The Dynamics of Change: Willingness

Dr. Brian Allison

This past week I watched the end of a movie – a true story of a hardened, incorrigible Scottish gangster and criminal, Jimmy Boyle. Apparently, while he was in prison, Boyle was unwilling to conform to the rules of the system. He was very defiant and obnoxious in his behaviour and ways. He resisted authority. On various occasions, he was thrown into solitary confinement because of his unruly behaviour. He was also punished very severely by the guards because of his lack of compliance; and for all that, he was unwilling to change. Now, while in prison, he eventually acquired an understanding of, and desire for, freedom. Consequently, his outlook began to change, and as a result he became more willing to conform to institutional expectations and regulations. His behaviour changed. Subsequently, while in prison, Boyle wrote a book called Sense of Freedom. In 1983, he was released from prison and he began a rehabilitation facility to help reformed criminals. Jimmy Boyle was willing to change, and as a result, he did.

Willingness is a precondition for positive behavioural change. Unless one is willing to change for the better, then he or she will not change. The will is the driving mechanism behind change; it is the link between thought and reason, on the one hand, and action, on the other hand. It is the power of the will that propels us to the desired change. George Crabbe (1754-1832), the British poet, wrote,

"In idle wishes fools supinely stay;

Be there a will, and wisdom finds a way."

(The Birth of Flattery)

Before you actually change, you must first be willing to change. The account of the rich young ruler in Luke 18:18-30 is very helpful in illustrating this particular dynamic of change.

The power of the will

One day a rich young ruler came to Jesus. Apparently, he had heard about Jesus; perhaps he had heard some of His teaching. He had heard that Jesus could offer the way to eternal life. This ruler posed a question to Jesus, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" (vs. 18). Now, this ruler was initially willing to change, willing to do what it would take in order to secure the desired object, namely, eternal life. Willingness, like belief, is self-propelling. Frank Channing Haddock, the author of Power of Will, defines the will as "the power of self-direction, or the soul itself exercising self-direction." To will is to consciously decide some behaviour or some course of action. For instance, this past week (January 12, 1996), the first lady of the White House, Hillary Clinton, was willing to set the record straight concerning the accusations and allegations that were swirling around her; and thus she consciously decided to speak out. This is an example of what we mean by the power of will – one consciously deciding or choosing a particular behaviour or course of action.

Now, the power of will – the ability to choose or decide; that determination or resolve to achieve something – should not be underestimated when it comes to this matter of positive behavioural change. Dr. Russell Conwell, a lecturer on the theory of the power of the will, said, "If there is one thing I have tried to do through these years, it is to indent in the minds of the [people] of America the living fact that when they give Will the reins and say, 'Drive!' they are headed towards the heights." In 490 BC, the Greeks defeated the invading Persians in a very decisive battle. It was fought on the plains of Marathon, about 25 miles (40 kilometres) northeast of Athens. After the victory, a Greek soldier, Pheidippides, was dispatched to Athens to report that the Greeks had won. He ran the whole 25 miles nonstop. After entering the city of Athens, and having given the good report, he dropped dead (this event marks the historical roots of the marathon race). Now, the question is this: What was it that drove this man on? How was it that he could keep running, even though his physical reserves had been utterly depleted? – the power of the will! The will seems to have a reserve all its own that can defy normal physical obstacles and barriers, driving us on when our natural strength has been exhausted. Charles Blondin (1824-1897), the French acrobat and rope-walker, signed an agreement to wheel a barrow along a rope on a given day. He was seized with lumbago two days before the performance. He called in his doctor and told him that he must be cured for the scheduled day or else he would lose a large sum of money. Blondin's health, however, did not improve. His doctor advised him to cancel the performance. Blondin refused. Blondin himself reports, "When I got to the place, there was the doctor, protesting I was unfit for the exploit. I went on, though I felt like a frog with my [sore] back. I got ready my pole and barrow, took hold of the handles and wheeled it along the rope as well as ever I did. When I got to the end I wheeled it back again, and when this was done I was a frog again. What made me that I could wheel the barrow? It was my reserve – Will" (Power of Will, p. 6). Proverbs 18:14 reads, "The spirit of a man can endure his sickness, but a broken spirit, who can bear?" As long as one has a resolve, a determination, he or she can override the debilitating effects of his or her physical liabilities, but when that resolve is weak or absent, what internal force will then keep the fabric of the soul together?

