Most Americans would say they are either busy or feel busy. This is particularly true on the east coast where Forbes magazine listed New York, NY as the third most stressed area in America1. We can just assume some of that stressed out love reaches far into the NYC metro area as well. There are many who would give advice on life management and getting things done2 but sometimes having the right priorities and system just doesn’t solve the problem. There is a long running human struggle with sticking to the things we say are our priorities. A good plan on paper might be a good first step, but it provides no guarantee you are going to change your own life. It is not uncommon for someone to say their priorities are God, their relationships, family and then work or play. In that order. Yet it is also not uncommon for the same people to spend all their hours and energy working and recreating with little time on their spiritual growth or with their people. We realize that intentions are one thing, but living is another.
In this short essay I want to explore a simple question which has been wrestled with over the centuries: Why don’t we always do what we say we want to do? To do so we will first look at some discussions in philosophy about a concept the Greeks called akrasia—the weakness of the will. We will then look at a view of human freedom found in the works of New England theologian/philosopher Jonathan Edwards which will shed greater light on why we sometimes fail to do what we intellectually know is right. Finally, we will close with a discussion of a controversial and important biblical text which deals with human nature and its effects on our “want to” and how we might find help with following through with our desires.
The ancient Greek philosophers discussed a concept known as akrasia, the weakness of the will. The word literally means to lack command over oneself. In Plato’s dialogue Protagoras, Socrates dismisses the idea that anyone, knowing the good thing to do, would ever do otherwise. A person might not do the right thing or act according to what is good, but this only because he does not rightly understand it. If you know what is truly good, you do it by way of reason. Aristotle, a couple of philosophical generations later, chose a less rigid understanding of a person finding weakness when choosing to do what is right. In his section VII.1-10 of his Ethics, Aristotle, describes times when people act in a way that is contrary to reason because they are overcome by some passion which they do not master rationally.3 The Greeks saw the good person as always acting in accordance with reason but they, like everyone else, were surrounded by people doing things they ought to have judgment about. Ultimately, Aristotle is more charitable than Socrates acknowledging the reality of akrasia, but only that people are mastered by their passions rather than mastering them. He does return to rationality in the end thinking that an akratic person will eventually see the errors in his thinking after some time and experience. He does think, like Socrates, that a truly wise person can never experience akrasia as he rightly sees it is a vice.4 To boil it down, Socrates thought that those who claim to have weakness of will to simply be stupid; Aristotle, thought that they were perhaps temporarily stupid but could recover their way. The Greeks felt if you know right, you do right. However, they were still writing about this issue because people seem to fail in follow through quite often. The Greek answer, and I would say the modern secular answer, was to become wiser and wiser and then you would always do the good. Of course they could never quite define, or agree upon a definition of “wise” and “good” so the philosophizing continues until this day. Over the years, many Christians have thought differently about why we often fail. We will look at the views of one such thinker before we discuss the biblical text.
Freedom of Inclination
Unfortunately, many only know of the 18th century theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards from a sermon in which he sought to vividly present the teaching of Revelation 19:15 which read: He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. This sermon, entitled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, is many times the only work contemporary Americans read of Edwards. Various historians and scholars know a fuller picture of the man that some have called the greatest mind of the American colonial period. The recent renewed interest in Edwards studies in theological, historical and philosophical circles is both encouraging and warranted.5
One of his more influential works was entitled, in typical Edwards fashion, A Careful and Strict Enquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of the Will, Which Is Supposed to be Essential to Moral Agency, Vertue and Vice, Reward and Punishment, Praise and Blame. Thank God it is known by its more popular and short title The Freedom of the Will. Edwards had many reasons to write about human freedom and choice and what sort of freedom humans had. Whereas the Greeks typically assumed that human beings naturally should choose the good and were puzzled why they most often did not, Edwards was a Christian who firmly believed that the human will was bent towards sin, not toward doing good. Edwards was no pessimist, but he was realistic about the strength of human desires regarding their choices.
Rather than simply talk about freedom of the will in terms of seeing the good and then doing it, Edwards argued that human beings do what they are most inclined towards. People always act according to their deepest desires.6 The problem with not doing what we ought is with our want to, not simply with our knowledge. This gives a much better understanding to why humans often know their duty and fail to follow through. Our desires can lead us away from what we even know to be the right path. This does not alleviate us of moral responsibility for our actions, but it does mean that we need new desires, new inclinations towards what is good, right and true.
