“The Human Will”

Studies in Philippians


GOD is operating in us to will as well as to work for the sake of His delight (Phil.2:13). This brief allusion to the human will throws a flood of light into a very dark and dismal doctrine which has so vitiated the theology of Christendom that it has practically robbed God of His Deity and the Saints of a God worthy of the name. It is generally taken for granted that the Bible teaches that man, being made in the image of God, is absolutely sovereign in the realm of his will. Just as God can will, without being influenced by aught about Him, so we can create a decision out of the blue, without the least reference to what we are, or to the world about us.

This nightmare, we are given to understand, is not directly taught in the Scriptures, but must be predicated as its background, or else we could not understand its message! It is pathetic to see the zeal with which men, who have suffered much for God's name, spring up to attack any teaching which threatens the doctrine of man's free will and free moral agency. They have not a line of Scripture on their side, so they inject the idea wherever it seems feasible, and so seek a semblance of support. It will be worthwhile to consider some aspects of man's will, to see whether it is "free" or not, and to learn thus just what is meant by God's operating in us to will. The wording of this passage will give us a hint, and, if we are correct, we will find ourselves in full harmony with its teaching when we are through.

What is the human will. Our text will help us to determine this vexed problem. The will of the saints should be due to God's operation. It is not our action, but the result of His. So the will is a result, due to the operation of external factors. Probably we are not conscious of God's operation. We seem to be doing what we will. That is true of many functions of life. Our thinking, our breathing, the beating of our hearts, the manifold operations of digestion, all these are or should be, accomplished without our superintendence or conscious volition. And all are maintained and formed from external supplies or impulses. We eat, we breathe, we observe, and these make us what we are.

Where does the will come from? Do men create it out of nothing? That would be a feat more wonderful than any legerdemain of which we have ever heard. If so, God is interfering with the creative capacity of His creatures. The wise man knows that the human will is easily influenced from without. In fact, it can be changed easily by one who understands human weaknesses. It is manufactured out of motives. It is a compound, made out of what we are within and where we are without. Heredity and environment fuse together to form it. Our wills are determined for us to a large extent by our ancestors, especially one named Adam. The mixture is finished by our associates and associations. If we had brains enough we could figure out any given will-problem like a sum in arithmetic. A given man will react to a given situation as surely as half a dozen plus six makes twelve.

Oh, someone will exclaim, then man is a mere machine, an automaton, and is subject to a blind fate from which he cannot escape! How often have these words frightened us when we dared to think through to reality! No. Man is not a mere machine, but we must all admit that he has many of the characteristics of one. The fact that he has a soul, and can sense outward things, does not prove that he can sense all of his own operations. If he were not automatic in most of his vital processes, he would be dead in a few minutes. Some of his functions are not within the sphere of his consciousness. The will is one of these.

Man is an automaton in many ways. What would become of him if he had to supervise all of his bodily functions, or if he were even conscious of them all? How could a man who had never seen a physiology keep the blood pump going and the air bellows working and the stomach churning all at the same time? He would not dare to stop to take a bite to eat. He could not get a wink of sleep. He would, however, have the melancholy pleasure of knowing that he is no mere automaton. Thank God that He, in His wisdom, Himself attends to our vital functions, so that we may look away from them to Him.

In these matters man is not subject to a "blind fate," but to a beneficent Creator. He provides parents and food and drink and air, not blindly, but blessedly. All this is a parable of those ethereal functions of our being, the mental, the emotional, and the voluntary. As Creator, God supplies us with the tendencies of our ancestors and with our surroundings and associates. These are incorporated in our mental tissue and enter our brains through our organs of sense. There are times when these two sources contribute materials which will not mix, and we cannot "make up our minds." But, in most cases, we subconsciously act upon the impulse provided by the union of these two streams without considering our course.

It is a stupendous blessing that this process is, as a rule, subconscious. If we had to stop and think and combine our hereditary tendencies with the fleeting impressions constantly brought in by our eyes and ears and nose and nerves before we act, many would be run over by automobiles before they could walk. Our wills themselves sometimes prompt us to action before we have time to be definitely conscious of what we are doing. I well remember once resting quietly under a bush, when I heard a buzzing noise, and lazily turned my head to see if the wind was blowing the vegetation. But it flashed upon me in the midst of my sluggish motion, that it might be a rattlesnake. I jumped up so quickly that I still seemed to be thinking of the wind after I saw the snake strike at the spot where my head had been an instant before.

Man is like an automobile, a splendid vehicle to convey the knowledge of God to the creatures of His heart. Let us suppose that an automobile had a free will of its own. Who would care to ride if the steering gear demanded its independence, and turned off the avenue to climb a tree, or insisted on diving into a pit, instead of running on the road prepared for it? If automobiles had free wills the American people would soon be extinct. And if men could break away from the natural laws which guide them, they would utterly destroy one another in a fortnight. The measure in which they are lawless because of death and sin, is well within the reach of God's protecting arm. The steering gear has gone wrong, the wheels wobble, and the automobile seems to be blessed with free moral agency. If you wish to sell the machine it may be well not to boast of its superior spiritual endowments. One who has God's spirit has a steady steering gear and a Driver Who will get him there on the well paved path.

Our consciousness seems to be a sluggish bubble which rises from the operations of the mind and is hardly, recognized until it breaks. There is a possibility of uniting sensations from without with the mental fiber within and of sending the resultant order to the muscles and even of acting before we are well aware of what we are about. This is the way the will usually works. It would be intolerable if we had to make up our minds regarding every act of life. It would take more nerve force than most of us possess. Most of our voluntary acts are replaced by habits—things we do "without thinking."

