Willingness and Religious Faith
“Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.” ~Psalm 143:10
In most religious contexts, willingness may be understood as compliant surrender or obedience to the will of God—at least in deistic religions. For traditional spiritual paths that are not concerned with conceptions of God, such as Buddhism or philosophical Taoism, willingness refers to compliance with a core set of fundamental principles, practices, and values.
For instance, Chapter 41 of the seminal Taoist text, Tao Te Ching, begins:
The wise student hears of the Tao and practices it diligently.
The average student hears of the Tao and gives it thought now and again.
The foolish student hears of the Tao and laughs aloud.
If there were no laughter, the Tao would not be what it is.”¹
The Tao (or “the Way”) in Chinese philosophy is described as the fundamental principle underlying everything that exists. Christians might best understand it as roughly identical with the logos (or “Word”) described as the fundamental principle in the Gospel of John. (John 1:1) In Chinese Bibles, logos is translated as Tao. In the Taoist tradition, the wise student of life is willing to persevere in adapting himself to the eternal Way until he is able to live in harmony with it.
The Eightfold Path of Buddhism requires persistent willingness to surrender attachment to worldly objects of desire, to treat all life with respect and gratitude, to grow in awareness and to adjust our behavior accordingly. Buddhist practice requires:
. . . the willingness to accept our role in the world, which means doing whatever is needed to minimize evil and suffering and doing whatever we can to promote the well-being of all things, including ourselves. Acceptance includes spiritually asking, on the deepest level we know, what is the best action to do in a situation, and then the willingness to do what seems right.”²
The people of the three Abahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all trace their religious heritage to the patriarch, Abraham. Abraham’s willingness to obey God is tested when God commands him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as an offering to the Lord. (Genesis 22:1-18) Abraham’s God intercedes just as he is about to kill the boy, and then rewards his willingness to act, saying, “Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you . . . .” (Genesis 22:16-17)
In the Psalms of David, he proclaims the same willingness to submit his own will to that of God, saying “I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:8)
Such willingness is demonstrated time and again in the stories told in the Christian Gospels, starting with Joseph’s willingness to wed Mary as commanded by a messenger of God, in spite of his discovery that she was already with child. (Matthew 1:18-24)
Other powerful examples of willingness are shown in the calling of Christ’s disciples, starting with Simon and Andrew, fishermen who “at once left their nets and followed him.” (Matthew 4:18-20) The tax collector, Matthew, gives up a lucrative career without hesitation when Jesus bids him to follow. (Matthew 9:9) And an equally powerful example of unwillingness appears in the story of the rich young man who wants to learn how to live as Jesus teaches … until Jesus suggests he give everything he owns to the poor and then join the disciples. But the young man is too attached to his worldly wealth and is not willing to part with it. (Matthew 19:16-24)
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus affirms the importance of willingness when instructing us how to pray. When we ask, in the Lord’s Prayer, that our Father’s will be done here on earth, we are affirming our willingness to do God’s bidding as his children and his agents in this world. (Matthew 6:10)
And no one demonstrates that willingness more than Jesus himself, who surrenders completely to God’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” And his willingness is not just a matter of words, but of action, for he enacts that willingness later that same evening when he lets himself be arrested so that God’s purpose may be served. (Matthew 26:36-46)
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¹ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English) available online here.
² Kinrei Bassis, “Love and Light,” from the May-June 1985 Journal of Shasta Abbey, reprinted online.
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” Psalm 51:12
“Teach me to do your will, for you are my God.” Psalm 143:10
“If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.” Isaiah 1:19
“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Mark 14:38
“I have come to do your will, O God.” Hebrews 10:7
“If the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.” 2 Corinthians 8:12
“Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers-not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” 1 Peter 5:2-3
“It does not require great learning to be a Christian and be convinced of the truth of the Bible. It requires only an honest heart and a willingness to obey God.” ~Albert Barnes
“When one is willing and eager, the gods join in.” ~Aeschylus
“If faith without works is dead, willingness without action is fantasy.” ~Anonymous
Links to more information about Willingness:
From WellSphere, “Torii, the Gateway: Be Willing to Walk a Spiritual Path”
Steven Kalas, “Growing in faith requires willingness to change thinking”
Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
A centuries-old spiritual classic guiding the reader toward complete surrender to the will of God.
Fr. Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure & Claude de la Colombiére, Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence
Another spiritual classic, written by two Catholic priests about finding happiness and peace through complete abandonment of self to God’s will.
Henry & Richard Blackaby, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God
A practical guide for Christians seeking to surrender to God’s will and to develop the willingness to put their beliefs into practice in daily life.
Cheri Huber, The Key: And the Name of the Key Is Willingness
A simple little book on developing willingness through the practice of sitting meditation.