Will, Purpose, Direction
Will, purpose, direction, perseverance, commitment, allegiance, capacity for endurance, resilience
Our will to live is the key to the success of our species; the basis of our consciousness; the steadfast, supple, foundation to the human personality and mind. As the most profound part of ourselves that is accessible to us, and over which we have any degree of control, it is the engine that has impelled our growth and, for better or for worse, guided our history. It is the will to experience abundance, and if necessary, to go out in search of that prize which will bring us abundant life.
Our will to live governs our actions each day, yet is so much taken for granted as to be almost invisible. Like a deep ocean current, it generates and sustains life-giving processes without revealing itself. We see its effects on the surface, but have little idea of what is going on far below. Only when we meet an issue or situation that shakes us or shatters us to our core do we become aware of these depths and of the currents that move there.
In my personal experience, I have become aware of it twice, and on both occasions, I recognised a strong shift in perception that shivered through all my ideas, realigning my understanding of myself and those around me and the network of connections of which I was a part. There was nothing subtle about it; like a blunt instrument, it delivered a force stripped of nuances.
This is not the part of ourselves that makes fine distinctions. It is that profound and powerful motivation which keeps us engaged with the hard, complex business of staying alive. It is a switch with only two settings: “Yes” or “No.” But it is a switch that is stuck on “Yes,” despite a great deal of pressure to the contrary. Human beings do not give up hope or despair of life at the first sign of a problem. On the contrary, in general we move forward, even when there are forces ranged against us. We are oriented life-ward, even in adversity. Despite much discouragement, testing circumstances and a great deal of anguish, the vast majority of people succeed in making something of their lives. As a pastor, I am frequently awed by the pain and diminishment that men and women can endure and overcome. It is actually very difficult to break a human being’s will to live. Under normal circumstances, you have to work very hard over a long period of time to achieve it.
Beneath all the smaller decisions that we make each day, there is this powerful affirmative current that keeps us saying “Yes” to life. This choice is already made for us. It was made before we are born. It is part of our genetic inheritance. It is our “default setting” as human beings. The strength of our “Yes” to life emerges from those hundreds of thousands of years during which we survived harsh conditions and continual challenge. The strength of our will to live ensured our survival. But our will to live was itself intensified by the struggle. As a result, today we are not aware of choosing to live. We live.
So while the daughter feared that her father’s will to live had been broken by grief, this is not likely to have been the case. There was no other evidence that her father had been worn down to the point of suicidal despair. We might talk about dying of a broken heart, but it does not tend to happen unless there are other factors involved. Quite the reverse: we are so determined to live our “Yes” to the full, that our “No” is only used as a way of supporting our “Yes.” That is, we say “No” to one thing in order to say “Yes” to something else. Something better. Something that we believe to be a better choice for us in that particular situation.
The daughter in the story was bereft, but for her father, the decision to lay down his will to live was one such choice. A positive choice. He was not choosing to die: he chose to live. He said “No” to this life in order to say “Yes” to what he believed would be a fuller, greater life. He chose abundance. He chose to follow his wife into God’s peace. He chose to trust that his daughter would understand. And that understanding, she would accept his decision, and find consolation in her grief. It was an act of trust to surrender his spirit into the hands of God. And because he was elderly, and frail after his operation, his decision led, quickly and painlessly, to his death a few hours later.
Our will to live is therefore very simple as well as very strong. It is focused, not on survival, but on gaining abundant life. It is a flexible blade of tempered steel at the core of our personality: suggesting, sustaining and strengthening every choice that expresses abundance; every step that takes us towards a fuller life. If an abundance is to be discovered where we are, it will help us find it. If it is necessary for us to go in search of abundance somewhere else, then it will move us out and move us on. It will help us find our way through the labyrinth of difficult decisions that must be made if abundance is to be realised as something we can see and touch. And it will form our sense of who we are when we encounter the inexplicable Other.
The woman said she had visited her elderly father in hospital to tell him that her mother, his beloved wife for over sixty years, had died, suddenly but peacefully, in the nursing home where she had lived for several months. He was a man of deep faith, who had been a preacher and a leader in his local church, and though he was well into his ninth decade, he was making a good recovery from a recent operation. The daughter had always thought of him as a strong man, so she was not surprised that he took the news calmly, and that, after talking with her a while, he began to pray. What bewildered her were the words of the prayer, and the result.
“What did he say?” the minister asked.
“Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,” she replied.
A few hours later, and with equal peacefulness, her father died.
What disturbed her was the thought that this loving, faithful man had failed the final challenge; that he had balked at the last fence; that he had somehow stained his record by “giving up” at the end.
The minister was able to assure her that no, her father had not “given up” in any negative sense. He had not lost faith or despaired. On the contrary, he had made a positive decision that his life was over. His time had come. Because he was a person of prayer, he was alert to this change within himself. And because he believed in a just and loving God, he was not afraid - either for himself, or for those he left behind. Of course there were still “things to live for” - not least his relationship with his daughter - but his centre of gravity had shifted from here to the hereafter. That was now where he belonged. So that was where he asked to go. And his prayer was granted.
Vincent Van Gogh wrote (of a character in a novel by Zola) that: “it is always possible for energy and will-power to conquer fate. In his profession he found a force stronger than the temperament he had inherited from his family; instead of surrendering to his natural instincts, he followed a clear, straight path.” (“The Yellow House” p. 212)
Will: desire, effort, discipline, what we “really, really want”, the will to live, purpose in life, backbone, allegiance, commitment, faithfulness, direction, resolve, resilience, capacity to endure. “… your rod and your staff - they comfort me” (Psalm 23.4)
“Prayer is turning our whole being to God, and staying there.” Angela Ashwin (my emphasis)
The work is Christ’s: “I can see three things,” I said, “A game [contest, as in jousting], a scorning, and an earnestness. A game, in which the Fiend has been overcome: a scorning, because God scorns him, so he shall be scorned indeed; and an earnestness, because he has been overpowered by the blessed passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was done in real earnest and with real hard work.” (Julian of Norwich, chapter 11)
Our work in prayer is to trust that Christ has done his work and co-operate with God’s work of bringing all the layers of ourselves into coherence. This includes becoming aware of the choices we are making - how we are choosing to see things, think, believe, act. And learning to choose to act in a more compassionate, creative and courageous manner. Staying on the positive side of the line. Staying on course. (Choose life: Deuteronomy 30.11-20)
The Good News is that God, whom we adore, loves us and keeps faith with us, even when we struggle to keep faith with him. (relate to context of John and the churches under threat, to whom he was writing)
Faith is not only a matter of reason and experience, but also of the will, the dedicated life. The experience of the faithful (Simeon, John) is that such a life is hard. Revelation written to describe eternal truths which can "feed" us in the struggle. "Food for the journey"
But the fact that faith is also a matter of the will means that when reason, experience, even imagination fail us, we can still "stay on the road" - though we cannot see the way.
This is what it means to live by faith.
As we step out beyond the point of no return - that is when the resources of God are given. The riches of God are not given in the land of certainty, but to those on a frail boat in a turbulent sea .......
Prayers - asking for the resources of God to be given to those who have gone "beyond returning" in their weakness, vulnerability, powerlessness ........
Can we make these "hands on" in some way?