If you were to ask most people what they are looking for in life, chances are they would say something like, “I want to be happy,” or even, “I’m just looking for peace.” Everywhere we look these days, it seems we’re bombarded with words of wisdom or advice on how to attain these goals. We see catchy little sayings plastered on the sides of buses, imprinted on reusable bags, and even featured on product packages. I saw a phrase the other day that really struck a cord with me, as it’s one I try to follow. It said, “Life is full of setbacks. Success is determined by how you handle setbacks.” In other words, we can’t control much of what happens in life, but we can control our response. One of the ways we do this is by calling upon the will.
What is the will anyway? At the most basic level, it is our ability to make choices; thus, when formed, it is that part of us that controls our thoughts and actions. It’s what gets us out of bed each morning and keeps us going even when we really don’t feel like it. As one of the distinguishing characteristics of a rational being, the will is a complex interplay of knowledge, emotion, temperament, and various other aspects of the human person. When developed, it can be a powerful tool at our disposal. For instance, most of us have heard stories of a terminally ill person hanging on to life until their loved ones come to say goodbye, proving that the will at times has the supernatural ability to accomplish what medical science cannot. So why do we underestimate its potential? We discipline our minds through education and our bodies through exercise but often neglect the will. Forming our will is infinitely more important since it is needed to progress in either of these “lesser” disciplines, that of our minds or bodies. In fact, the will influences everything we do in life and all that we achieve both externally and internally.
One of the first times we see the will at work is through observing babies and small children. At first, we are creatures of impulse. The will is certainly present; it’s just not formed. Most of us have probably heard parents lamenting the fact that they have a “strong-willed” child. We can sympathize with this attitude because we tend to think of a strong will as a negative trait in children. However, by the time we see this characteristic in adults, we view it quite differently. My husband, for instance, recently decided to change his eating habits in hopes of adopting a healthier lifestyle. Keep in mind that this was a guy who grew up on white bread and processed cheese! Nevertheless, once he made up his mind, there was no going back. I remember watching his unwavering resolve with a mixture of great admiration and quiet dismay because I am admittedly so weak in this regard. We each have areas that will be more difficult to overcome but, in any case, it all comes down to strength of will.
God as our GPS
We are all familiar with the idea of willpower 1 , which suggests that we can obtain such strength completely on our own, that it’s self-driven. This is simply not the case, and St. Paul tells us why. He describes the ongoing battle between our minds and our bodies, between our sinful nature and our will. He says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Rom 7:15-18).
So what is it that gets us from the expression of will as one of simple impulse to one of informed and deliberate action? Spiritual growth and maturity is a lifelong process that involves four main areas: (1) developing a strong sense of right and wrong, a conscience; (2) desiring to choose what is right; (3) forming the will to choose that good; and finally, (4) having an experience of the source of all goodness, Christ himself.2 As with the conscience, if we are on the path of the Christian life, the will requires a definitive reference point and must be rooted in seeking the good of others – the very definition of love.
In creating us, God has given each person a will and along with it, the freedom to choose how to use it. Nevertheless, He has an advantage over us when it comes to perspective. If you’ve ever stood at the window of a tall building looking down at the people on the street below, you know what I mean. Our Lord can see the whole picture – where we are and where we’re trying to go. If we trust that He wants what is best for us and cooperate with His grace, He will help to guide our steps and make our path safe 3 , ultimately aligning our will to His and making it our final destination.
Obstacles on the Journey
An essential function of the will is that it helps us to follow through even when we don’t feel like it, to take an idea or intention and turn it into action. You’ve probably all heard the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We find it funny, yet there’s certainly a strong element of truth in it. Scripture reminds us, “…let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18). Without forming the will, we risk getting stuck in good intentions. What a timely reminder as we begin a new year, with its endless resolutions!
Another potential obstacle in activating the will is our senses. The eyes, for instance, have frequently been called the “windows to the soul.” How often do we stop to consider whether what we allow to enter through our eyes and ears is really good for us? The movies or shows we watch, the books we read, and the music we listen to can all have a profound effect on our souls and on our own behaviour, what we come to see as acceptable or normal. As Christians, we must strive to live in the world, but not of the world.
Moreover, it is important that we understand our own weaknesses and unhealthy tendencies, the areas where we usually slip or get tripped up. Scripture tells us how we come to sin through our weaknesses: “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 Jn 2:16). In other words, when we allow sensual pleasures to become the focus or seek to be fulfilled through material things, then we have wandered from the path of peace. We will never find that peace of soul in worldly desires, in trying to make our own way without reference to God. Forming the will helps us to live lives that are not simply dictated by our passions or by what feels good but rather what is good.
Passions: Fuel for the Journey
Like every part of our being, our passions or feelings are a gift from God that can be used for good. Our passions are meant to spur us into action, to help us fulfill our life’s purpose; it’s only when any of them become disordered or excessive that we fall into sin. 4 That’s where the will comes in. Our passions could be compared to the gas in our tank, whereas the will is necessary to regulate its intake.
