Battle of Wills

Sin is all about power—who gets to control my life? 

Submission, especially to the sovereignty of God, is something you and I often do not (at least initially) think we will like. And, you and I may also balk at the call to self-control. It seems like a battle of wills, does it not?

Will God’s will prevail, or will mine? But, then, in the case of self-control, is there not another set of wills battling with each other? And both of those wills are within myself.

Now we get to the nitty gritty! Because the seat of the will—spoiler alert!—is not in the mind. It is in the heart!

From-what-source are fights and from-what-source are battles among you? 

Are they not from-here—from your pleasures waging-war in your body-parts? 

—You desire and do not have;

—you murder. And

—you are jealous and are not able to obtain;

—you battle and fight.

You do not have because of your not asking! You ask and do not receive because you ask badly, in order that you may spend it in connection with your pleasures. 

James 4:1-3 (DLNT)

It is a bit squirm-worthy to read, yet I think James has us in the cross-hairs of his sharp insight.

When you and I do not get what we want we get angry. Oh, we may say disappointed, or frustrated, or annoyed. We try to take it gracefully and graciously. But, then again, we are also sometimes willing to get rid of the people in our way (or push them down).

Whatever controls our hearts controls what you and I do and say. If a certain desire controls my heart, there are only two ways I respond. If someone helps me get what I want, I will enjoy and appreciate that person. But if that person stands in my way, I will experience (and probably express) anger when that person is around.

I want something, but because of that person (I might think to myself) I cannot have it, or get to it, so I am ready to take extra measures. You and I want that thing, whatever it is.

Now, here is where it can get murky.

Is God Standing In the Way?

Sometimes, it really is God Who is intervening, preventing us from acquiring or attaining whatever it is we have set our hearts on. In that case—and in keeping with what James wrote—we are bucking against the will of God.

Balaam comes to mind as a scriptural example. The Apostle Paul also wrote about experiencing this very thing.

  • When Paul encountered the risen Christ for the first time,

I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads’.

Acts 26:14
  • Paul tried several times to mount a missionary journey to the east, but

They went through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And having come opposite Mysia, they were trying to proceed into Bithynia and the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them

Acts 16:6-7 (DLNT)

Paul had the good sense to yield to the Lord on both of those occasions, but you and I may not always exhibit that same common sense and spiritual sensitivity. We can even get angry with God for not giving us what we want.

Why did/does that other person get what I wanted so very much? 

Why did/do You keep what I long for from me, God? 

James went even farther, though, in his expose. You ask God, you pray for what is otherwise perfectly reasonable provision, and for favors God could easily supply, James wrote, but you ask with selfish motives that do not consider God’s glory, nor any other’s good.

Because the war going on in your heart, and in mine, is a war for control. Personal desires are fighting for the authority that is for God to exercise in the heart.

Spiritual Opposition?

James will deal with this a little later, but it can at least be said now, that sometimes you and I are thwarted in our aims and desires because we have an unseen enemy who is intent on our failure.

So how can we know?

We begin with God’s revelation in the words of scripture. Sometimes, we know because God has already expressed it, that what we want is not in line with God’s will, or at least God’s best, for us. God can change the desires of our hearts, but it requires our willingness to surrender those desires and to receive from God something new to replace them. It is hard work to uncurl our fingers, though, is it not!

We can move from there to our own motives. I think you and I can probably never hope to have absolutely pure motives. We are human, after all. But we can recognize when our motives are mostly selfish, self-promoting, and self-centered. That is, actually, a dead giveaway that by preventing us from getting what we want, God is working to conform our character.

It is possible for the Lord to change even this in our hearts, but it requires our willingness to refocus. Instead of selfish, sacrificial. Instead of self-promoting, God-glorifying. Instead of self-centered, other-aware, celebrating others’ successes, joys, and shooting stars, because it is all, after all, kingdom work.

The Apostle Peter learned these things in sometimes painful ways, and at the end of his life he told the next generation of young leaders,

And everyone—clothe-yourselves-with humblemindedness toward one another. Because “God opposes the proud, but He gives grace to the humble” [Proverbs 3:34]. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God in order that He may exalt you at the proper-time.

1 Peter 5:5-6 (DLNT)

The Desires of Our Hearts

Now, you may be thinking, Hey, wait a minute! What about God giving us the desires of our hearts? Is there not a Psalm about that?

There is.

Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Psalm 37:4 (NRSV)

But let us parse this out.

As you and I delight in God, our hearts open to the Lord, to be moved by God’s Spirit, to be formed by God’s love and goodness, we find that we begin to receive from God good and godly desires. Desires that are aligned with God’s will, that have healthy and good motives, that promote the flourishing of God’s purposes and principles within us—as well as in the lives of those around us.

It is hard to hold our desires loosely.

Instead, desires tend to take hold of you and me.

The desire becomes a demand.

The demand convinces you and me it is a need.

And that sense of need sets up an expectation.

Expectation when unfulfilled leads to disappointment.

Disappointment leads to some kind of acting out.

—You desire and do not have;

—you murder. And

—you are jealous and are not able to obtain;

—you battle and fight.

James 4:2 (DLNT)

A blow up! venting, raging emotions, letting words fly without control, the craving to be right, to win.

Or clam-up stew: replay the video, get angrier, bitter, the craving to be safe, for comfort, do not rock the boat so simmer instead, stand on our right to feel wronged.

What a pickle!

[The conversion of St Paul by Caravaggio. Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome | By Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,]

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