Willpower vs. Willingness

As I'm becoming aware of my addictive behaviors around food, I'm learning quite a bit about the difference between willingness and willpower. I'm noticing that relying on willpower to resist over-eating doesn't work. My willpower manifests itself through diets, resolutions, commitments; i.e., "trying harder." I've learned the hard way that addictive behavior doesn't respond to "trying harder." It does, however, seem to respond to willingness; a willingness to let go to a power greater than myself; i.e., God.

I've sketched out some of the differences between willpower and willingness and thought I'd share them with you:

Willpower is:

  1. Finite: even if I have the most amazing willpower at 8am, chances are that by 2pm, my willpower is fizzling out. There are limitations to my willpower. Therefore, relying on willpower alone is not a reliable tool for sustaining healthy eating.
  2. Affected by external circumstances: it's easy for me to make healthy choices when the bills are paid, the children are happy and my marriage is peaceful. When everything is going well, so is my willpower. But when stress comes, my willpower loses strength. I need something stronger than my own willpower to help me eat healthily even in times of stress.
  3. Self-generated: my willpower comes from me. The problem is that my food addiction is stronger than me. All my resolutions and diet-plans fall down when faced by the cunning beast that is my hankering for Skittles. 
  4. A brutal dictator: There is no room for grace or mistakes in my willpower. When I fail, my willpower just tells me I wasn't trying hard enough. My willpower shames me so hard that I usually give up because I can't even live up to my own standards for myself.
  5. Isolating: my willpower functions from a place that says I can do this all by myself, that I am the "self-made" hero of my own story. My willpower won't allow me to ask for help. It certainly won't allow me to admit my mistakes to others. The thing is, I can't get better on my own. I need the help and fellowship of those who have struggled and found some recovery.

Willingness is:

  1. Infinite: willingness is limitless because it doesn't come from myself, it comes from God. Yes, I do my part by making a decision to turn my will over to the care of God but then God is right there, immediately meeting that decision with an infinite supply of His grace and strength. Willingness comes after I've experienced God's love. I can only turn over my will to God when I believe a. God is good and b. God loves me. In his book, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, Richard Rohr writes that turning our lives over to God means, "a radical surrendering of our will to Another whom we trust more than ourselves" (p. 21). When I come to believe that God is FOR me, everything changes. I am more than willing to surrender because saying "Thy will, not mine be done" isn't scary; it's more like relief, more like letting my burden fall into the unconditional love and mercy of an ever-loving God.
  2. Hopeful: unlike willpower, willingness is not affected by circumstances. Willingness is founded in hope: hope that things can get better, that everything will work out, that God will do for me what I cannot do for myself. Willingness is not derailed by stress, a broken washing machine, grouchy kids or my own exhaustion. I can be willing even when everything is falling apart. Willingness is the hope that says: "I can't, You can, I'll let you."
  3. God-generated: willingness isn't dependent upon my ability to "work up" some kind of feeling or transformational energy. 
  4. Full of grace and truth: willingness is an economy of acceptance. Shaming myself only makes things worse. I know the truth (things need to change) and grace is the willingness to accept help. 
  5. Fellowship: willingness leans on the support of others. Willingness understands that we cannot heal alone. We need the non-judgmental support of those who have struggled similarly. In the fellowship of brokenness, it is safe to be willing.


The question is: how do I become willing?

My 12-step sponsor suggests that one way to become willing is to pray for the willingness to be willing. Ha. 

Also, pain. When I'm in enough pain (regret for overeating, shame, feeling yucky, low energy, etc), then I become willing to do something different. When the consequences for my overeating become painful enough (stepping on the scale, for example), then being willing to change is the lesser of two pains.

I wish I could say I choose willingness because I'm all spiritual and stuff. But NOPE. Usually, I find willingness once the consequences of my addictive behavior are more painful than turning my will over to God.

In other words, I get SO SICK of doing things my way that I'm finally like: God's way has to be the better option. At the very least, I'm willing to see if it is. I'm willing to see if maybe God is God.

Elizabeth EstherComment