“For the kingdom of G-d is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…” Romans 14:17 NIV
I went on a diet a little over three years ago. I lost some weight, which is good, but what was most astonishing to me was how much better I felt, and within only a few days. But I didn’t just feel better; I felt years-younger better, I felt no-more-heartburn-indigestion-acid-re-flux better, and I felt more-energy-needing-less-sleep better.
The diet is a relatively new, high-protein, low-carb regimen that attracted me initially by its simplicity. No calorie counting, no points to worry about or weighing food; not that there is anything wrong with those kind of diets, it’s just that they’re not for me.
As I progressed in the diet though, an odd thing began to happen. The above verse of scripture began to come to mind, and the better I felt, the more frequently I would think of this verse.
I finally had to face the fact that G-d was trying to tell me something, and after some thought, I realized what was going on. It seems that as I felt better, I was actually beginning to think I was better. That feeling better, because I was eating better, was actually making me a better person.
To be sure, there were improvements in my behavior. Since I needed less sleep and had more energy, I began getting up earlier on weekends and taking on a bigger share of the housework, for example. With far fewer aches and pains, I began exercising more and took up running, something I hadn’t done in years. Also, feeling better physically helps me to feel better emotionally, and I generally have a better attitude and outlook.
The point is, if I wanted to make a case that in fact I was a better person, I could do it. The problem is, I would only be looking at one side of it. While I am not going to list my current personal failures and weaknesses, if for no other reason that I don’t have the time or space, I can, in an honest moment, admit that I am still the same person I was before the diet. I am sure my family would attest to that, as well!
OK, I lost weight, I feel better, I have a better quality of life, so what’s the problem? So what if I’m not intrinsically a better person, what’s the big deal? Honestly, there is really no issue here, is there? I’m not perfect, I should just get over it!
But, of course, for me things are never that simple. Earlier in life, and for a number of years, I had gone on a self-improvement binge. I read all the self-help, self-improvement, pop-psychology books I could get my hands on. Some of them were pretty good, others, not so much, but they all seemed to have one thing in common, they all required that you take control of your life and change it in some way, and by doing so you could achieve health, wealth, happiness, long life, etc., etc., etc.
Sounds great, right? Do this, do that, and voila, the new you! Now, some would tell you – look, this isn’t going to be easy, but you can do it, anyone can, and here’s how. Just a little effort, a little willpower, and you’ve got it made.
Oops, what’s that? Effort, willpower? Uh-oh! This could be a problem.
Let’s take a look at effort first. Effort requires motivation. People are simply unwilling to exert any effort whatsoever, for anything, without motivation. But what does motivation require? Motivation requires a need. Oh, what’s that, you want to eat? Well then, you’ll have to work. Now that’s motivation!
Willpower, on the other hand is a little harder to define, and I think the reason for that is that there really is no such thing, at least not in the popular sense. You may disagree, and I have had this argument before, but I just do not believe that there is any such thing as willpower as the term is commonly applied.
Let’s break it down: will –
Both words imply action, but “will” is about choosing to act and “power” is about the ability to act. Willpower, it would then seem, is the ability to choose and to act upon one’s choices.
So far, so good. Everybody can make choices, and everybody can act on those choices – or can they? If I choose to walk from point A to point B, but I am incapable of walking, then I can’t act on that choice. I may have other options for getting from A to B, but walking isn’t one of them. Will power has nothing do with it and in fact it would be more than a little cruel to suggest to me that if only my willpower was stronger, I could walk from point A to point B.
The above illustration begs the question: If it would be cruel to suggest to a person with a disability that they could walk if only they had the willpower, why do we think it is OK to suggest to a smoker, for example, that they could quit smoking if only they had more willpower? Or to suggest to an obese person that they could lose weight if only they had more willpower? Might this be just as cruel?
One might point out that the person who can’t walk has a physical disability that prevents them from walking, but the person who smokes or who eats too much is choosing to do so, and that would be correct, but let’s expand our illustration a little.
The disabled person wants to walk from point A to point B, but they can’t, so they lift themselves into a wheelchair, and wheel themselves from A to B. They have accomplished their goal, albeit not by walking; and again, willpower has nothing to do with it.
Now, what about the person who smokes, for example? I have had experience in this area, having smoked for 23 years. I stopped, by the grace of G-d, over 26 years ago, but not after a long struggle in “trying” to quit. In fact, the more I “tried” to quit, the more I smoked. Right before I stopped, I was smoking 3 packs a day, and had been for some time.
So what happened? Before I answer that, let’s take a quick look at human nature. People, in general, don’t do anything without a reason. The reason may be rational, or irrational, but they have to have a reason. Secondly, they require motivation. A reason, and motivation are related, but in the end very different.