As an aside, Christian thinkers in every age have understood that what is good is related to who God IS. Furthermore, what he wills for human beings according is always in accord with his own good, unchanging character.7 The character and nature of God grounds that which is good ontologically so that we might see our lives conform to his character ethically. The Christian tradition differed from that of the Greeks in that it saw human fallibility not simply in terms of wisdom or knowledge but in terms of deepest desires and inclinations. We needed to have our desires changed and set free from the law of sin and death so that we might be able to be changed to be more like God. We would do the good when we become more like the one that is good. The internal struggle of human beings, their wrestling with the weakness of will and the fallibility of our nature comes through clearly in the writings of St. Paul in his epistle to the Romans.
For the sake of brevity, I want to quote a portion of the seventh chapter of the book of Romans from a paraphrase of the New Testament. It brings to light quickly the human struggle we have been discussing here:
I can anticipate the response that is coming: “I know that all God’s commands are spiritual, but I’m not. Isn’t this also your experience?” Yes. I’m full of myself—after all, I’ve spent a long time in sin’s prison. What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary. But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
Though a complete explanation of this text is beyond the scope of this essay, I want you to see the internal struggle described. Here we find a human being struggling to do the good he sees revealed in the law of God (for simplicity think of the 10 commandments) but yet he sees another power at work within him. Indwelling sin has made him a prisoner to his own desires so that even when he wants to do the good he often falls short. Rather than a better education he feels he needs to be set free, he needs help from outside of himself. This insight is offensive to those who have their minds set on fixing themselves. Pride in human beings will not face the truth that they need to be rescued, forgiven and changed. Yet the human struggle and internal wrestling with sin is real as is its power.
The insight of Jesus and his followers was simple yet profound. It is from the heart that sin flows in our lives. When we do what is contrary to what we know is right, we are choosing that path because we want to. The problem is that our “want to” is precisely the problem; it is not our heads that let us down, it is our hearts. Jesus said it this way in Mark 7:14-23:
And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
So, do we do what we want to do in life? I would say for the most part yes. The problem we have is that our desires are contorted and greatly in need of reformation. Sin affects the mind so we don’t always think to do what is right, so we do need moral instruction and education. Sin also affects the will in that it twists the desires of our heart. What we need is a new mind and a new heart so that we can both see what is good and actually want to live it.
Being Able to Keep Priorities
So let’s revisit our busyness and priorities. We are prone to fill our lives with all manner of things while neglecting that which we claim to be our priorities. Saying that God, our families and relationships is a priority while other pursuits are secondary is quaint. Actually desiring to love God and your neighbor is a work of grace in us and through us. If we want our priorities to shift, we actually need a renovation of our hearts. We need to be set free from sin and death to live a life of freedom and faith.
Jesus died to lift the curse of sin from us to give us new inclinations to love God and walk in his ways. He now enables us to do so — even when we feel stressed out and busy. We need to sit at the feet of Jesus as his disciples so that we learn a new way and then follow with the new hearts he gives to us. Even making the time to read Scripture, spend time with God in thoughtful prayer and to be a disciple is a choice that he empowers us to make. When he calls, we follow and a new life awaits. The strength of love overpowers the weakness of will when the heart has been turned around by God himself.
In Luke 10:38-42 Martha bustles with activity and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. Jesus tells us that it was Mary who chose the better path. To come to the one who has to power to make us new is what we must learn as we travel through life. Coming to him is a discipline but one he enables day by day. As one wrote long ago, “give what you command, and command what you will. You enjoin continence [self restraint].”8 He has not left us to our own desires, he is giving us new ones each day. We have our abiding hope in his power to help us live out his priorities in our lives today.
At his feet with you,
Reid S. Monaghan
1. America’s Most Stressed Out Cities, Forbes.com—http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32588942/ns/business-forbescom/, accessed 11/20/2009.
2. David Allen’s best selling book Getting Things Done is a must in my opinion. If you like technology the web site LifeHacker.com can be a great help as well.
3. For a discussion of Aristotle’s Ethics see the excellent summation in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/index.html accessed 11/21/2009.
4. See Alternate Readings of Aristotle on Akrasia at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-ethics/supplement1.html accessed 11/21/2009.
5. For a wonderful treatment of Edwards’ Life see the works of George Marsden. His unabridged Jonathan Edwards, A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) is in my opinion the best work on Edwards’ life and writings. Also the works Gerald R. McDermott and Mark Noll are also of note. John Piper and Sam Storms (to a lesser extent) have also brought the thought of Edwards forward in our day. See John Piper, God’s Passion for His Glory Living the Vision of Jonathan Edwards (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998) and Sam Storms, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’s “Religious Affections” (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007) are of particular interest.
6. See treatment of Edwards view of Freedom in Bruce Ware, God’s Greater Glory (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004) 79-81.
7. See William P. Alston ‘What Euthyphro Should Have Said’ in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide edited by William Lane Craig, Rutgers University Press, 2002.
8. Augustine, Confessions, Book 10, Chapter 29.