“But how do I know that I really believe in Jesus?” said the woman.
“It’s not about emotions,” I replied, “Believing in Jesus is an act of the will.”
“What does that mean?” she asked. I stood there silent. How does one explain “an act of the will”? This is a phrase you’ve heard me use in a number of essays, covering a wide range of spiritual topics. “Your will is in charge, not your emotions,” I frequently assert.
But what does it mean? Our “will” is our ability to choose. We may decide to do something or not to do it. And unlike primitive creatures, who are more hardwired by instinct, our range of choices is breath-taking. Human beings, through the exercise of their wills, are constantly transforming themselves and their environments in a way that the rest of nature can only envy.
Yet, it’s one thing to exercise our wills in tangible ways and quite another in intangible ones. I can decide to do the dishes or to go to work and do it by an act of the will. That’s easy to measure. But how do we measure what’s invisible; the spiritual part of us – especially choosing to make changes in perspective or attitude? How do I choose to trust God for a certain matter when my fear refuses to go away? How can I choose to love God more than anyone or anything else when my emotions toward Him remain tepid? And, as I began this article, how can I make myself believe in Jesus if I have doubts?
I’ll be open here. I don’t have a clear-cut answer to this dilemma. This thing we call “the will” is a mysterious creature hidden in the subterranean tunnels of our souls. And precisely how to activate it is a dilemma. My friend mentioned earlier cannot seem to find an assurance of salvation even though she desperately wants it (she also has an anxiety disorder, which doesn’t help). Others may not question their salvation, but worry about their sincerity in obedience, since their emotions don’t always match their actions (“Have I really forgiven him if I’m still angry?”). Although I don’t have this question figured out very well, let this be a thinking essay. Here are some possible answers to the question:
How can I do what’s right by an “act of the will”?
1. I use my will to do what’s right by first being aware of the complexity of thoughts, motivations, and emotions within me
I can’t be defined by any single aspect of my being – like the loudest emotion I’m feeling at the moment or my strongest current desire. We’re complex beings moved by a variety of internal forces and feelings simultaneously. They influence each other and often conflict. I can, for instance, be very angry at someone and still care deeply about them at the same time. Both these reactions are “me”. This leads to the next point:
2. I use my will to do what’s right by clearly affirming what’s true, right and best
The beginning goal of my will is to sort through the complexity of my thoughts, motivations, and emotions and decide which makes most sense to yield to. I can’t follow them all. I have the ability to decide what will define me and what won’t. Often, the best starting place is our thinking, or rationality, since this is the clearest and most stable of the three. What makes the most rational sense? Our thinking can be warped or mistaken as well, though, so it helps to develop our thinking skills; to learn to spot logical fallacies or wishful thinking. Others may also aid us in this process if we’re teachable.
What’s even more important, for a believer however, and in fact for everyone, is what God thinks. The final measuring stick, the universal Geneva standard for every being, is God’s perspective. Furthermore, God’s wisdom, as shown in Scripture, often runs counter to that of our sinful natures and our sinful world.
So we choose, carefully and prayerfully to decide what’s true, right, and best. If our emotions don’t like what we choose, or if it pushes against certain of our motivations, so be it. We make a careful, thoughtful decision about what we will believe or do and then clearly affirm in our minds. “This is what I am choosing to believe and to live,” we say and say again, despite the protest of other internal forces. This is not hypocritical. We’ve simply consciously chosen what we believe is true, right and best and let it define our world. But our wills must control more than our thinking. They must also control our actions.
3. I use my will to do what’s right by acting in accord with the beliefs I have chosen
Act in line with the beliefs you have chosen even if your emotions aren’t going along with it. Love your enemy in practical ways. Worship God even when you don’t feel like it. Tell the truth even when you’re tempted to lie. If believing in Christ makes most sense to you, affirm that belief strongly even when assailed by doubts and opposition. Not only will you be living in accord with what you think best, often, acting in harmony with your beliefs will bring your emotions and instincts into line eventually. Show love to your enemy and, in time, you may grow to love him with more than just your will, but also your whole heart.
4. I use my will to do what’s right by building patterns and habits
The last two points only work if we’re persistent. Habits strengthen our will, making its reactions more instinctive and automatic. If, for example, you use your will to read the Bible every morning, though you’d rather sleep a few more minutes, eventually, the habit itself will start doing more of the heavy lifting started by the will and you’ll just get up and read your Bible without having to wrestle with the choice as you did at first. Eventually, habits and patterns become part of your character and you can focus your will more on developing new areas of growth. There’s always more to work on.
5. I use my will to do what’s right by allowing it to be the main determiner of who I am
In the end, for me anyway, following Christ is often a battle. Although I believe, deep down, that He is the way, the truth and the life, there are parts of me which rebel against these beliefs. My emotions, in particular, often do not reflect the appropriate joy and confidence which my faith should inspire. My desires are still frequently self-centered, rather than Christ-centered. My thinking is still warped at certain points. One day everything will fall into line with my dear Lord, and I long for that day, but right now I’m still a mixture of good and bad, strength and weakness. My will, despite its potential, has limitations that only God can overcome in His time. Nevertheless, by God’s grace, I choose to point it in His direction as well and as often as I can and that is the main measure of how I measure my performance. I hope that you will do that as well.