Willpower Alone Won’t Cut It

“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).


Until recently, I thought of this la résistance as merely mustering up more willpower to combat the enemy. Willpower to resist that second piece of chocolate cake. Willpower to say “no” to staying up an extra hour binge-watching Netflix. Willpower to resist greed, lust, bitterness, laziness, addictions, violence, you name it. 


Yes, willpower is important, but the older I get, the more I’m learning that willpower alone won’t cut it. I read this week that “willpower has a limited battery life” (The One Thing, 65). The author goes on to say that it’s a finite but renewable resource. Since we have a short supply, every time we win in an immediate situation through willpower, we are more likely to lose later due to the drain on the brain. “Make it through a tough day in the trenches, and the lure of late-night snacking can become your diet’s downfall” (idem.).


Willpower is like a muscle that gets tired the more it’s used, and it needs rest. As Kathleen Vohs put it in Prevention magazine, “Willpower is like gas in your car. . .  When you resist something tempting, you use some up. The more you resist, the emptier your tank gets, until you run out of gas” (ibid., 66).


Here’s some food for thought: The brain comprises 1/50th of our body mass but consumes an amazing 1/5th of the calories we burn for energy. This is why we need to feed our minds, which gives credence to the old adage, “food for thought.” 


God created us as holistic beings. Spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical aspects of our humanity are intricately linked for optimum health, growth and vitality. If we neglect our bodies, our minds grow weary, and our willpower gives out. If we neglect our emotional and mental health, our spiritual development begins to atrophy, and our physical health begins to degenerate. 


Even our daily rhythms affect our ability to resist temptation. If we’re not getting enough rest at night and taking short breaks during the day, our minds get depleted, and we easily become prey to the wiles of the enemy. 


When our willpower is low, we tend to fall back into old patterns and behaviors. A recent study was conducted on the Israeli parole system. The researchers analyzed 1,112 parole board hearings assigned to eight judges over a ten-month period. The judges would hear arguments and render decisions on 14 to 35 parole requests a day, and they would only take two breaks to rest and refuel—a morning snack and a late lunch. 


The results of the study are stunning: “In the mornings and after each break, parolees’ chances for being released peak at 65%, and then plunge to near zero by the end of each period” (ibid., 68). Too bad if your case doesn’t come up until the end of the day.


The takeaway is that willpower alone will never give us what we need to resist temptation. The objective is to create healthy rhythms of spiritual—and physical—practices to renew our minds, bodies, and spirits. We ingest much-needed, healthy nutrients of food for the soul and body. We exercise the mind, body, and spirit to increase the mental, physical, and spiritual muscles to stand firm in the faith (1 Peter 5:9). And we join a community where we can give and receive daily encouragement so that we will not be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Hebrews 3:13).


Who would have thought that resisting temptation is directly linked to being part of a church…and maybe even joining a gym?