When the "Want To" and the "Ought To" Don't Match

If your "want to" does not conform to God's "ought to," what can you do to have peace? I see at least five possible strategies.

  1. You can avoid thinking about the "ought to." This is the most common strategy in the world. Most people simply do not devote energy to pondering what they should be doing that they are not doing. It's easier to just keep the radio on.
  2. You can reinterpret the "ought to" so that it sounds just like your "want to." This is a little more sophisticated and so not as common. It usually takes a college education to do this with credibility, and a seminary degree to do it with finesse.
  3. You can muster the willpower to do a form of the "ought to" even though you don't have the heart of the "want to." This generally looks pretty good, and is often mistaken as virtue, even by those who do it. In fact, there is a whole worldview that says doing "ought to's" without "want to" is the essence of virtue. The problem with this is that Paul said, "God loves a cheerful giver," which puts the merely "ought-to givers" in a precarious position.
  4. You can feel proper remorse that the "want to" is very small and weak - like a mustard seed - and then, if it lies within you, do the "ought to" by the exertion of will, while repenting that the "want to" is weak, and praying that the "want to" will soon be restored. Perhaps it will even be restored in doing the "ought to." This is not hypocrisy. Hypocrisy hides one of the two contradictory impulses. Virtue confesses them both in the hope of grace.
  5. You can seek, by the means of grace, to have God give the "want to" so that when the time comes to do the "ought to," you will "want to." Ultimately, the "want to" is a gift of God. "The mind of the flesh is hostile to God . . . it is not able to submit to the law of God" (Romans 8:7). "The natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God . . . because they are spiritually appraised" (1 Corinthians 2:14). "Perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 2:25).

The Biblical doctrine of original sin boils down to this (to borrow from St. Augustine): We are free to do what we like, but we are not free to like what we ought to like. "Through the one man's disobedience [Adam] the many were made sinners" (Romans 5:19). This is who we are. And yet we know from our own soul and from the Bible that we are accountable for the corruption of our bad "want to's." Indeed, the better you become, the more you feel ashamed of being bad and not just doing bad. As N.P. Williams said, "The ordinary man may feel ashamed of doing wrong: but the saint, endowed with a superior refinement of moral sensibility, and keener powers of introspection, is ashamed of being the kind of man who is liable to do wrong" (First Things, #87, Nov. 1998, p. 24).

God's free and sovereign heart-changing work is our only hope. Therefore we must pray for a new heart. We must pray for the "want to" - "Incline my heart to Your testimonies" (Psalm 119:36). He has promised to do it: "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes" (Ezekiel 36:27). This is the new covenant bought by the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 8:8-13; 9:15).

Looking to Jesus, my life,

Pastor John

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Desiring God.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org