Willpower for the Obstacle Course

by | Last updated Jan 11, 2024 | Stress

Why is it that less than two percent of people who lose weight keep it off? Why do New Year’s resolutions so often fail? How to you surmount an obstacle against all odds?

Of course, the answer is multi-factorial. However, I would like to consider one pivotal answer, which if rightly understood, could be better than medicine for some of my readers – the RIGHT USE of the will. What impacts the will? Toward the end of the article, you will learn powerful secrets from a Florence, Stanley, and Lilo of how to build will-power when you have been thwarted, baffled, and opposed.

Passive-Reactive Thinking

King Solomon observed, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he. ”Passive-reactive thinking forces the will into despondency. In reactive thinking we focus on stimuli, the environment, or circumstances to the exclusion of personal responsibility. Common phrases we might use are: “There is no way out.” “There is nothing I can do about it.” “Can’t win for losing.” “They won’t listen, so why try?” “He makes me so mad!” “If only I had more.” These negative statements react upon our minds and character. Passive-reactive thinking, expressed in reactive language, decreases the brain of its natural anti-depressant neurotransmitters, and sinks the will as surely as multi-torpedo attacks sink a ship that has no adequate protection.

Proactive Thinking

Proactive thinking, while responding to the environment, takes an active approach in delving into issues, exploring options, and seeking appropriate counseling. It revolves around personal choices. Oft-used statements might include: “I will explore other options.” “I can present this information in another way to gain their attention.” “I choose to deal with my anger in healthy ways.” In proactive thinking, responses are deliberate and based upon the values that one has premeditatedly adopted. Proactive thinking strengthens the will.

Emergency-Mode Thinking

Emergency-mode thinking also saps the will. I often find myself in this ultra-type A thinking (maybe because in younger years I helped in the emergency room of a small rural hospital). I want things done now, if not yesterday. Always bustling about, accomplishing the utmost in the least amount of time possible, so that no second is wasted, robs us of reflective thinking. Purposeful living is so necessary for the deliberate action of the will.

Emergency-mode thinking, if engaged in for long periods of time, will simply bankrupt the quality of life. If I had a terminal illness, I do not think I would wish that I had taught more classes, made more money, and had everything in my home super-organized. I would probably wish that I had been a kinder person, given more hugs, flowers, and peaches, and spent more time walking in nature.

Too often I have lived my life like the slave in a story I heard. The master told his former slave that he would give him all the acres that he could walk around before sunset, free of cost. After walking fast all day, sometimes running, the slave started to run faster near sunset. “Gotta have more land, gotta have more land”. There is nothing wrong with having more but not at a cost to life, health, and ultimate meaning. The former slave in this story tragically slumped to his death just before sunset without quite finishing the circle! Emergency-mode thinking can make us insensitive to our limitations, greedy, or unrealistically hopeful. All three damage the will. We need a long-range vision of ourselves, as well as of our mission, so that we won’t be consumed by the tyranny of urgent.

Faith-Active Thinking

Faith-active thinking, like proactive thinking, consciously appreciates the power of individual choice, explores options, and takes responsibility for processing one’s feelings in healthy ways. Faith-active thinking, however, is based upon values that God has designated and upon the internalization of His love. It explores options that are in harmony with His principles.

Faith-active thinking reflects upon how God’s graciousness has led to small triumphs in our lives. Obstacles and difficulties that now confront us are accepted as opportunities to grow. Faith-active thinking, while humbly acknowledging past personal defeats, is not mired in them. While it does not ignore feelings, it rests its final answer on God-based values and principles.

Cause-to-Effect Thinking

By considering consequences, the front brain is activated giving us more power to succeed. While we are to acknowledge our emotions, the front brain needs to stay in charge. Do you feel trapped in certain areas of your life? The will is a rope from God to pull you up. Here are some helpful habits that will strengthen your front brain and subsequently, your will.

Watch your thinking language. Check yourself for reactive thinking. Counter it. If you used reactive language, acknowledge it verbally and correct it audibly. What we say audibly registers in the brain more deeply than just thinking it.


Good choices build the will. Conversely, poor choices rob the will of its capacity to do good. Cultivate discipline in the areas of life adjacent to the problem. For example, obese people are usually not prone to loving exercise that burns up calories. Do you have a problem controlling your appetite? Set up specific times to exercise. Walk an extra seven minutes when you are thinking about returning home.

Psychologist Elden Chalmers suggests that to build the will we do something we dislike everyday. The practice of wise self-denial increases serotonin synthesis. Serotonin, one of the major neurotransmitters, helps create and foster a good mood. Cheerfulness improves will power.

Focus on Strategy

Successful businesses develop business strategies. List your tactics. What is it going to take to achieve your overall short-term, medium-term, and overarching goals. Break down goals into manageable sub goals and individual tactics and steps. Make a daily checklist that helps you focus on your goals. Goal planning fortifies the will and the front brain.

