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 just to 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 quite as common. It usually takes a college education to do this with credibility and a seminary degree to do it with finesse. (And I believe strongly in both college and seminary!)
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’s” is the essence of true virtue. The problem with this is that Paul said, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7, emphasis added), 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 the absence of the “want to” and pretends it’s there. Virtue confesses the defective desire in the hope that grace will forgive and restore.
5. You can seek, by the means of grace, to have God give the “want to” so that when the time to do the “ought to” comes, 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, author’s translation, emphasis added). “The natural man cannot understand the things of the Spirit of God … because they are spiritually appraised” (1 Corinthians 2:14, author’s translation). “Perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25, emphasis added).
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 souls 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” (quoted in Edward Oakes, “Original Sin: A Disputation,” First Things, No. 87, Nov. 1998, 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, emphasis added). “Make glad the soul of Your servant, for to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (Psalm 86:4). 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). “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help [us want to do what we ought to do] in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).