In the process of raising four children, I’ve read a lot of children’s books. Among my favorites are the Frog and Toad stories by Arnold Lobel.
In one memorable tale, Toad bakes cookies for Frog. Of course, then they can’t stop eating them. “What we need is willpower!” cries Frog.
“What’s willpower?” asks Toad.
“Willpower is trying hard not to do something you really want to do,” answers Frog.
The rest of the story recounts the comical lengths Frog and Toad go to in order to stop eating cookies by using their willpower, including putting the cookies in a box and tying string around it, and then getting a ladder to put the cookies up on a high shelf. But nothing works. Finally, in desperation, Frog gives up and feeds the cookies to the birds.
The story ends as Frog and Toad sadly realize they have no more cookies—but “lots and lots of willpower.” So Toad heads home to bake a cake!
Frog and Toad’s adventure reveals a very important principle of transformation:
Willpower is very useful in human life, but it is a limited resource. Unless desires are transformed, willpower will only restrain us for short periods of time.
This is why willpower is a very poor strategy for the ongoing transformation of our character in the Christian life. We need a strategy that goes beyond “trying really hard not to do what sinful desires entice us to do.”
But, tragically, willpower remains the most employed strategy to overcome sin. As a counselor, I have spent decades watching people rely on a doomed strategy for change—waiting until the moment of temptation and then trying hard not to give in to passions. I suspect you inhabit the body of someone who might have tried this as well!
What follows could best be described as a kind of insanity—continuing to do the same thing despite a cycle of repeated failure, intense shame, guilt, and frustration, usually followed by the “skids” and eventually (hopefully) tearful remorse, self-recrimination, and recommitment to … (sigh) try even harder.
Training vs. Trying
It’s no surprise that some eventually quit the battle altogether, convinced that the Christian life is impossible for them. Others quietly participate in church but resign themselves to hiding the lack of power in their personal lives. Some even begin to assume that lack of transformation is actually the normal Christian experience.
So is there an alternative to the futile cycle of trying harder to be like Jesus?
We will not be able to do what is right in the moments of temptation if our inner beings have become characterized by ruined thoughts, feelings, and habits. That’s why the goal of the Christian life is much more than “not sinning.” Disciples of Jesus are learning from Him how to develop the inner thoughts, feelings, and habits that come out of continuous relationship with the Father.
What we need is a lifestyle of training as students of Jesus who systematically and progressively rearrange their lives in order to imitate Him. This involves not only His teachings and the things He did, but also the way He organized His life with God.
The importance of Jesus’ practices for life with God cannot be overemphasized. They were part and parcel of what enabled His life to be saturated with the Spirit and infused with the power and grace that characterized His daily life. Jesus learned obedience (Hebrews 5:8). And so must we, with Jesus as our example and guide.
How Is Training Different Than Trying?
A life of training for Christlikeness is based on the understanding that there are many Christlike things we cannot now naturally and habitually do, especially under stress or trial (exemplified by the many times we have tried and failed). Transformation of our inner life is still needed before Christlikeness characterizes our external behavior.
In a life of training, we use our limited willpower to engage in practices that bring us before Jesus so He can change our inner character (desires, thoughts, feelings, and automatic responses). In this process, Jesus forms His character in us, enabling the capacity to be truly good (doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way). This process of spiritual maturation involves labor pains “until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19).
Note here the principle of indirection. We do not yet habitually think, feel, and act like Christ. No amount of direct effort (trying harder) can change this fact. Yet we can choose to engage in practices that help us draw near to God, who alone can change our hearts by the transforming work of His Holy Spirit.
Is Training Opposed to Grace?
A common objection to this concept of training in Christlikeness is that the word training sounds to many like a works-based, self-improvement project. Some think of an intentional and systematic plan, and the effort involved, as being like legalism as opposed to grace. After all, if Jesus accomplished everything for our salvation, how can transformation depend on a life of discipleship?
However, I would argue that this objection is rooted in a limited definition of grace. Grace is not opposed to effort—it is opposed to earning. How else do we explain the admonitions throughout the New Testament for us to take earnest and forceful action to put off sin and put on righteousness? We are commanded to “fight the good fight of faith,” to “discipline my body” and to “press on” for the prize (1 Timothy 6:12; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Philippians 3:14).
The fact that grace is not opposed to effort is made even more clear when we consider that grace is in fact desire and power provided by God. It is the fuel we burn in the Christian life. This is why Paul could say, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:29), because he knew that grace was God doing in and for him what he could not possibly do for himself. Grace was, in fact, enabling him to give maximum effort.
Grace is for much more than forgiveness of sin. It is also energy to obey God. That’s why saints use more grace than sinners. Saints are drawing on God’s energy to be transformed into Christlikeness and to do His work in the world.
The Right Use of Willpower
The difference between training and trying is one of attitude and direction. In trying, willpower is used primarily in moments of temptation in an attempt to keep from doing what is wrong.
In contrast, a life of training focuses on using willpower to imitate practices we learn from Jesus (and His followers) that cultivate our life with God, thus enabling us to obey from the inside out.
So what about you? Are you trusting Jesus not only to provide for your eternal destiny after you die, but also to equip you to live as His disciple? The change we seek lies beyond the limits of trying harder. It is the Spirit-driven process of transformation into Christlikeness as students of Jesus.
Training Exercises for Obedience to Jesus
Begin with what Jesus said. Go through the Gospels and carefully record what Jesus said to do. If we are going to take Jesus seriously, we need to first know exactly what He instructed, with a settled intention to obey all He commanded. Review this record regularly.
Meditate on Jesus’ view of God. Notice Jesus’ attitudes and beliefs, especially about God the Father. The single most important thing that fills our mind is our images of God. Replace false ideas and images of God with the ideas and images that filled the mind of Jesus.
Memorize key Scriptures. The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is deciding what our minds will dwell on. Memorizing concentrated Bible passages is a critical way to realign our thoughts with God’s. (Suggestions: Psalm 1:1-4; Psalm 23; Matthew 5–7; Romans 5:1-8; Romans 8:1-15; Colossians 3:1-17.)
Practice self-denial. Self-denial is an essential part of life with Jesus (Matthew 16:25) and the first principle of holiness (Romans 12:1-2). Practice looking out for others vs. yourself, trusting that God will take care of you. (Hint: Begin in less demanding situations!)
Earnestly pray. Transformation of our inner being is the work of the Holy Spirit. As you train, ask repeatedly for God to work directly in your heart to enable you to obey Jesus.
* Ideas for this article were informed by Spirit of the Disciplines and Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard. For helpful guides on practices for life with God, check out The Life You’ve Always Wanted or The Me I Want to Be by John Ortberg.
Del Fehsenfeld is the Director of Pastoral Services at Life Action Ministries and the Senior Editor of Revive magazine, where this article originally appeared (Issue 47, #2, entitled Follow).