The Perfect Definition of Self-Will (From An Unlikely Source!)

Definition of Self-Will – What The Bible Can Teach Us

Definition of Self-Will

I’ll be upfront, there will be no attempt here to persuade of the truthfulness of Christianity.

Undoubtedly, many of you will smash the back button at the sight of a biblical passage.

I’d like to push a bit against that impulse.

I’d encourage you to wade through your reservations, prejudices, and preconceived notions when it comes to this ancient text.

I’m certainly not trying to convince you that the Bible is God’s Word, that Jesus is Lord or any of the evangelical wizardry that is frequently lobbed at bystanders from the street corners.

I’m more than happy to allow you to arrive at your own conclusions.

I simply want to demonstrate how powerful, relevant, and applicable the Bible can be by unpacking one tiny little verse and fleshing it out to our day-to-day experience.

Additionally, this particular passage can really enable one to better understand the definition of self-will in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Today I want to examine James 1:14–15 and leverage it to develop a 3-point definition of self-will.

Definition of Self-Will

Point One: Self-Will Is Lawless

The author, James, seems to indicate that temptation is not an external gig.

That is, when our actions hurt ourselves and those around us they are stimulated by an emotional charge within.

This is commonly referred to as desire or craving.

All of us have experienced desire.

For example, let’s consider water. Everyone desires water. At times the desire is stronger than others, but the fact remains that the craving for thirst exists.

Obviously desires to sustain and satisfy our basic needs are right and good.

So, when do they go awry?

Evidently, the desires that give birth to sin are the ones we want to avoid. This only stirs up more questions. What is sin?

Sin is described in the Bible as a transgression of the law of God (1 John 3:4) and rebellion against God (Deuteronomy 9:7; Joshua 1:18).

This assumes a Law exists that individuals must uphold. A failure to do so results in turmoil.

We are all familiar with natural laws, such as the law of gravity.

If I step off a two-story building, I’m likely to get hurt once I hit the ground. It doesn’t matter who I blame, what type of regret I conjure up, or if I ante up on positive thinking. I will fall and I will get hurt.

So, what’s the law in regard to sin? From what I can gather, the biggest no-no is lawlessness.

Nonetheless, is anyone ever without a law? Without a standard from which to judge the world and operate?


Truthfully, to be lawless we must become law in and of ourselves. This is the essence of self-will.

Definition of Self-Will

What Driving Teaches Us About Self-Will

A perfect analogy to capture this definition is our everyday experience on the road.

Have you ever realized when you’re trying to get somewhere everyone is either driving too fast or too slow?

Why is that?

It’s because you’ve become the standard for how everyone should drive.

Better yet, how they “ought to” drive.

In this sense, you’ve created a law of the road.

Of course, it’s your own personal law that’s usually at odds with everyone else’s standard for driving. This in turn creates an unpleasant driving experience – for everybody!

Alcoholics Anonymous does a splendid job describing this “lawless” reality and the variety of desires or cravings that accompany it.

Their analogy of self-will is the “director of a show,” but they compliment my analogy as they note that alcoholics are “driven” by it – yes that was a pun.

The Director Who Wants To Run The Whole Show

I will allow the authors of the text to paint the picture for you in their chapter of the Big Book titled, How It Works.

The first requirement is that you see that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success. On that basis we are almost always in collision ~ with something or somebody, even though our motives may be good.

Most people try to live by self-propulsion. Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show: is forever trying to arrange the lights, the ballet, the scenery and the rest of the players in his own way. If his arrangements would only stay put, if only people would do as he wishes, the show would be great. Everybody, including himself, would be pleased.

Life would be wonderful. In trying to make these arrangements our actor may sometimes be quite virtuous. He may be kind, considerate, patient, generous; even modest and self-sacrificing. On the other hand, he may be mean, egotistical, selfish and dishonest. But, as with most humans, he is more likely to have varied traits.

What usually happens? The show doesn’t come off very well. He begins to think life doesn’t treat him right. He decides to exert himself some more. He becomes, on the next occasion, still more demanding or gracious, as the case may be. Still, the play does not suit him.

Admitting he may be somewhat at fault, he is sure that other people are more to blame. He becomes angry, indignant, self-pitying.