Stress suppresses many components of the immune system. When patients experiencing stress are given some sense of control, the efficiency of their immune system improves. Goals and checklists provide for this focus. Reflective thinking helps to evaluate our goals. What values do you want to incorporate into your life? Establish small, specific goals that will feed into your larger ones. Examine the day’s activities. What successes did you experience? What diversions? What would be some constructive ways to overcome them? Journal your successes as well as your defeats. We often mistake our mission for our vision. What is your vision? Not only do we need to make a personal mission statement but a vision statement as well. One word of balance here: goals should be realistic because studies show that persistence toward unachievable goals undermines our health and promotes inflammation, which can contribute to many common chronic diseases.


Appreciate conflicts as opportunities. Many of us think that all conflict is intrinsically evil and live in continual dread of it. But conflict provides opportunities for us to reassess our values and priorities and to improve our communication skills.

Florence Nightingale, opposed by a multitudinous bureaucracy, finally persisted in improving the quality of nursing care in the Crimean War and raised professional nursing standards to new heights. Before engaging the English bureaucracy to improve nursing, she had to endure the many manipulations of her mother and sister, who were staunchly opposed to her going into nursing, which at that time was considered a dishonorable profession.


Stanley Maxwell, in his book The Man Who Lived Twice, tells a true story of a freedom-lover who was captured by Cambodian communists. He was whipped, beaten, and nearly starved to death. Arms oozing with infections, he mixed human dung with water and then fertilized the rice paddies with his bare hands and infected arms. One riveting goal possessed and encouraged him, however – to escape and get his young daughter to freedom. He achieved his goal when he was reunited with his daughter, and they finally made it to America and religious freedom. Purpose strengthened his will.

Dealing with Injurious Habits

Motivation is the spring from which one’s will acts. However, under an enlightened conscience, the will can affirm what is true and godly, thus empowering motivation. Then one can reject what is false and base. True, wholesome motives are strengthened when we are committed to working through the roots of bitterness with God’s help. And also, we are strengthened when we refuse to let past hurts make us more suspicious and stunt our current behavior. Trials and obstacles permit us to recognize the roots of bitterness. As these are eradicated, our will power grows.

The habits that we wish to overcome are like Johnson-grass. Johnson-grass is a tall weed that is especially abundant in our area. From a distance it looks like a corn-stalk. Its roots grow very, very deep. In fact, they grow as deep as several shovel lengths straight down. The foliage and the fruit represent behavior. The stem, supporting and nourishing the behavior, represents thoughts and feelings. The deep root system represents the purposes and motives. Chopping off a bad behavior, without dealing sufficiently with the motives, thoughts, and feelings, will never eradicate a bad habit. It will surface again, bigger than before. The motive of any harmful habit must be addressed if success is to be achieved. It cannot be eliminated passively. As helpful as this illustration is, we need to recognize that bad habits and addictions can so derange the chemistry and electronics within the brain as to become as influential as our motives in determining other detrimental behavior.

The Example of Lilo

Although persistence, determination, and ambition are important, Lilo Ljubisic, lecturer on motivation, emphasizes “choice, commitment, and courage” as equally necessary for success. In an interview with Pastor Mark Finley of the It Is Written telecast she said, “Choice is an incredible tool for success even though we humans do not always utilize it as such.” We don’t use it as profitably or successfully as we could. The choices we make result in the quality of life we live.

Why should I or anyone else listen to Lilo? Pastor Mark Finley tells her story – Lilo was born as an apparently normal baby, but at an early age she gradually began to lose her sight. At school, the only way she could read the blackboard was to put her nose up close to it – so close that not only would her head block the other students’ view but sometimes her nose would accidentally erase the notes on the board so that the other students never even saw them. She would eventually retreat to the back row and resort to using her binoculars in order to read the material on the board.

Lilo felt singled out, rejected, and ostracized, but she persevered in her learning. Although her sight rapidly deteriorated, a kind teacher taught her how to serve volleyball. Several times she had surgery to restore her sight, after which she could see, but only temporarily because of complications. Then she would be plunged into darkness and devastation once again.

Over a period of years, she became totally blind, but Lilo was determined to excel at something. She focused her energy on learning to throw a discus. With the training of a skilled professional and with courage, persistence, and confidence in God, Lilo did excel. As a discus thrower, she won an Olympic gold medal in 1992. Again, in the 1996 Olympics she won another medal. Her life confirms the power of commitment to God, proactive choice, and persistent practice.


The will may be incredibly weak due to a lifetime of abuse and prostitution to unworthy goals, behavior, and activities. But it is still there and is still respected by our Creator. Right thinking, indomitable purpose, integrity, positive language, appropriate self-discipline, wise self-denial, regarding conflicts as opportunities. Include a lifestyle emphasizing habitual, purposeful exercise, good nutrition, adequate, regular sleep, and the avoidance of mind damaging drugs and practices – all require the right use of the will.

The good news is that God promises to empower our will by adding His all-powerful will to our feeble, but determined effort. And He is always a majority. With Him, we cannot fail! “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13)

Pin It on Pinterest