An Act of Will

Last week I was invited to speak to some of our undergraduate students about how to study for finals.

I pondered that invitation, thinking about what I might say, and nothing really came to mind. At the end of the day, the only advice I felt I could share was this:

Studying isn't a technique, it is an act of will.

To be sure, there are techniques to memorization and practice. But the appeal and effectiveness of those techniques vary from person to person. Regardless, when push comes to shove there's no way around memorization. You just have to do it. You have to put in the time and the work. There is no technique to it. There is no trick. It's just work. Studying is an act of will.

This observation about studying put me in mind of the series from last week about intentionality. At the end of the day, there is no technique to spiritual formation. True, we rely upon the Holy Spirit, but to get the ball rolling with spiritual formation, and keep it rolling, boils down to an act of will.

You've no doubt heard the story about turtles and cosmology from the life of William James:
After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.

"Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it's wrong. I've got a better theory," said the little old lady.

"And what is that, madam?" Inquired James politely.

"That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle."

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

"If your theory is correct, madam," he asked, "what does this turtle stand on?"

"You're a very clever man, Mr. James, and that's a very good question," replied the little old lady, "but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him."

"But what does this second turtle stand on?" persisted James patiently.

To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. "It's no use, Mr. James – it's turtles all the way down."
In our search for tips, tricks, and techniques--from how to study, to how to lose weight, to how to become more organized, to how to improve our prayer life--we want to believe that it's turtles all the way down.

"Here," someone offers us, "try this tip, trick, or a technique."

"Super!" But then we ask, "How do we do this tip, trick, or technique?"

"Well, here is another tip, trick, or technique that can help you with the first tip, trick, or technique."

"Fine," we say, "but what can help me with that tip, trick, or technique?"

We want there to be tips, tricks, and techniques all the way down. But this can't go on forever. At some point the answer simply has to be:"You just have to do it." It starts with an act of will. Techniques can help, but the first domino that has to fall is a choice, a decision, a resolution, an act of will. Spiritual formation starts, to use biblical language, with metánoia.

That's true of studying, and it's true about living like Jesus.

Yes, there are techniques, and there might even be tricks and shortcuts along the way, but it all begins and ends with an act of will.

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