Why We Fail: The Internal Conflict

Why do we keep failing at accomplishing our most important goals? One reason is a universal internal conflict which characterizes the human nature.

StockSnap_M5791YB6J9We now follow up on the question from the previous post: why do we fail at achieving our goals?

The first problem is that we don’t want just one thing. We want many things, including ones which are in conflict with each other. We want achievement but we also want convenience. We want productivity but we also like laziness. We want increased quantity but also increased quality. We want to accomplish our long term goals but we also want instant gratification. But reaching our long term goals takes sacrificing our instant gratification and waiting patiently without seeing results for a long time. Accomplishments don’t come easy but, on the other hand, we like the easy way. We like shortcuts and cutting corners. We want to enjoy the end result but we want to avoid the pain of the hard process that brings about the result.

These conflicting motivations is the first answer to the question why we fail. In the Bible James says: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” (James 4:1 ESV) We have many passions and desires and they are often at war with each other within us. There is a universal internal conflict within the human nature. An example of conflict James gives is the fact that Christians love God but, at the same time they want to be “friends with the world” (James 4:4). A few verses later he calls such Christians “double-minded” (James 4:8). We all experience this double-mindedness, these conflicting interests not only in spiritual matters but also in our life in general. Failing at accomplishing our top goals often just means that we succeed at accomplishing the opposing and less significant interests we have.

Apostle Paul also makes this point. Sharing his experience in the quote from the previous post, he points out this dualism: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Rom. 7:22-23) He not only mentions the conflict but also gives the source of the conflict. There is the “law of my mind” in opposition to “the law … in my members.” Indeed, the conflict is between what our mind knows we should do and what the body wants to do. The failure comes doing what we want instead of doing what we know we should. Much of our conflict falls along this line. The mind pursues long term goals. The body pursues instant gratification. The mind appreciates working hard for what’s important. The body likes convenience and dislikes tiredness, effort and pain. The body cares about the tummy to be filled and other bodily passions and desires to be filled. The body tries to take over and define a fulfilled life as a worry-free life—one with enough resources (such as money) so that the bodily desires will never lack fulfillment. This would be a life in which one could do whatever he wants. The mind defines a fulfilled life as one with meaning and accomplishments—a life that makes a difference. Not a life in which one can do whatever one wants but a life in which one can do the very things one purposed to do: one’s top goals.

Paul makes this distinction and contrasts the “old self” with the “new self” (Eph. 4:22 vs. 4:24; Col. 3:9 vs. 3:10; Rom. 6:6) and the “flesh” with the “spirit.” He says:

For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Gal. 5:17)

What keeps us from doing what we want to do, our most important goals? It’s the conflict within our hearts which becomes a battlefield of two opposing interests.

One may say that this conflict is not universal since people who are not born again don’t have the new self Paul is talking about. Yes, but they still have reason and conscience. They have the thought of eternity that God put in their hearts (Ecc. 3:11). In Rom. 8:16 Paul makes the distinction between the Holy Spirit and our spirit. Even without having the Holy Spirit one still has his own spirit and that is often in conflict with the body, the “flesh”. What reason and our conscience tells us that we should do often diverges from what the body demands us to do. This internal conflict is therefore universal.

In the next posts we’ll look at other answers to the question why we fail and we’ll also answer why we do the unreasonable and follow what the body wants instead of what the reason prescribes.

Why Do We Keep Failing at Achieving Our Goals?

Only 8% of people actually achieve their New Year’s resolution, such as weight loss. Why do people so often fail at that which they want the most?

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One of the important things I’m working on is developing a program and tools to help people achieve their goals, or, what I call the art of self-persuasion. This includes both a web site that implements the program along with a book I’m writing which presents the principles behind it. I’m very excited about it because it offers some unique features that, to my knowledge, are not offered by similar books or programs. These features have proved to be very effective both in my experience with them and when applied to areas other than goal achievement.

One thing that struck me as I was developing this is the high rate of failure when it comes to goal achievement. The majority of people are unhappy with where they are in their lives. Polls show that only 31% are really happy and studies suggest that “people may overstate how happy they really are.” Most Americans are unhappy with their job. The percentage of people who actually achieve their New Year resolutions is an abysmal 8%. Take weight loss which is the top New Year’s resolution. People by books, work out machines and videos, find new diets and some even take medications. But most don’t get the results they hope and then decide the diet or whatever they tried doesn’t work for them. Then they either move on to another solution or just give up. After concluding that nothing works, some resort to surgical solutions, liposuction, and even making one’s stomach smaller. I would say that’s a rather desperate, last resort solution.

Another example is living a life that truly glorifies God. My faith in God is very important to me. The primary reason I developed this was to help me and others to achieve spiritual goals that align with God’s will for our lives. But the program can be applied to whatever one’s goals are. I believe a believer has the help of the Holy Spirit in a way that others don’t but even for a Christian there are some steps that we need to do. God does His part but He doesn’t do everything. He doesn’t decide for you. He gave you free will. Joshua told the people of Israel “choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15 ESV). Even faith is a decision as well.

Many times I heard sermon or I read a book, I got excited about the message and I made some decisions and set some goals. But it’s so often that my initial excitement wears off and I give up. All it remains just a memory of some good intentions. They were a seed which, just like in parable of the sower from Mark 4:3-20, fell on rocky ground or among thorns and never bore fruit.

Apostle Paul experienced himself this failure of reaching his goals. He describes it with powerful words:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom. 7:15-24 ESV)

Faced with these facts, the puzzling question is: why is failure to achieve one’s goals so prevalent, both when we look in the church and when we look outside? How come people who what to loose weight so much that they are willing to go under the surgical knife are not willing enough to control their eating and exercising? That would seem totally irrational. The more I know people the more I’m convinced that irrationality is a universal characteristic of human nature. Everyone does irrational things at one point or another. We all find ourselves doing things that we know we will regret but we still go ahead and do them. I think this irrationality is ultimately rooted in the nature of free will. But despite my realization of the irrational side of the human nature I’m still find myself taken by surprise by it. That’s because despite my awareness of it I still yearn for sense and logic.

The question I’m putting forward is why do you think people keep failing at achieving what they really want? Is the problem of failure fundamentally different from a believer to a non-believer? Is it a problem with the systems peoples are following (for example in the example I gave above about weight loss) or is it a problem with the people themselves? If it’s with the people then what exactly is wrong with them? Simply calling them irrational doesn’t seem a very rational answer. Then how do you explain irrationality? Can one make sense of it? Please go ahead and bring your answers. Next time we’ll look at these answers.