Now, many people lack this power of will, and thus are called 'weak-willed' people. These are typically the indecisive ones, the self-defeated ones, the dependent ones. A Chinese proverb says, "Great souls have wills; feeble ones have only wishes." Victor Hugo (1802-1885), the French writer and author of Les Miserables, said, "People do not lack strength; they lack will." Do you have the will to change? What needs to change in your life? Maybe you need to change your obsession with shopping. Are you willing to change? Maybe you need to change that habit of selfish moodiness. Are you willing to change? Maybe you need to change that preoccupation with soap operas. Are you willing to change? Have you consciously decided that enough is enough and that it is time to change? Unless you are willing to change, you will not change.

Desire fuels the power of the will

Though this rich young ruler was initially willing to do what it would take to achieve a goal (i.e., willing to change the nature and direction of his life), he became unwilling when he actually realized what it would take? The power of the will derives strength, first, from the presence of desire. Desire gives way to will. This ruler had an incentive to change his life, namely, the securing of eternal life; and thus he asked, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" So, desire feeds and sustains willingness; and conversely, the lack of desire results in a lack of willingness. This ruler's initial resolve quickly evaporated. His willingness turned into unwillingness, simply because of a clash of desires. So, we further read, "Jesus said to him, 'Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone'" (vs. 19). Now, Jesus was not denying the fact that He was good. He was alerting this man to the implications of his address of 'Good Teacher.' Jesus was suggesting that He Himself is God, because only God is intrinsically good.

Jesus answered the ruler, "You know the commandments" (vs. 20a). Jesus, though He brought in a new teaching and a reinterpretation of the law, began with, and spoke to, this man's understanding of the law. The Jewish law taught: "So you shall keep My statutes and My judgements, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the LORD" (Lev. 18:5). So, Jesus further said, "[The commandments are:] DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT MURDER, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, HONOUR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER" (vs. 20b). Jesus stated commandments five through to nine; those that deal with one's relationship to his fellow person.

The ruler's response was quite positive; he said, "All these things I have kept from my youth" (vs. 21). The man may have been self-deceived, but he was seemingly sincere. So, we further read, "And when Jesus heard this, He said to him, 'One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, and follow Me'" (vs. 22). Jesus informed this ruler that his first commitment, his first allegiance, his first love was to be to Him; not to his home, not to his assets, not to his business, not to his position or status, not even to his family. As we shall see, this ruler was more committed to his wealth, to his money, than to Jesus. Now, Jesus was not here setting forth a second stipulation for this ruler since he apparently had fulfilled the first one. Jesus had enumerated commandments five through to nine, and seemingly avoided (on purpose) the tenth commandment: "You shall not covet." This directive to sell all possessions has reference to the tenth commandment, that which deals with the deep recesses of the heart – 'you shall not desire that which belongs to your neighbour, nor desire anything to the point where it becomes your idol, your first love.' Jesus tested this ruler at the point of his allegiance and loyalty. In order to enter the kingdom, this rich young ruler had to sell everything he possessed so that, for him, there would be no obstacles to his commitment to Jesus. Jesus presented a choice to this ruler. He had a decision to make; and, accordingly, he was unwilling to follow Jesus; he was unwilling to change. So, we read, "But when he had heard these things [this call to ultimate commitment], he became very sad; for he was extremely rich" (vs. 23). What was this man's problem? He desired his money and wealth more than he desired to sacrifice all for Jesus. Thus, he lost his willingness because, for him, the stakes were too high. Not only was the desire to retain his wealth greater than his desire to follow Jesus, but, incredibly, the desire to retain his physical wealth was greater than his desire for eternal wealth. Jesus said that if he sold all his possessions and gave the proceeds for charitable ends, then he would receive in exchange heavenly wealth. This ruler was obviously blinded by the pleasures and wealth of this world.

Now, as an aside, you may criticize what Jesus was asking this man to do. You may believe that it was ridiculous and unreasonable for Jesus to ask a millionaire to liquidate all his assets and disburse the funds to various charities. My friend, Jesus, from the world's point of view, is typically unreasonable. His claims and commands are radical. Maybe you are saying, "What if I have worked many years to accumulate this wealth? You want me to get rid of it in a day?" Jesus, in effect, says, "Yes, if I call you to do so!" The priority of the heart must be for Jesus and His kingdom. So, Jesus called this man to make a choice. He called him to demonstrate the priority of his allegiance. Is Jesus asking you to make a choice: money or Him, or position or Him, or family or Him? Jesus takes second place to no one or to nothing. If He is not first, He does not want to be on your list at all.