Let’s look at the reasons for quitting smoking: smoking shortens lifespan, smoking degrades the quality of life, smoking can harm others, smoking costs a lot of money, and you could probably list others. I had all of these reasons to quit, yet could (would?) not. Why? Because none of those reasons were enough to counteract the fact that I enjoyed smoking, and in fact, rightly or wrongly, I believed I was actually getting some benefit out of smoking.
Therefore, none of the listed reasons motivated me to want to quit. I enjoyed smoking and I was willing to take the risks. The problem, however, is that I have a wife who wanted me to quit, and society in general was bringing more and more pressure on smokers to quit, and still is.
So what to do? This is where “trying” to quit smoking comes in. Let’s face it, if you’re trying to do something, you’re not doing it, but to others, it looks like you’re doing it, right? At least you’re trying.
“Where’s Bill?”, someone might ask.
“He ran out to have a smoke.”
“Yeah, but he’s trying to quit.”
“Oh, well at least he’s trying.”
I’m not saying that my efforts were deliberately insincere, but as I said, when you’re trying to do something, you’re not doing it, you’re just trying. At best though, I was deluding myself into thinking I was quitting smoking when I was really just trying.
So reasons do not, in and of themselves, provide motivation to quit. And honestly, having someone nagging you to do it or being pressured from society only makes things worse. Our fallen human nature automatically rebels against any pressure to do anything, let alone something we have no good reason to do.
What I’m getting at here is that we human beings do not do anything unless we want to do it. This is much more profound than it may appear. It is profound because it is so simple. When we want to do something, like the person who can’t walk from A to B, we just do it, we don’t try to do it, we do it!
So this was my dilemma: I enjoyed smoking, but I was under pressure from my family and society to quit. The more I viewed things in this way, the worse things got. Periodically, I would try to quit, not because I thought quitting would be beneficial to me, but because of the pressure to do so.
The problem is, each time I tried to quit, I would end up smoking more. At least the pressure to quit would let up somewhat, and as an added benefit, each time I tried and failed, I got a certain amount of sympathy. “Poor Bill, he’s really trying to quit [I was], but he just can’t seem to do it”.
But I did quit, eventually, so how did I do it?
As a Christian, I believe that all things ultimately come from G-d, including the ability to quit smoking. In one of my more objective and honest moments, I said to Him, “Look, I know that I should quit smoking, but I just don’t want to [this insight also came from Him], so I’m going to have to turn this over to You because it’s just not going to happen if left up to me.”
I would like to say that at that moment I quit and never picked up another cigarette, but alas, that is not what happened. The reason is that I still wanted to smoke, and G-d will not directly interfere with our will. Whenever Jesus cured someone, He would often say “Your faith has healed you,” and there is at least one passage that refers to the fact that Jesus could only perform a few miracles because of the relative lack of faith of the people in that particular area.
What did happen though is that things just kept getting worse until I was, as I said earlier, smoking three packs a day. As things got worse though, some other things began to happen: like the commercial said, I was “smoking more and enjoying it less”. Even those times when I normally enjoyed smoking, I was not. I also started to see just how destructive smoking could be, and not just to my health, but potentially to my family. After all, I was an example, and I really did not want my children to smoke.
There was the financial damage. I had a wife and two children, with one on the way, and I was spending almost $100 a month on cigarettes. That does not seem like much now, but in 1988 it was almost a car payment! What was I thinking?
Also very important, I started to realize that my rebellion was misplaced. Instead of rebelling against G-d and man, I should rebel against smoking and my desire to smoke because that is what enslaved me, not G-d and my family or society.
What was happening over a period of months, is that my heart and my mind were being remade in a way that, in the end, I wanted to quit smoking, and I finally said to the Lord, sincerely and from my heart, “I want to quit smoking.” It was from that moment on that I have not smoked another cigarette.
I still get uncomfortable, to this day, when people hear that I quit smoking after 23 years, and they say “Wow, how did you do it”? The fact is, I didn’t do it, I just put it in the Lord’s hands and He did it.
And willpower had nothing to do with it.
So, what are the lessons I learned from my smoking and diet experiences? First, it all starts with G-d. Any power we have to do anything comes from Him. Even that act of turning to Him in faith comes from Him.
Second, we have to have faith that G-d can address our problems, if He chooses to do so. When He chooses not to for a time, we have to have faith that He has His reasons for not doing so. This faith also comes from G-d.
Third, we have to want to resolve the problem. This is a statement, or assertion of will, not a passing fancy or simple desire. Wanting to resolve the problem also comes from G-d.
The fourth step is relatively easy because once we want to do it, we don’t try to do it, we just do it. Does this guarantee success? No, because the outcome is in G-d’s hands; but we still, in faith, do all of the things necessary to accomplish our goal.
As for being a better person, simply quitting smoking or losing weight does not make us better people, but it even goes further than this. None of our efforts can make us intrinsically better people; but G-d, when He chooses, and in response to our faith, can not only make us better, He can and will, in His time, make us perfect.