About a year ago, I asked one of my teammates a very leading question.
“How are you experiencing me these days?”
The real reason I asked him that question was because I needed some affirmation, which I was certain he was going to give; I am pretty amazing, after all. Shunning (or maybe simply ignoring) my amazingness entirely, this was his response:
“Well, Steve, you’re like the person who keeps honking his horn, riding my bumper even though everybody knows that the traffic isn’t moving. You’re impatient.”
The minute he said it, I knew it was true. I immediately recalled times in meetings when I would lean so far forward in my chair that I almost ended up in the other person’s lap. I would STRONGLY URGE us to take a particular action, or to IMMEDIATELY STOP something else. I was reactionary, passionate, and willful.
And because people sensed my willfulness, I generally got the same reaction that people give to the idiot who keeps honking his horn in standstill traffic (metaphorically, of course. I do work in a church. However, those of you who know Open Door might guess that sometimes I got the actual response, too).
Much has been written about willfulness versus willingness.
I know I am being willful when the knot in my stomach tightens, when I get overly frustrated, and when I am interrupting people, or worse, simply waiting for them to be finished with their sentence so that I can correct them. Willfulness insists, goads, cajoles, and pushes. Willfulness demands to be God.
I know I am being willing when I can sit back in my seat and actually listen, gathering helpful information and coming to a better solution together. Willingness listens, responds, initiates, and wonders. Willingness notices that I am not God, and that I do not know everything I need to know, and that God is present and willing to help through lots of different people.
In Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology, Gerald May writes about willingness and willfulness:
“Willingness and willfulness do not apply to specific things or situations. They reflect instead the underlying attitude one has toward the wonder of life itself. Willingness notices this wonder and bows in some kind of reverence to it. Willfulness forgets it, ignores it, or at its worse, actively tries to destroy it. Thus willingness can sometimes seem very active and assertive, even aggressive. And willfulness can appear in the guise of passivity.”
On my run yesterday, I listened to Krista Tippet interview Tami Simon, creator of Sounds True. Tami said that over time, she cultivated a prayer to help her become the kind of person she wants to become. It’s simple and profound:
“God, I am willing to do what you have put me on this earth to do.”
Which of course means that she must be willing to also not do what she is not on this earth to do. In that moment, I realized that when I am being willful, I am probably being very adamant about something that I am not on this earth to do. People can sense willfulness. They feel like they’re being forced. But people can also sense willingness. Willfulness sounds like a demand; willingness sounds like an invitation. And true willingness isn’t just getting good at figuring out a way to get what you want in a nice way, like a benevolent dictator. That’s manipulation.
The question behind willfulness and willingness is this: Are you willing to do what God has put you on this earth to do? If so, what do you need to stop trying to force?
I know this raises all kinds of questions, like how do you know what God has put you on this earth to do, and is that the way God really works. Great questions. But are you willing to at least sit with the above question for awhile and see what happens, without honking your horn and forcing an answer?