Jesus then solemnly pronounced to this rich young ruler, who had become unwilling to do what it takes to have eternal life – "How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!" (vs. 24). Now, Jesus was not teaching that the basic problem is money itself; rather that one's desire or love for money is the basic problem. The wealthy person has the temptation of a divided allegiance; and thus, Jesus does not receive first allegiance. If Jesus is not first place in our lives, we are in danger of being excluded from the kingdom. So, we further read His words, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a [sewing] needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (vs. 25). Do you think that a camel has ever passed through the eye of a sewing needle? Jesus was implying that those who desire anything or anyone above Him are in danger of forfeiting salvation. The crowd who was listening to Jesus' words understood perfectly the implications of His teaching. They reacted, "Then who can be saved?" (vs. 26). The answer is that we cannot save ourselves, but God can change our nature and instill in us holy and righteous desires, desires that have Jesus and the kingdom as their objects. Only God can save – "But He said, 'The things impossible with men are possible with God" (vs. 27).

A sense of duty fuels the power of the will

Not only does desire fuel willingness, but also a sense of duty fuels willingness (i.e., the sense of what is right as opposed to what is wrong, the sense of obligation through the pangs of conscience). Apparently, the sense of duty was the primary motivation for Jesus' disciples. The unwillingness of the ruler is contrasted with the willingness of the disciples. So, we read, "And Peter [motivated by pride and fear] said, 'Behold, we have left our own homes, and followed You'" (vs. 28). Recall how the disciples' following of Jesus came about. Jesus walked up to them one day, without any introduction or explanation, and commanded, "Follow Me" (cf. Lu. 5:27; Jn. 1:43). Subsequently, they left behind their families, their jobs, their possessions, etc. Their response was one of obedience. They were willing to follow Jesus because they were prepared to be obedient. They did not understand the ramifications of Jesus' words, but they heard the command and apparently felt that compliance was the right thing to do. They were willing to change the direction of their lives through a sense of moral constraint.

Accordingly, if you are going to be willing to change, then you will either be motivated by desire or by a sense of duty. In other words, if you are going to be willing to change, then, on the one hand, you must want to change – there must be an incentive to change; or you must feel that it is the right thing to do – it is a question of obedience. When I was younger, I woke up every morning grouchy, I was a bear. My mother, as a rule, said absolutely nothing to me in the morning until I spoke the first word. Even at the beginning of our marriage, I woke up grouchy. However, I realized that God was displeased with such behaviour and that such behaviour is hurtful to others. Accordingly, I was willing to change because I had a desire to please God and I recognized that it was the right thing to do. Are you willing to change? Be honest now. Are you willing to give up that domineering, bullying behaviour that you evidence every day? Are you willing to make private prayer a part of your life again? Are you willing to be more friendly and more cooperative than you have been? If you are, then, as a Christian, you should have a desire to please God, to live a holy life, to be a faithful Christian; and you should be motivated by a sense of duty, endeavouring to carry out the commands of Christ. Realize that willingness is an act of obedience to God. Now, you will not always feel like doing something, but you can still do it if you are willing, knowing that it is going to honour Christ.

The power of the will and personal responsibility

Talk about the willingness to change presupposes the notion of personal responsibility. We live in a day and age when many shirk responsibility. We either 'pass the buck' or appear unreliable. We depend on others to cover (or cover up!) for us; and we learn to be irresponsible. Irresponsibility is akin to immaturity; and as Christians we need to grow up and become responsible for ourselves, for our behaviour, and for our actions. Though we believe in a real spiritual foe, we cannot use the excuse that 'the devil made me do it.' We so quickly cast blame, and thus relinquish personal responsibility. We say such things as, "If she didn't act that way, then I wouldn't...," or "If that had happened, then I wouldn't...," or "If my Mom [or Dad] was more caring, then I would...," etc. Christian, we must admit that the past circumstances and relationships have affected and helped to shape us, but we are responsible for what we now do with ourselves. We need to stop blaming people for our problems and struggles, claiming that we are unfortunate victims.

You are responsible for making positive behavioural changes in your life; not your wife, not your husband, not your daughter, not your son, not your teacher, not your pastor, not your friend, etc. You are responsible for yourself. You are responsible to live in accordance with God's standard. You are responsible to conform to the teachings of Christ. You are responsible to be obedient to the Scriptures. You are responsible to sacrifice all and to follow Jesus. Now, in your willingness to follow Him, Jesus promises, "Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life" (vss. 29f.). So, are you willing to follow Jesus? Are you willing to change?