What is his basic trouble? Is he not really a self-seeker even when trying to be kind? Is he not a victim of the delusion that he can wrest satisfaction and happiness out of this world if he only manages well?

Is it not evident to all the rest of the players that these are the things he wants? And do not his actions make each of them wish to retaliate, snatching all they can get out of the show?

Is he not, even in his best moments, a producer of confusion rather than harmony?

Our actor is self-centered – ego-centric, as people like to call it nowadays. He is like the retired businessman who lolls in the Florida sunshine in the winter complaining of the sad state of the nation; the preacher who sighs over the sins of the twentieth century; politicians and reformers who are sure all would be Utopia if the rest of the world would only behave; the outlaw safe cracker who thinks society has wronged him; and the alcoholic who has lost all and is locked up.

Whatever their protestations, are not these people mostly concerned with themselves, their resentments, or their self-pity?

Selfishness – self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles.

Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly, without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self, which later placed us in a position to be hurt.

So our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is almost the most extreme example that could be found of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn’t think so.

Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us! God makes that possible…

Definition of Self-Will

Point Two: Self-Will Is When Temptation Weds Unhealthy Desires

Definition of Self-Will

Therefore, self-will is one part temptation and one part unhealthy desire.

To narrow it down further we see self-will, the law of oneself is characterized by fear, delusion, and pity.

So, the emotions that accompany it aren’t all that exciting either.

They appear to be steeped in a low mood, a chronic malaise as it were. The Big Book defines this state as “restless, irritable, and discontent.”

What’s the core issue though?

What produces this type of individual?

What is the person trying to accomplish?

What need are they trying to satisfy?

Usually, the main motive is the satisfaction of extrinsic values. Namely, when temptation weds unhealthy desires – cravings that cannot effectively be satisfied – the mind is forced to ravenously and endlessly look far beyond itself for things to consume.

Definition of Self-Will

Point Three: Self-Will Is Extrinsically Focused

This is important in understanding the idea of self-will, so pay close attention.

The pursuit of extrinsic values refers to the attempt of seeking validation from the world outside of oneself.

The temptation to be liked, to be feared, revered, for prestige, fame, fortune, whatever.

These become the ultimate things in one’s life, the chief aim, and thus produce a powerful desire, a craving, to behave in whatever means is necessary to attain them.

To put it another way, the means justify the ends.

The problem is that this person is looking for value, meaning, and purpose in things that have no ability to satisfy and sustain them.

Therefore, it’s endless means to no end!

Definition of Self-Will

Unhealthy desire almost always has no end, this is a telltale sign.

If my desire is for water, my thirst is satiated. If my desire is for alcohol to satisfy my loneliness, that thirst will never be satisfied.

Personality Vs. Character Ethic

Stephen Covey cataloged these extrinsic values under a “Personality Ethic.”

Per Covey, a Personality Ethic emphasizes skills and practices that affect one’s public image, attitudes, and behaviors.

This approach offers quick-fix solutions — how to be more charming, have a more positive outlook, make people like you, and influence people to do what you want.

Conversely, the Character Ethic focuses on foundational traits, including integrity, humility, hard work, loyalty, self-control, courage, justice, patience, modesty, and morality. These are basic principles that any person — in any culture or time period — could agree are important.

Moreover, these values are intrinsic, in other words, the person seeks to be validated from their inside world by thinking and behaving consistently with specific principles.

Definition of Self-Will

So What?

Am I reading the Bible right? I’m sure some scholars will disagree.

Nonetheless, my reading demonstrates that even a cursory glance at the evidence our ancestors left behind provides detailed instructions for living well.

This idea of bringing our lives into conformity with intrinsic values and timeless principles spans across cultures and timelines.

These principles can rightly be understood as the law by which we are called to abide.

In Alcoholics Anonymous this is referred to as God’s Will. To the Greeks, this was called Natural Law.

Whatever you choose to call it, the concept of lawlessness and self-will leading to disarray is as ancient as they come.

What’s the outcome of a life driven by extrinsic values? In Alcoholics Anonymous the product is known as the bedevilments. A life governed by self-will. A life with means to no end.

Definition of Self-Will

Maybe we should think less about reinventing the wheel and hop on the wagon that already works.

After all, aren’t we all trying to get on the wagon?