Ability and Will

One of the most basic principles of logic is that “Ought does not yield Is.” In other words, just because things “ought” to be a certain way does not mean that they will be that way. To assume this to be the case is what is called the “moralistic fallacy” and it would be the basis of what would later be called “Hume’s Guillotine,” in honor of the philosopher who popularized it. It should be noted that the opposite is true as well — “Is does not yield ought.” In other words, just because this “is” what happened does not mean that it “ought” to have been so (to argue thusly is called the “naturalistic fallacy).

Why is this important? There is an important principle that can be drawn from these two logical axioms. Just because you have the ability to do something does not mean that you will be willing to do so. Similarly, just because you have the will or desire to do something does not mean that you have the ability to do so.

Let’s take the simple example of a phobia — an irrational fear of something. I, for instance, am afraid of heights. I am fine on a six or ten foot ladder, but much higher than that my body shuts down and it takes a tremendous amount of intentional will-power to just complete the task I set forth to do. Early on in my time here where I serve as a pastor, one of the men of the church tried to get me to climb the ladder to the top of the bell-tower (about 50’ high). I did get to the first tier where the church bells were kept, but as soon as my eyes perceived my height through the ventilation grills, my legs turned to jelly and I never made it to the top. While my body had the ability to climb to the top of the tower, I did not have the will to do so.

Outside of phobias there are other examples of this notion at work. I do not like liver. In fact, my dislike for liver is intense. When I was speaking in Moscow in 2009, one of the meals I was served was liver and rice (and the rice had a liver-gravy on it). Usually, when I travel, I try and “Do as the Romans do…,” but no matter how hard I tried to be polite, I could not stomach more than a couple bites. Again, the ability was there, but my aversion to liver was so strong that my will did not cooperate.

It works the other way around as well. I went through a season of my life where I wanted to learn to play the drums, but I have no sense of rhythm. My band instructor would clap out a beat and ask me to mimic him, and try as I might, I couldn’t do so. Similarly, in college, I tried a semester of Chinese, which is a tonal language. The problem was that even in the language lab, I could never hear the difference between the four tones. The will was there but the ability was not.

Examples abound, but to do a thing, whatever that thing may be, requires you not only to have the ability to do that thing, but also the will to do it. Intentions are great, but where the rubber meets the road lies with two things: the ability to do it and a will to do so.

And that is the beauty of the final clause of Question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism. It reminds us that God has the “Ability to do so because he is Almighty God” and the will to do so “because He is my faithful Father.” Ability and will, but for what? To govern all things by his providence and to take every event that happens in my life (even the bad ones) and turn them for my good, further conforming me into the image of Christ. Devils and men often try and pull one over on God, but they are never successful in doing so. He is Almighty God and he is my Faithful Father. So, what have I to fear when storms of challenge come crashing into my life?

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