One of the principal passions of the human person is desire, which we can direct towards good or evil. Part of the human condition is to want what is lacking in us. But our consumer-driven mindset exacerbates this phenomenon. For instance, we desire food to live and to keep our bodies strong and healthy. We want to learn and work. We want to be liked and for people to find us attractive. But if any of these desires become the focus of our lives, such an attitude can lead to destructive behavior, leaving us feeling sad and empty.
For example, our society’s preoccupation with sex and its pervasiveness in our culture clearly demonstrate the consequences of not keeping our passions in their proper perspective. When taken out of context, that which was given to us by God for good, for the transmission of life and as a “sign and pledge of spiritual communion” in marriage, can become destructive and unhealthy. 5
The Means to the End: How to Get There
So, how do we master ourselves? The Catechism explains that “the ‘mastery’ over the world that God offered man from the beginning was realized above all within man himself…”. 6 God has given us the grace that we need to overcome our weaknesses and negative tendencies, but we must cooperate with that grace. To form the will, we must choose to do those things that work to counter our tendencies, what we find hard or even undesirable. For each person, these actions may be very different.
For me, regular exercise is a huge act of the will. Unlike some people, it’s not something that I really enjoy – it requires discipline and perseverance that I would rather direct toward something else, such as writing. But I do it because it’s good for me, and it stretches me in more than just the obvious ways! I’ve also discovered that if I use this time to listen to talks and homilies on my iPod, I am more likely to stick with my plan. As with anything we find hard, whatever we can do to make it more appealing, to infuse it with a greater sense of purpose will inspire us to persevere. Ultimately, the goal is to create good habits so that it will be easier to choose what is good for us.
The habit of prayer would also fall into this category. Though the act of prayer is beneficial in and of itself, the discipline or habit of prayer is also efficacious in forming the will. If we set aside specific times each day to meet God in prayer, He will give us a measure of peace, His peace. In the busyness of our lives, we sometimes think there’s no time to pray. But if we seek peace, the opposite is actually true – the busier we are, the more we need to pray!
One of the highest forms of prayer is sacrifice, which is another means of disciplining the will. Restricting things we enjoy such as sweets or snacks, not eating between meals, or giving up something that’s nice but not necessary are some of the small ways we can learn to overcome our selfish tendencies, to master ourselves. Offering such sacrifices up for others takes this act of the will to the next level, benefitting not just ourselves but others as well.
No Time to Waste
Since time is one of our most precious resources, we should consider how we are using it. We all struggle to use time well, and finding the right balance between falling into laziness or becoming rigid in our planning is quite a challenge. On the one hand, we may spend hours surfing around on the Internet or on Facebook when there’s really something better we could be doing with our time. Or, perhaps we decide to embark on a big project, preferring such tasks to the less exciting day-to-day work in front of us. It’s all a matter of setting priorities. In these instances, we must engage the will to help us forgo immediate gratification in favor of the satisfaction that comes from fulfilling our duties in life.
The alternate scenario is planning and scheduling our lives to the point of ridiculousness. We do this in our day-to-day lists and schedules, but also in our long-term planning: in trying to plan for and control every eventuality. Instead, we should prayerfully reflect on how God would want us to use the gift of each day, the gift of our lives.
I once heard Bishop Frederick Henry 7 give a talk where he said that the interruptions in our plans are, in fact, God’s will for us. Even though we may have a long to-do list or have completely planned our day, the unexpected call from a friend in need or a sick child to care for must now become our priority. These are times when we must “let go and let God,” consoled with the thought that this is precisely where God wants us. Likewise, though it’s good to set goals and plan for the future, we must remember that our Heavenly Father has a plan for us that is far better than anything we could imagine. Why settle for fleeting pleasures when infinite joy is offered to us? “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer 29:11-14). If we trust in our Heavenly Father’s innate goodness, then the unpredictability of life won’t upset our peace.
So, how do we find that place of freedom and peace? First, we must stop looking to the world and look instead into our own hearts and minds. The world cannot give us what we seek. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you” (Jn 14:27). United to Christ, we will find true and lasting inner peace that can transform our lives and, thus, the world in which we live. “The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just.”8 Ultimately, we can choose the way that our lives will go, but it is only in doing the will of the One who sent us that we will find true happiness, fulfilling our life’s purpose. If we master ourselves in small ways now, when faced with the inevitable trials of life, we will have the strength to persevere in faith.
– Kelley Holy
1 The terms will and willpower are sometimes used interchangeably in older texts.
2 For further reading and study of many of the ideas in this article, two excellent resources are Transformation in Christ by Dietrich von Hildebrand (Ignatius) and The Rule of Our Warfare: John Henry Newman and the true Christian Life, edited by John Hulsman (Scepter).
3 Cf. Ps 37:23.
4 Cf. CCC, 1768.
5 Ibid., 2360.
6 Ibid., 377.
7 Bishop Frederick Henry is the current bishop of the Diocese of Calgary, Canada.
8 CCC, 1733.