Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Limits of the Will

Today I failed the physical agility test administered to determine my participation in operations with the Fate Fire Department. I can train and prepare over the next couple of weeks to take it again, and the department has graciously encouraged me to do so. However, the disappointment I felt in coming up short cut deeply. The course consisted of several exercises in quick succession that simulated a sampling of the physical tasks one should expect to perform in the execution of their duties in firefighting.

Of the eight exercises, I successfully completed six of them. The seventh exercise, however, was a great surprise. A fully charged (with water pressure) 3 inch hose was laid out in straight line away from the engine. The task was to, holding the hose and nozzle on my shoulder, swing the line 180 degrees and advance the line in the opposition direction to a predetermined point passed the engine. I listened carefully to instructions given regarding the proper technique to swinging the hose around and carrying it. When I began, I made the turn successfully and had advanced the line to a point even with the engine, but then a nightmarish experience overtook me. Strength seemed to escape my body like air from a released balloon. Determined as I was to complete the exercise and reach the cone, fatigue dominated my legs and migrated upwards. Forward progress was halted, so I jerked and ranked hoping to inch the hose a little more. Then I turned around and kept yanking on the hose, hoping that it might miraculously become suddenly lighter. In the end, I was reduced to simply holding the nozzle and falling backward. The last couple of inches were gained with this method, and I reached the cone; however, I had exceeded the allotted time for the exercise, and was so drained of spark that the test was aborted as I lay barely conscious on the concrete, occasionally moving the oxygen mask from my face in order to throw up. "Humiliating," as a word, doesn't quite capture it.

There are many valuable lessons that can be gleaned from today's failure. One of these came in the midst of my physical breakdown. As the strength dropped off sharply, I made the determination not to give up no matter what. I had set my will to complete the course successfully and advance toward joining the department in their firefighting duties, in addition to those I perform as chaplain. What was quite shocking was the degree and speed with which my will could become irrelevant. Determination and willpower mean nothing when the body has performed all of that which it is capable and will go no further. Try as I did, the hose reached the goal too late, and the test had to be aborted in light of my potential hospital visit. Thankfully, I recovered enough at the scene to render an ambulance ride unnecessary. Nevertheless, the will did not have the last word. Capability was the final factor, not the will.

This last week, I completed an intensive one week course on the nature of humanity and the effects of sin on our condition. How helpful today's failure was in clarifying some of the class's issues. In Romans 7, Paul expresses frustration on the limits of the will when it comes to living righteously. While I would not seek to fully unpack Paul's argument here, some of that frustration was pictured for me today. The will may be noble, desiring to reach the goal of righteousness through tasks that appear simple enough (though not necessarily easy). However, the limits of the will are reached and we discover that the human condition is simply not capable of reaching the goal, not matter what "the will" desires. The will has become irrelevant, and capability is revealed to be quite lacking.

This would seem the essence of the gospel, that righteousness by "will" is doomed to failure because it's not a question of the will. It's a question of capability. Humanity is incapable of reaching the goal of righteousness. Trying, therefore, would appear insulting to a Savior who has carried the hose (or cross) for you already. I imagine that my pathetic attempts at righteousness to impress God end similarly, with the Spirit huddled over me, offering the oxygen mask after I've lost both consciousness and my cookies. Christ is holding up his nail-scarred hand seeing if I can follow his finger with my eyes, with the Father admonishing me to rest easy and adds, "here's some water for you. Oh, and I'll be driving you back to the station."

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