Too often the sinner is directed to manipulate his will, as though he could do anything with it. An evangelist is not supposed to twist and turn the human will by eloquent exhortations, but to provide divine material for the formation of God's will in men. Of what avail would it be to feed the famished with lectures on the digestive apparatus? It is just as useless to tell a man to will to come to Christ. Give the starving food and the digestive apparatus, complicated as it is, will do its part. Give the sinner Christ and his will will work of its own accord. Preach the Word. This is the most effective motive power for moving the mind of man. By its means, God's spirit will bring the sinner into line with God's will.

Men imagine they are sovereign in the realm of the will and that no one can break their resolution—no, not even God. This is childish. They have no greater control over it than the captain of a sailing vessel has over the set of his sails. If he is not demented he will spread them to suit his course, and that is determined for him by the breeze. There are spiritual winds to which men bend their wills. They may whistle ever so long, but these spirit forces are beyond their perception and above their control. Hence men do the will of the flesh and obey the behests of evil spirit powers of which they seldom are aware. These now operate in the sons of Stubbornness. The great movements in the world, the great leaders, can find success only when they fall in line with unseen spirit forces.

The unbeliever is the sport, of the spirits of evil. It is the chief of the aerial jurisdiction who operates in them. Their wills are a compound of the soulish sensibilities of the flesh and the spirit of the world. The believer is not called upon to be passive, to "surrender", to "yield" as is so often taught, but that is what the unbeliever unwittingly does. That is what evil spirits crave. Intelligent subordination to God's revealed will is quite the opposite of a passive reception of passing impressions. The spirit of God does not produce such indefinite "guidance," such loose "leadings." God's spirit works only through His Word.

Our course is often dark, and we need light, not "guidance." With a light, we can intelligently pick our path, and choose our steps. We are not called upon to obey an inner voice or an outward impression, or to blindfold our eyes and follow an unknown guide, but to use the light of revelation. Within us is the flesh and without us is the spirit of the world and the world of spirits. These are always forcing themselves upon us and producing "impressions." It is true that, if we know the Scriptures, the divine directions will, to a large extent, displace these sinister influences, but this comes through the activity of faith, not the passivity which blindly obeys impulses. God seeks open-eyed, active obedience. The forces of evil desire blind passivity.

Saints who sincerely desire to do the will of God will find that it is not enough to "make up their minds" to do it. However strong their determination, it may not last. The wise way is to provide the will with motives which will keep them in God's will. Above all, we must know Him through His Word. We must enter into His present plans and future purpose. Then, without straining ourselves to create an artificial will of our own, this knowledge will become the formative factor in our wills, so that actually it will be "God Who is operating in us to will (as well as to work), for the sake of His delight."

Let me warn all against the fearful practice of making a medium out of God's holy Word. There are those who will insert a needle into the Bible, or open it at random in order to get God's "leading." God's Book is not a planchette, though I have no doubt that the evil spirits prefer it to every other way of deceiving their dupes. God controls our wills only when we intelligently absorb His thoughts, and weigh His ways, and luxuriate in His love. It is detestable idolatry to turn His revelation into a ouija board, and allow evil spirits to speak through its sacred sentences.

At Pentecost, God's spirit came on the disciples for power, and uninstructed saints have longed for a repetition of this marvel ever since, not knowing that the spirit is at home in us, to impart, not power but life. There is great danger in tarrying for the spirit, for deceiving spirits are eager to use such opportunities. In fact, the history of all movements of this kind is sufficient evidence that they are merely a brand of spiritism doubly deceptive because they seem to be based on the Bible, and succeed in arousing spirit manifestations which are mistaken for the power of God's holy spirit.

It is quite true that God revealed Himself directly through the prophets and those who had the gift of prophecy in the Pentecostal era. No one has it now. The only real prophets today are false prophets. If we expect God to speak to us directly through His spirit, apart from His Word, we are assuming the gift of prophecy. Today such a gift is not needed, for the truth has been fully revealed in the Scriptures. Moreover, the fact that those who depend on such revelations are led contrary to the Scriptures and to one another shows that they are not guided by the one spirit of God, but by the many spirits against which we are warned.

Much of the "waiting on God" or "going into the silence" may be simply a form of spiritism. If we seek to shut out the distractions of the world about us in order to be able to give all our thoughts to God's revelation, that is good, very good. But if we imagine that making our minds a blank, or putting ourselves into a state of passivity will enable us to receive definite instructions from the Holy Spirit direct, we are under a strong delusion, and lay ourselves open to the deceiving spirits which characterize these last days. The holy spirit of God will indeed guide us into the truth, but only through the word of truth. There is no safety apart from God's written revelation. The spirit that speaks to us apart from it is evil, however much it may imitate the divine.

All who have had an intelligent experience of divine life will readily admit that even the saint cannot please God apart from His operation, and they are glad to have it so. Let them believe the passage before us, and seek to realize its force, and they will be gratified still more in the consciousness that even the spring of their good deeds flows from God. They become, as it were, a miniature universe, in which all is out of and through and for Him. The fact that they cannot independently will or work so as to please God will not disturb them in the least. Quite the opposite. They will find their all in Him, and this is only the normal complement of the great goal God has set before Him—to be all in them.

A. E. Knoch

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