The Difference Between Willingness and Capability

People Are Often Not Capable of Doing Everything They Are Willing to Do

In the religious tradition I grew up in (and in society as a whole), there was and is a strong focus on the will.

The phrase that best embodies the idea of the will is “Just do it.”

Nike — just do it.

Nancy Reagan — Just say no.

It’s quick, simple, and has the appearance of common sense.

“I’m really struggling to stop drinking.” “Well, it’s important, isn’t it? Just do it.”

“I’m starting to have serious questions about God and faith.” “Just keep believing. Belief is a choice. Just do it.”

“I know I should be nicer to my wife and kids but it seems like no matter how hard I try, stupid and hurtful things keep coming out of my mouth.” “You don’t want to be a jerk, do you? Just be nice.”

But it’s not common sense at all. The fact is, there are many things we need to do, and many we need to stop doing, that we just aren’t capable of doing or stopping.

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Game-Changers

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When I was younger, I had a lot of answers. Now I’m older, and I have a lot of questions. The few things I feel like I know, I know with more confidence than before. Here are things I know from experiences I have had that have radically changed my view of God over the years — my real game-changers.

Most people who get diagnosed with terminal cancer are almost certainly going to die.

No matter how much you pray.

If you’re not aware of this on some level, I’m so, so sorry to bear the bad news. But it’s critical that you know this.

There will be exceptions, of course, and I’ll pray as hard as anyone, but if your theology depends on God healing some particular person, this is probably going to get harder.

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The Christian craving for guilt

Christians love feeling guilty. In fact, they positively crave it. In fact, to Christians, guilt feels like devotion. The popularity of books like Francis Chan’s Crazy Love and David Platt’s Radical testifies to this. Anyone who speaks or writes of all the ways the church is blowing it, falling short, and insufficient is almost destined to become a rock star.

It’s in our religious DNA. Read through the gospels and you will be hard pressed to identify anything Jesus said which could reasonably be interpreted as “shame on you,” yet if the Christian gospel as it has actually come to us throughout history could be summarized in three words, I could hardly think of three more appropriate ones. Shame on us for not reading our Bibles more. Shame on us for not praying more. Shame on us for having lustful thoughts. Shame on us for believing Calvin more than Arminius (or vice versa). Shame on us for leaning too much on God’s grace and love and not believing enough in punishment. Shame on us for liking rock and roll, dancing, and places where these things are happening. Shame on us for having marriages that crumble, just like everybody else. Shame on us for missing church. Shame on us for not caring more for the poor. Shame on us for wanting to live the way all God’s other creatures live — in the moment, not analyzing our performance every second of the day, not constantly feeling inferior (or superior) — just wanting to live in peace.

Shame on you is the message. It’s hard to hear it for what it is, because it always come disguised as well-meaning books by well-meaning preachers/teachers, telling us in well-meaning ways how we can be more of all the stuff those preachers obviously need us to be in order for them to sleep well at night: more passionate and compassionate, more fired up, more generous, more committed to God, the church, and our marriages, more, more, more. (Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Many of these are good things!) And the church laps this up. We buy these books and listen to these messages because we are so convinced of our insufficiency. After all, our marriages really are busting up. If we’re honest, we’re really not as committed to God and church as we think we should be. We really don’t give as much as we know we should. So Chan, Platt, and the gang are telling us what we already know is true. We, both individually and collectively, suck.

But the church has NEVER been sufficient, or full of the kind of people Chan cites as the right kinds of Christians. I thought that’s what Jesus was for. I thought the message of Jesus was that we are loved by God in full knowledge of our shortcomings and insufficiencies. Whose gospel is it that we can fix things if we just try harder? And when did anyone get the impression that we can ever try hard enough to assuage our own deep sense that we are not good enough and could always do more? Guilt is killing us, but we love it. We just can’t let it go.

We think guilt helps us perform better, be “better” Christians (or maybe just better human beings), so we refuse to let go of it. But guilt doesn’t help us perform better, it paralyzes us. It reminds us constantly of our insufficiency. As spiritual as guilt makes us feel, it’s what is trapping us. We simply have to let it go.

Guilt always makes everything, ultimately, about us. If I try to love you because I feel guilty for not loving you, I’m loving you not because you are human and deserve to be loved, but to assuage my own guilt. If I give to the poor not because generosity is good but because I feel like a scumbag for not giving enough, I’m not giving for the sake of the poor, I’m giving so that I can feel good again. If I go to church not because church is good and helps me connect to a community of people who love and care for me, but simply because I feel sinful and guilty for not going, then going to church is just about me not wanting to feel guilty anymore.

That’s why you’ll never get anywhere with guilt. Francis Chan, Platt, and so many other guilt-mongers are making the right diagnosis, but their solution is part of the problem. Try harder. Cling tighter to that banana. But the answer is to let go of the banana and plunge headlong into the gospel — the good news that we are fully loved, fully accepted by God at this very moment, insufficiencies and all. As Richard Rohr says, we don’t change so that God will love us, we come to know God loves us so that we can change.

As I learn today that I am loved, change occurs in me. As I learn tomorrow that I am loved, more change occurs. This is an eternal process. At no time do I get to say, “Okay, I now know that I am loved — what are all the projects and things I get to start running around and doing?” This misses Jesus’ crucial words about “abiding” (John 15). To abide is to remain rooted in that love, so that our actions for good are springing directly from God’s loving action for good that is at work in us. This means there is no room and no need for, “Yes, but you must balance being loved with taking action.” There is no separation between love and action. We can trust that being loved does and will lead to action — and to the very best kind: the non-guilty, non-forced, non-judgmental, non-clamoring, non-needy kind.

When we begin to move into this moment by moment experience of being loved, we find that our sense of guilt is beginning to be replaced by a sense of gratitude. We let go of the banana and, for the first time, we are free to become all the things we have always felt guilty for not being. Sounds like fruits of the Spirit. I am going to end this post with a passage from scripture. As you read, replace the word “God” with the word “love.”

Romans 8:10-11 (MSG)
10 …for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. 11 It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!  (emphasis mine)

 

 

Embracing Powerlessness, prt. 4 — “Are you telling me to be a doormat?”

If you have read all the posts in this series, you may by now thinking that what I am suggesting here is that you simply give up and become a doormat; that you resign yourself to being walked on by everybody, letting life steamroll you, and settling for whatever scraps fall from everyone else’s table. That is the furthest thing from what I am suggesting.

Embracing powerlessness is all about attitude. It is not throwing your hands up and saying, “I give up, what the hell, I’m never gonna get anything anyway.” Truly embracing powerlessness leads to also embracing the places and situations where you can really effect change. It is not a hopeless surrender to the relentless tides of the world. It is knowing that, even if the tides should carry you away, you can still have peace and happiness. Anything less is not truly embracing powerlessness, for despair and hopelessness suggest that you have still not let go of the idea that life owes you something.

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Embracing Powerlessness

There is freedom in embracing powerlessness. Most of the time we’re scurrying around trying to fix things — relationships, issues at work, problems with the cars, problems at our kids’ schools — our lives seem like a bewildering array of problems, all of which we believe we have to fix. We believe this deeply enough that we can hardly think of anything worse than not being able to fix something.

But there is freedom in it. As long as I think I have to fix something, I will struggle to fix it. Every time I try and fail, I will feel frustrated, guilty, weak, pathetic, stupid, incompetent, or a host of other negative things. But when I realize that there are things I can’t fix, and stop trying, I find freedom and peace.

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