In 1975, three friends and I participated in a 200-mile bicycle marathon on Belle Isle, an island-park owned by the city of Detroit. The course was a five-mile circuit which you circled forty times. Every time you passed the “finish line,” someone stamped your participant vest. The race lasted twenty-four hours and the goal was to get forty stamps, representing 200 miles.
My friends and I were foolish high school boys (but I repeat myself) and not one of us trained for the event. I had to borrow an “English racer” (with its tortuously narrow racing seat) because I didn’t even own a bike. Nevertheless, we decided to ride forty-one circuits (sort of a biker’s-dozen of 205 miles) just to prove our machismo.
The race began at noon on a Saturday. We rode at a reasonable speed, and by midnight, we had biked 160 miles. We were ahead of schedule, a bit tired, and didn’t want to finish at 3:00 in the morning, so we decided to take a sleep-break.
The ground was wet, and we hadn’t brought sleeping bags, so we found four plastic trash bags and curled up fetal-style for a nap. (Did I mention we were silly high school boys?)
When we awoke, our legs had stiffened into baked pretzels. We could barely straighten them much less pedal a bike. One of us decided 160 miles was good enough and quit; two of us wobbled our way the final 40 miles; and one of us went the extra lap for 205 miles.
Later, the biker’s-dozen-boy critiqued our weakness by observing that we “just didn’t have the willpower” that he has.
The Insidious Self-praise of Willpower
The idea of willpower was created by the Victorians. The Industrial Revolution made them believe they could control their environment, so: Hey, if we can rule nature through horsepower, let’s rule ourselves through willpower. They worshipped their power over the self:
Will-power is self-mastery. It is kingship over all life. At the center of your being sits yourself. Your seat ought to be a throne. If you are not in control … you are not the king you should be.(James Russell Miller, 1911)
The strength of life is measured by the strength of your will.(Henry Van Dyke, 1908)
English-speakers survived for centuries without “willpower” in their vocabulary. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the first time the word was ever penned was in 1874. Its use immediately mushroomed as Western thinkers employed it to praise their own strength.
Unfortunately, many Christians have adopted this godless Victorian idea. We resist sexual temptation (or take our daily prayer time) through our willpower and self-discipline. But that leaves other believers feeling helpless because they don’t have our pedal-power.
Any goodness that draws attention to our own strengths is a hindrance to leading people to God. If our holiness does not draw others to Christ’s miraculous life in us, we are worshipping the ultimate false god. We have put ourselves on the throne.
God calls us to doubt our “natural” strengths not to glory in them. Eternal life is not merely a gift from God, it is the gift of God himself in us. Only Him in us (and us in Him) can we do all things, because only He can do all things, and He lives in us.
We need God-power not willpower. Our natural willpower—our independence from God—shrinks as God’s life in us rises. When He increases in us, and when others see His change in our lives, they can hope. Because God can live in them too.
I finished, (just barely) that bike marathon in 1975, and a kind of spiritual humility grew. I wasn’t the man (or boy) I thought I was. But I didn’t ride a bike again for ten years. I simply didn’t have the willpower.
Besides, my butt still hurt.