We often hear the mantra “You can do anything you set your mind to.” And we believe it—until it all falls apart and we’re stunned to realize that our willpower was not enough. What the Bible says about human willpower is not too flattering. The apostle Paul penned some words sympathetic to all who have been dismayed at the failure of willpower to effect meaningful change: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do. But what I hate, I do. . . . For I do not do the good I want to do. Instead, I keep on doing the evil I do not want to do” (Romans 7:15, 19). Paul understood that, as strong as our willpower may be, it is not enough to overcome all temptation or keep our lives honoring to the Lord.
Willpower is a strong determination to do something or not to do something. More difficult tasks, such as quitting smoking or losing weight, require more willpower. New Year’s resolutions are one way we often try to exert our willpower over areas that are out of control. But by mid-February, our willpower has usually run out, proving that it is not strong enough to overcome our greater passion to please ourselves. As the proverb says, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly” (Proverbs 26:11). We’ve all been caught in the cycle of folly at one time or another; willpower alone is not strong enough to overcome habitual sin.
God offers us something stronger than willpower; He offers “Spirit power” (Ephesians 3:20). It is willpower that controls our actions and emotions, but our wills are fueled by something more powerful. We can think of our soul as a train, and the will is the engine. Wherever the engine goes, the train goes. The engine pulls the boxcars of experiences, perceptions, needs, motivations, and actions. But directly behind the engine is the fuel car. Without fuel, the mighty engine can’t move. Before we surrender to Christ, our will is fueled by our flesh. Passions, habits, opinions, impulses, and lusts continually feed our will, and it goes wherever they direct (Romans 8:8). But when we bow to the lordship of Jesus, we switch fuel cars. The Holy Spirit replaces self in our “fuel car,” and His power enables us to go where He wants us to go.
Our will on its own lacks the ability to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit. We have no natural desire to take up our crosses to follow Jesus (Luke 9:23). We cannot, by sheer force of will, love the Lord with all our heart, mind, and soul (Mark 12:30). Willpower cannot change our desires. But the Spirit-empowered person has a change of heart (2 Corinthians 5:17). Once in residence in our hearts, the Holy Spirit begins fueling our will with His thoughts, perspective, wisdom, and love (Philippians 2:13; Galatians 5:22–23). Our lives begin to move in His direction, led by our Spirit-fueled will. The more we surrender to Him, the more power we have to follow the Lord’s leading.
None of us can live the way God wants us to live by willpower alone. Romans 3:10 applies to those with strong willpower as well as those who are weak: “There is no one righteous, not even one.” God knows our willpower is not enough to keep us on the right path, so He offers to live His life through us. “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6).