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How can I increase the strength of my will to resist temptation? – Part I of II

July 25, 2011 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Mortification, Spiritual Development

Q: Dear Father John, I would like to ask you for a piece of advice. Since my will is not so strong as it should be; what are the exercises to practice that important element of spiritual formation?

A: I am so encouraged to see that you recognize a need to develop your willpower! The first job the Holy Spirit has is to show us our need for God’s grace, so you are obviously in tune with the Holy Spirit!

And that’s the first point: We all need to remember that when it comes to pursuing spiritual maturity, our own efforts are never enough. (A heresy from the fifth century taught the contrary, and it was condemned by the Church; it’s called Pelegianism.) On the other hand, St. Thomas Aquinas reminded us many centuries ago that “grace builds on nature,” and that means that we can do a lot to create a propitious atmosphere for God’s grace to be fruitful, to take root in our souls and bear abundant fruit, “some one-hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold” (Matthew 13:8).

The Shortcut (Ha!)
Forming the will, our capacity to make prudent, firm decisions and follow through with them in spite of opposition, temptation, or difficulty, is absolutely necessary for spiritual progress. A weak will inhibits our capacity to love, because love means self-giving, and self-giving is necessarily difficult in a fallen world, a world in which our fallen nature tends automatically towards self-indulgence. So you are right to want to form your will, to strengthen it, to develop it. Unfortunately, no flashy, romantic method exists for character formation. I can’t give you a short-cut. I can only share some recommendations that spiritual writers have given throughout the centuries. It will be up to you to put them into practice. But you will not be alone – three of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which were planted in your soul at baptism, are directed towards giving your weak and wounded will a supernatural boost (these are the gifts of fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord). So, if you make a decent effort to do your part, the Holy Spirit will surely give you a fantastic return for your investment. Your will has two jobs in the spiritual life. First it has to submit to God, to embrace and obey God’s will. Second, it has to govern your other, lower faculties (like your appetites), so that they don’t go off on their own and drag you into the muddy acid of laziness, lust, greed, and the other vices. You can do some practical things to train your will in both tasks.

Job #1: Embracing God’s Will
To embrace God’s will for your life – whether in basic things like following the Commandments and the duties of your state in life, or in extraordinary moments when he sends special inspirations – you have to be convinced that God’s will really is the very best option. This is the kind of conviction that drove St. Thomas More, for example, to give up the highest honors in the Kingdom, abundant riches, and an incomparable position of power and prestige, trading it all in for a few years in prison and a death sentence. He knew the answer to Christ’s question: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he loses his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). The more deeply we are convinced that God’s will, God’s plan, and God’s way are based on his infinite wisdom, limitless goodness, and passionate, personal love for us as individuals, the more we will want to embrace it and follow it, no matter the cost.

Deepening Our Conviction
How can we deepen that conviction? There is absolutely no better way to do so than by making mental prayer a part of your daily life. Add to mental prayer a good dose of daily spiritual reading, a Rosary, and frequent reception of the sacraments of the Eucharist and confession, and you have a solid formula that will, gradually, deepen this conviction. It will become a solid, deep, granite foundation for a life of holiness and fruitfulness. But you have to avoid just going through the motions in those spiritual disciplines: be faithful to them, and be faithful to constantly striving to do them better. The help of a good spiritual director is useful here. Go over each of your prayer commitments with your spiritual director. Explain what you do and how you do it, and ask for advice and tips on how to do it better.

Job #2: Self-Governance
The will’s second job consists of governing your lower faculties. Your appetites always want to go towards their proper object, the particular pleasure associated with their exercise – food, sex, rest, entertainment… To strengthen your will, then, requires disciplining these appetites until, like a well-trained thoroughbred, they have learned to channel all their power in the direction that your will points them. This may take a long time. Our culture trains us in just the opposite way. Our consumerism actually debilitates the will in favor of the whims of emotion. Sometimes it takes prolonged periods of taxing effort to free the soul from the slavery of sentimentalism.

In our next post on this topic we will talk about a few secrets and tips to help you to be more effective as you face this important challenge.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published two other titles: "Meditations for Mothers" and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently resides in his Order’s General Directorate in Rome, where he is continuing his writing apostolate. His blog contains questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. His online retreats are available at www.RCSpirituality.org.

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  • Rjk123

    I had “the happy faults” of being alcoholic and bulimic.  I tried to have will power and I prayed for will power.  I finally asked my husband to pray for me because I could not resist the pull of the addictions.  He took my hands and prayed immediately (we were at a restaurant) and within moments an acquaintance of his came up to say hello.  Lo and behold (thank you, Holy Spirit) she as active in Overeaters Anonymous.  I made contact, she became my sponsor, and from that first OA meeting in 1984 unitl now I have neither been alcoholic or bulimic.  I learned for the first time what it meant to surrender all to God.  It did not mean that He took away the pull of the addictions.  He didn’t.  But He helped me to live throiugh that agonizing pull and to know that the pain and terror I was feeling, that I had tried to deaden with food and alcohol, would not kill me. I had to not-eat and not-drink. But He helped me to feel the pain and terror, to surrender it to Him, and to trust and know that He (not the food or alcohol) would help me to deal with it.  It was tough dealing with all the stuff I was trying to avoid.  But I am free of the addictions and also free of the pain and terror.  He healed me.  Now whatever comes my way, I surrender it to Him.  My “will power” now is legendary (my friends and family don’t know how I do it), but the truth is, it isn’t will power, it is His power in my weakness.  I have to Not-do whatever is tempting me (including take rash action)  and then trust Him.  Sometimes the most we can do is feel the pain and keep going doing what is in front of us to do.  But he never fails to take care of us.  Eventually we pass through the pain and fear–and the problem–and get to the other side.  When we do this, our faith and trust is stronger.  And we are thankful.  Always thankful.  I am always thankful because I know it is Him, and like St. Therese I can be weak and a little child.  He is the power.

