One of the things that is frequently here on Reboot is the concept of the Bound Will. No one has better expressed this than Martin Luther, in On the Bondage of the Will; the only problem is that a lot of people who can benefit from this theology are not willing to wade through a medieval philosophical debate—which I totally understand. So let’s see if I can put it in a more understandable way, with some visual help.
Let me start with a story about my wife. My wife struggles with depression. It is not debilitating, but it does rob her of her joy in life if it goes un-medicated. Whereas you or I might have a brief worry and then forget about it, the very same worry can cause my wife to obsess, even to the point of panic attacks if things are particularly stressful. This depression is genetic, with her father suffering the same way. Her personality worsens the situation, as she is a natural “worrier” anyway, so she thinks of things that some us don’t think about – giving fuel for her fires of depression to feed on. (Plus she is married to me, which is a whole host of other worries that you don’t have to deal with.) To top it all off, she is a mother of two adolescent boys—which is enough stress for anyone.
Now, my wife has free will not to worry. We all do (or at the least, we all feel that we do). I hear about a situation and I just choose not to worry about it. And that works pretty well for me. But my wife fails where I succeed in that regard. Why? It is certainly not because my will is stronger (just look at the two of us when dessert is presented, and you will see who is made of sterner willpower). It is not due to a lack of spirituality on her part—she is quite a mature Christian. So why can I set aside worry, and she cannot?
Because although we both have a freedom to not worry, her will is bound by her genetics and personality.
You see, both wills are “free”, in that we have freedom to not worry; but her will has boundaries on it that mine does not. (In other areas of life, my will has boundaries that hers does not have.) So you see then that our will can be free (at least in the sense that, "you are not compelled to make such-and-such choice"), and yet at the same time be bound by the nature of our physical and mental condition.
Of course we all know this to be true in other areas. I cannot will myself to fly or will myself to not have my mom's family's nose or will myself to empathize with someone I don’t know or will myself to just be content with life. My will is bound by natural law, my genetics, and my personality. All of us are the same way: we all have boundaries to our will. Our wills are all in bondage, as we all well know when we reflect on it for a moment.
Luther says that God did not program us and compel some of us to choose hell and some of us to choose heaven. (Luther laments that we can’t think of better terminology, because he says that when people hear about God’s provident choices or pre-knowledge, they see that as implying that He compels our decision making, when compulsion really has nothing to do with his theory). So in that regard we do have freedom of choice—but we cannot choose something which is against our nature to choose. Theoretically we can choose anything; but practically speaking (and Luther was a very practical-minded theologian), our wills are bound due to our inherited sinful natures from Adam.
I think it is best to see this visually.
Picture your flesh as a bowl, which has your spirit as a liquid at the bottom, as in Figure 1 below. Halfway up the bowl is a limit (your mind). Outside of you is a white area, which we shall simply call holiness or righteousness.
Notice then, how your spirit is bound—separate from holiness—by both the flesh and the mind. The liquid of the spirit cannot touch the liquid of holiness without first passing the barriers of the mind and escaping the confines of the bowl.
Consider willpower to be like a pump, applied to the spirit. If you work really hard, and have really strong willpower, and are really focused, what can you get? Something like figure 2.
So here we see that we have begun pumping the fluid of the spirit up into the bowl, and even—through amazing willpower—gotten it past the barrier of the mind. How far past? Notice that the higher you go in the bowl (the more you want to get to holiness), the larger the bowl becomes. It doesn’t take much energy to overcome something easy (perhaps, “I want to stop cursing”). But the higher up the bowl you get, the larger the bowl becomes; thus it is increasingly hard to grow toward holiness. The more holy you become, the harder it is to take the “next” step.
Eventually if you keep trying this path—keep pumping and pumping and pumping—you will notice two things.
One – there is not enough “raw material” within you (spirit) to fill up your bowl. That is, no matter how hard you try, you will never be able to actually mix with the “holiness” outside.
Two – after you take care of a few easy things about your lifestyle, you will expend a tremendous amount of willpower to make minimal progress spiritually. This can be devastating.
So what is the solution that Luther’s bound will theology offers us? When you become a Christ-follower, you get something like an IV that connects you directly to God’s Spirit (fig 3). Luther says that if we will just quit trying to “pump” our spirit uphill on our own, and let God do it, then we get something like Figure 4—God’s righteousness diluting the sin in our own spirit, and helping us to fill up the flesh and overflow into holiness.
The bound will theology says that—because the Spirit is bound by the mind and flesh—then we can never fully achieve spirituality. No amount of hard work or dedication or willpower is sufficient to overcome the defects in our flesh and minds.
So for my wife, her mind has a broken place in it – an inherited chemical imbalance for depression, which (as a result) works against her willpower and impedes the perfect connection of her spirit to God’s spirit. This will always keep her at least partly away from God. She cannot force herself through willpower to overcome those barriers – there simply isn’t enough willpower within her to do it. Nor could there ever be. Her will is bound by her mind.
Likewise, I have (as do we all) sinful natures that we inherit in our flesh and minds, which provide boundaries or limitations to our willpower. They stop the will from being able to fully connect our spirit with God’s. The key of it all is the admission that your own small pump of willpower is not sufficient. Your sinful nature—both of flesh and mind—are boundaries too severe. They keep you apart from God, and no approach of redistributing what you have inside you is sufficient to make you holy.
What you need is to see a Physician. Someone who can give you a shot—what CS Lewis called “the Good Infection”: an access to the heavenly will of God, which can continually pour into you and “overflow your cup”, filling you with the things of Him and covering the things of you.
And so the Christian approach is to get rid of our willpower altogether. God doesn’t need our will; He needs us to agree to stay out of His way. And if we will do that, then He will put His own spirit into us—and that Spirit will begin to spread. First making our spirits righteous; then spreading outward like a wonderful disease to transform our minds, then begin working on our flesh.
This is the only lasting change you will ever receive in this life: when you—fully broken—finally agree to stop trying to use your will to change your life, and just relax to let God work on you as He sees fit. When you finally understand that you are loved by God not because of how pure your flesh is or how smart your mind is or how religious your spirit is…but just because He loves you. When you stop trying to earn His love and start drinking it in and experiencing it.
But God cannot give you the Good Infection until you stop trying to self-medicate. Move your willpower out of the way, and let Him do the work.