  • Colossians 3:23 — Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord…
  • 1 Peter 2:1 — so put away all…envy

This emphasis on feelings showed that my will-power alone could not produce biblical obedience.

Here’s why —

Feeling Envious

Let’s say you are feeling envious that your friend is spending more time with someone else than with you.

And yet we saw in 1 Peter 2:1 (above) that God commands us to put away all envy.

But as soon as you try to stop feeling envy, you discover something — you can’t.

And the reason you can’t is because feelings can’t be turned on and off by an act of the will.  We can’t just CHOOSE to stop feeling envy, or to start feeling feel peace, or joy, or contentment.

Jim Elliot, martyr-missionary to the Auca Indians of South America, agrees.  Here’s what he wrote in his journal —

“How vial and base my thoughts have been lately. Not just unkind or unsympathetic, but rotten, lewd thinking that cannot be overcome simply by willing to be rid of them.” (Jim Elliot, in Elizabeth Elliot’s Shadow of the Almighty: the Life and Testament of Jim Elliot, pp.105f; italics his)

But if we can’t WILL ourselves to get rid of wrong feelings or to stir up right feelings, what can we do?

Not-So-Helpful Approaches

One not-so-helpful approach is to admit that we can’t do it, and wait for God to change our hearts in his own time.

But God does not tell us to WAIT for him to take away our envy. He commands us to PUT AWAY our envy.

Another not-so-helpful approach is to start acting as if we had the commanded feelings, believing that the feelings will come through the acting.

But if you are envious of your friend, will acting as if you were not envious take away your envy? I don’t think so.

So what can we do to change our feelings?

Faith and Feelings

God’s Word shows that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between faith and feelings.

That’s true regarding joy —

For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. (Psalm 33:21)

And peace —

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. (Isaiah 26:3)

And love for others —

The aim of our charge is love that issues from … a sincere faith. (1 Timothy 1:5)

So when I’m not experiencing joy and peace in Christ, and the resulting outflow of love for others, that shows there’s a problem in my faith.

And the good news is that when I take steps to strengthen my faith, I will experience the Holy Spirit changing my feelings.

Putting Away Envy

Let’s take the example of envy. What can I do if I am feeling envy because my friend is spending more time with someone else than with me?

The fact that I am feeling envious shows that there’s a problem with my faith — I am not trusting all that God promises to be to me in Christ Jesus.

So what promise am I not trusting? And what lie am I trusting?

I am not trusting John 6:35 — that fellowship with Jesus will satisfy all my heart hungers and thirsts. Instead, I’m trusting the lie that to be satisfied I need to have my friend spending more time with me than with someone else.

So what can I do? Here are steps I have found helpful —

First, turn to Jesus as I am.

I don’t need to overcome my envious heart BEFORE coming to Jesus. In fact, the only way I can overcome my envious heart is BY coming to Jesus.

And even though I am struggling with envy, as I look to Christ by faith alone, he welcomes me with open arms (Luke 18:13-14).

Second, confess my envy as sin and receive assurance of forgiveness.

I would confess that I am NOT trusting Christ as my all satisfying treasure, and that I AM trusting my friend to be my all satisfying treasure.

I would confess this as sinful unbelief, and be assured that on the basis of Christ’s death I am fully forgiven, and on the basis of Christ’s righteousness I am fully accepted (1 John 1:9).

Third, ask for the Spirit’s power to change my heart

I can’t change my feelings by my own will power — but the Holy Spirit can.  And will.

So I would pray earnestly for God to increase the Spirit’s work in my heart (Luke 11:13), asking him to help me once again see and feel Christ as my all satisfying treasure.

Fourth, meditate prayerfully on God’s word

The sword the Spirit will use to slay my envy is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17).

So I would take Scriptures that display the glory of Christ, and ponder them, pray over them, and meditate deeply on them.

Fifth, continue until the Spirit changes my heart

Envy shows I have heart hungers and thirsts.  But Jesus promises that if we will come to him and believe in him he will satisfy all our heart hungers and thirsts in himself (John 6:35).

And coming to him and believing in him is exactly what we are doing in taking these steps.  So as you take these steps you can claim Jesus’ promise that he will meet you and change your heart so you are completely satisfied in him.

So trust his promise, and keep praying and meditating on God’s word, until your heart is so satisfied in Christ that you no longer feel envy.

That’s How

That’s how to “put away all … envy.”  Not by gritting your teeth and trying not to feel envy.  Not by waiting for God to change you.  Not by acting like you are free from envy in hope that your actions will change your feelings.

But by understanding that sinful feelings are caused by unbelief.  And by fighting the fight of faith until your faith is strengthened so you once again feel joy and peace in Christ, and love for others.

Questions? Comments?