    • Anonymous

      Wow…………….

      Oh ‘Happy Fault’ indeed!!  And what a blessing that you can see this!

    • Sjm

      Thanks for your honesty! I belonged to OA for several years, reached God’s weight for me, and looked “normal” for the first time in my life, had a sponsor, worked the steps, until a huge sacrifice was asked of me. I couldn’t do it without extreme “pain and terror” (you got those emotions right, since they usually come from my youngest nonverbal years) and eventually picked up the food…TWENTY YEARS LATER I am ready to face these feelings. Would you please pray for me? Thanks and God bless you for your post

      • Anonymous

        Prayers on the way!  :)  God Bless You, and may you know you are wrapped in His loving embrace as you allow Him to heal you!

        It’s worth every second of pain and sorrow.

        • Rjk123

          Amen, sister.  It IS worth every second of pain and sorrow!

      • Rjk123

        I’m sorry I’m so late replying.  I will pray for you, Sjm>  You trust the Lord.   He will not fail you.  He will give you the strength to feel the feelings and you will not lose control, fall apart, die, go crazy or any of the other things I know I was afraid I wouild do if I felt the feelings.  A counselor told me that not-feeling the feelings was like trying to hold a beach ball underwater.  It’s exhausting!  Also, she said, every time I do feel the feelings, cry, write down how angry I am, or share those feelings with someone who I can trust and who will not be hurt by the feelings, it’s like letting out a little air.  Finally all the air, and all the power of the feelings, is gone.  It’s worth it to not-eat just to be free of that burden.  Please find a counselor or a therapist who has experience helping people work through tough memories etc.  A good spiritual director will help you see how the Lord is working in your life.  Your OA sponsor understands the whole thing and has a proven success record.  Talk to your sponsor every day and every time you need a boost or feel yourself slipping.  And remember that a slip is just a slip.  Stop, call your sponsor, and get back on the program.  You will succeed.  You will get to the otherside.  Use the helps God sends your way.  I will keep you in my prayers.  God bless you.

    • St Teresasgirl

      Thank you for sharing…I needed to hear this. 

  • Anonymous

    Very helpfull, waiting eagerly for the next part…. Thank God for the wisdom he has given you.

  • Jhp1949

    I laid awake for hours last night with anger for the injustice that I have been seeing over the past few weeks. Peoples doing harm to those that can not protect them selves. At 62 years of age 2 heart attacks this is rage that my body does not need. Prayers and starting a Rosary Prayer finely  gave me comfort  for sleep

    • Rjk123

      I wonder if there is an underlying rage that plagues you.,  Has a terrible injustice been done to you?  If so, I pray the Lord gives you the assurance of His strength and comfort that will help you to see and deal with that injustice.  In any case, I agree with you that the terrible injustices against people all over the world, the weak and the defensless, is intolerable.  It makes me feel helpless.  As with you, prayer alone gives me hope and peace.  God bless you.

  • Andy

    The questioner & writer here bring up excellent points about which one does not necessarily hear about today, at least in the parishes I have been in throughout the country.  I will save and meditate on this and look for promised future tips.

  • Schinmd

    Looking forward to Part II and will keep Part I to refer to.  I am helpless against sweets and would prefer to have them for most meals and can’t imagine giving them up.  But I do want to get in under self-control because I do not want to be vulnerable in that direction.  I might wait until after vacation the second week of August and really put my mind to it and turn it completely over to God.

    • Rjk123

      Start now.  Vacation doesn’t have to be about eating.  It really, really doesn’t.  Have fun and rest other ways.

  • Anonymous

    “Job #2: Self-Governance…To strengthen your will, then, requires disciplining these appetites… This may take a long time….”Whew! Thanks for saying this- I find it SO discouraging sometimes to see such little advance in my own life in directing myself according to the Holy Spirit- it is hard not to feel irreparably defective in a McHoliness culture.

  • Donna Wolf Guest

    Thank you very much for your advice.  I guess I have to realize that it is a slow process, one step at a time.  Sometimes I feel that it is three steps forward and one backward all the time.

  • Lencho6891

    Excellent….practical…

  • Mary@42

    God bless you for this advice. Waiting with bated breath for the next post. I have found praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet – in addition to the Rosary, Daily Holy Mass and weekly Confession – and following the duties of the Eucharistic Apostle of the Divine Mercy most helpful.

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