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Many of us grew up with the story of The Little Engine That Could, a tale about a small train engine succeeding at the near-impossible task of pulling a heavy train up a long and steep mountain. Taking up the challenge that other bigger and stronger engines had refused, the Little Engine That Could simply willed its way to the top of the of the mountain by encouraging itself by continually repeating the now famous motto, “I think I can, I think I can.” By summoning up all its inner strength and bravery, the Little Engine was able to overcome the overwhelming obstacle its path.
Though The Little Engine That Could is an inspiring children’s story about determination and willpower, I believe many people have misapplied its message as adults and have become frustrated, disappointed or even depressed as a result. What I mean is this: Tthere are some things that simply can’t be done through willpower alone.
For example, you can’t just wake up one morning and decide to run a marathon. No matter how much willpower you have, no matter how hard you try, no matter how determined you are, you simply can’t run a marathon by trying hard. On the contrary, in order to run a marathon, one has to train.
The same is true for becoming a concert pianist. One doesn’t just wake up one morning and begin playing Bach, Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. No matter how hard you try, if you haven’t put in the hard work of learning scales and arpeggios and spent numerous hours practicing, it just isn’t going to happen.
Running a marathon or playing the piano simply can’t be done by merely trying harder; one has to train wisely. And that is probably obvious to you.
However, what is obvious to us in one area is sometimes lost on us in others. For example, I’ve noticed that when it comes to our habits – either breaking bad ones or starting good ones – most people try to make those changes in their lives by the sheer force of willpower.
And that works. At least for a time. In fact, it has been my experience that changing behaviors based on trying harder can work for minutes at a time. Sometimes even hours. And, for those with an extra portion of willpower, perhaps even days. Unfortunately, changes based on willpower alone are doomed to be short-term at best.
John Ortberg, in his excellent book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, uses the children’s book Frog and Toad Together to illustrate this point.
In that book, the two central characters discover the limits of mere trying when Frog bakes a large batch of cookies that are so delicious that neither of them can resist. “We ought to stop eating,” they say, as they keep eating.
“We must stop,” they resolve, as they eat some more.
“We need willpower,” Frog finally says, grabbing another cookie.
“What is willpower?” asks Toad, swallowing another mouthful.
“Willpower is trying very hard not to do something you want to do very much,” Frog says.
Frog then discusses a variety of ways to help with willpower – putting the cookies in a box, tying the box shut, putting it high up in a tree – but each time Toad points out (in between bites) that they could open the box or cut the string or climb the tree and untie the box.
In desperation, Frog finally dumps the remaining cookies outside on the ground: “Hey, birds!” he calls. “Here’s cookies!”
As birds come from everywhere and gobble them all up, Toad says sadly, “Now we have no more cookies.”
“Yes,” says Frog, “but we have lots and lots of willpower.”
“You may keep it all,” Toad replies. “I’m going home to bake a cake.”
My guess is that perhaps you have shared a similar experience as that of our friends Frog and Toad. No matter how hard you try not to do something, it seems to keep popping up. Or perhaps you have determined that you should lose weight or be more patient or loving or kind, and that effort has been elusive as well. Some things just can’t be accomplished by trying harder.
Unfortunately, that is how many (if not most) people approach the Christian life. They think that if they simply try harder, they’ll be able to get it right. However, it never quite seems to work out that way.
Fortunately, there is good news: Living a Christian life is not simply a matter of trying harder, of gritting our teeth and willing our way to success. Instead, it has to do with training wisely.
In the Bible, I Timothy 4:7 tells us we have to “train ourselves to be Godly”. And that training is where spiritual disciplines – like Bible study, prayer, service, worship, giving, etc. – come in.
A discipline is simply anything I can do now that will help me do what I want to do now, but can’t. For example, if my goal is to play Bach on the piano (which I can’t do now), I have to practice scales and simpler pieces (which I can do now) so that eventually I’ll be able to do what I wanted to do in the first place (play Bach).
Or take basketball as an example. The goal for any team is to win the game. In order to reach that goal, they practice dribbling, passing, shooting, rebounding and defense.
When the game comes, the players don’t get credit for any free throws they made previously in practice. But if they want to be successful when the game is on the line, the hours and hours spent practicing are invaluable.
The goal isn’t to make free throws or dribble well or rebound; the goal is to win the game.
For a Christian, things like Bible study and prayer aren’t the goal – the goal is to be like Jesus. Bible study, prayer, worship and the like are the exercises that we can do now, in order to help us do what we really want to do now, but can’t (that is, be more like Jesus).
Because many Christians look at spiritual disciplines as the goal, when they miss a day of Bible reading or forget to pray before they go to bed they feel guilty, and sometimes even give up altogether. But if we remember that being like Jesus is the goal, and Bible reading, prayer and other spiritual disciplines are merely tools (invaluable tools, but tools nonetheless) to help us meet our goal, then we can give ourselves a little grace when we fall short and fail to ‘exercise’ that day.
Because if we get discouraged and give up on the disciplines altogether, we’ll never reach our ultimate goal of becoming like Christ.
So, if you’ve been huffing and puffing up some hill in your life while repeatedly telling yourself “I think I can, I think I can,” yet success has been difficult to grasp, perhaps you need to begin training and stop merely trying.
And just maybe if you’d have started training sooner, you could have beaten the birds to those cookies.