The Paradox of Willfulness

Circle of Giovanni Bellini, Christ Carrying the Cross

Lent is more than half over, a good time to remember why we carry our cross. We do it to be disciples of Christ, to do His will in our life and not our own. But surrendering our own willfulness means more than a determination to obey. The paradox of discipleship is not that we do the will of another and receive a reward, but that in leaving behind our own will we discover it again in Christ. In the end, we will discover that we desire the same thing that Christ does.

St. John of the Cross, a disciple of Christ known for his asceticism, expresses this paradox in one of his Sayings of Light and Love:

“Deny your desires and you will find what your heart longs for. For how do you know if any desire of yours is according to God?” (Sayings 15)

Desire is our will’s attraction to the good. When we are willful in a disordered way, we seize on something that is good but in a way contrary to God’s will and to our nature. We can also have desires that follow reason and are virtuous. Real virtue includes adapting to our circumstances and purifying our motives, which often have been distorted by past sin. As our desires are educated in discipleship, we should question them and see whether they are good here and now.

This saying of St. John of the Cross can help us in our daily discipleship by making us skeptical about some of our desires. It is always necessary to deny innately disordered desires, as well as selfish ways of satisfying innately good ones. At other times we have to let go of good desires by force of circumstance, even though in another case they would be virtuous.

To deny ourselves out of a desire to please God is a way of taking up our daily cross, as Christ says His disciples must do. Just as the man who wishes to save his life ends up losing it, so the man who does not deny his own disordered desires ends up suffering what he does not desire. But if we learn the habit of denying our inappropriate desires, we can find our satisfaction in desiring Christ above all things.

By denying ourselves out of humility, we create more room for the one desire that matters. If we doubt whether we will find what we’re looking for along this road, we can imagine querying the saint:

“Was it worth it, St. John of the Cross, to leave behind so many of your own desires for Christ?”

His unequivocal answer would be, “Yes! Now I possess Christ and have all I ever could have wanted.” The willfulness of a saint is greater than that of a sinner, because he clings tenaciously to Goodness itself.

For those of us who are not saints, we can take comfort that perfect self-denial does not come immediately. We may get there some day, but for now, fulfilling our basic duties in life and our Lenten practices is enough. By taking these up faithfully, with a longing for Christ, we are surrendering our own will little by little. This process is painful, but we know that one day it will lead to our greatest joy.

Image: Circle of Giovanni Bellini, Christ Carrying the Cross

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Br. Norbert Keliher entered the Order of Preachers in 2012. He is a graduate of Harvard University, where he studied Latin and Greek. Before entering the order, he spent a year teaching in New York City and a year studying theology at Notre Dame.On DominicanFriars.org