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(Picture is from everystockphoto.com by Mike Tigas.)

Category: Overcoming Sin and Temptation

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8 Responses

  1. Kathryn says:

    “One not-so-helpful approach is to admit that we can’t do it, and wait for God to change our hearts in his own time.” This is where I’ve been going wrong! But if the sin issue is not believing that Jesus and his way is better than anything that he is only kind and wonderful, what do you do? If part of the remedy is trusting Jesus to be your satisfaction and trusting that you’re forgiven and you can’t seem to trust those things, where do you go from there?

    • Steve Fuller says:

      Another good question, Kathryn.

      I find great comfort in Mark 9:24 — “I believe, help my unbelief.”

      That verse shows me that faith does not need to be completely free from unbelief in order for it to be saving.

      So what is the minimum that faith must be in order to be saving? I believe faith must include a wanting to be free from unbelief, a wanting to be free from the lies, and a looking to Jesus with trust that he will forgive you, help you, and satisfy you.

      If you doubt that he will forgive you, help you, and satisfy you — don’t wait passively for him to take these doubts away.

      Instead, ask him to strengthen your faith, and then look at who he is as revealed in the Scriptures, praying Mark 9:24 as you do.

      Keep praying, and looking to him in the word, trusting him. As you come to him, and believe in him, he will meet you and satisfy your every heart thirst (John 6:35).

      Let me know if I am missing the point of your question.

      I am continuing to pray for you.

      In Christ,

      Steve Fuller

  2. Dave Shelley says:

    To pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17) and never give up (Luke 18:1) implies that some of the changed feelings we ask for will not change for a long time. In truth, some people are physically incapable of feeling consistently as we are exhorted to feel. I affirm what you are saying, but the huge unanswered question for me is: “For how long?” And the answer seems to be, “Until Christ returns, if necessary.” But if that is so (and I don’t see an alternative), isn’t it misleading to suggest that praying and trusting will be answered with different feelings soon? I am not saying we should give up hope; but doesn’t “longsuffering” mean that we hope even though we don’t yet feel the joy or peace that we long to feel?

    • Steve Fuller says:

      Thank you for your excellent questions, Dave. I am actually thinking of writing a blog post in response.

      And maybe we mean different things when we talk about feelings.

      I’m thinking of feelings like having my heart thirst satisfied by the living water of the Spirit (John 7:37–39), and the feeling of having God’s love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5), And having joy unspeakable and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8).

      Those passages seem to say that every believer will experience these feelings.

      And when you talk about physical incapacity, are you referring to brain damage and mental illness?

      Anyway, thank you so much for your questions. I will continue to ponder them, and maybe write a more extensive blog post. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts.

      In Christ,

      Steve Fuller

  3. kathryn says:

    is there a certain promise of God that i can to pray over and ask the spirit to help me believe that assures me He will answer me when I ask him to please make my heart good soil and to make me a lover of light and of jesus?

  4. Kathryn says:

    I keep coming back to this post. I feel like I wake up and think, “I don’t feel like I fear The Lord or like I’m glad in Him, so I’m not going to come to Him unless He gives me those feelings and takes away my resistance.” I want to stop thinking this way! Will you lead me into how to come to Him even feeling resistant? What is the first step? Is just saying, “Jesus is God, being his is better than anything so I give myself to Him. I’ll be baptized and confess Him as Lord,” enough? Because I start feeling like my faith is too small–like I won’t *really* give him all of myself and like I won’t be able to *feel* like belonging to him is better than anything, and how can I know that I believe it if my mind *feels* so against it? Does that make any sense? I keep wanting God to remove my desires for friendship with the world/love of self/whatever else I feel is keeping me from coming, but he’s not. So what do I do? It doesn’t seem like just saying, “well, Jesus is Lord, so it doesn’t matter how I feel,” is a saving heart change. Or, even if it is, i get scared that I’m just saying what i know is the right thing to say but dont *really* believe. Then i blame God for not giving me greater faith and it leaves me feeling so beat up–if I’m still hesitant to confess him publicly, I must not really be submitting, right? So what do I do?

  5. Kathryn says:

    And my mind says, “sure Jesus satisfies, but you’re so hardened YOU can’t/aren’t willing to find satsifaction in Him.” Then I’ve begged God to help that not be true, but I don’t know how to not believe it when it feels true.

  6. George says:

    If I would use one verse as a “theme” for your website and teaching it would be 2 Peter 1:3
    “….whereby are given unto us exceedingly great and precious promises, that BY THESE you may be partakers of the divine nature….”
    The desire to be like Christ is rarely, if ever, given satisfactory answers in church.
    We are told what we must do but not how. It is like coming to a dry well. This in is in Bible teaching churches.
    Your ministry here is a God-send! God bless you.

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