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 plastic 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 (pardon my redundancy) 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 say we did.
The race began at noon on a Saturday. We rode at a reasonable speed, and by midnight, we had biked 180 miles. We were ahead of schedule, a bit tired, and didn’t want to finish at 1:30 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 foolish 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 180 miles was good enough and quit; two of us wobbled our way the final 20 miles; and one of us went the extra lap for 205 miles.
Later, the “biker’s-dozen” boy casually critiqued our failure 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 manage 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 proliferated as thinkers used it to praise their own strength.
Unfortunately, many Christian adopt 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 a false god. We have put ourselves on the throne.
God calls us to doubt natural strengths not glory in them. Eternal life is not merely a gift of God, but the life of God himself in us. Only in him can we do all things, because he can do all things, and he lives in us.
We need God-power not willpower. Our natural willpower decreases as God’s life in us increases. So, when others see us, they can hope. Because God can live in them too.
I finished, (just barely) that bike marathon in 1975. But I didn’t ride a bike again for ten years. I simply didn’t have the willpower.
Besides, my butt still hurt.