Do You Mean I Can’t or I Won’t?

There are some things I truly can’t do—I can’t win an Olympic gold medal, I can’t figure out calculus, I can’t bear another child of my own. And I’m fine with that. Oh, sometimes I daydream about what it would be like to run a four-minute mile or have more little Orties sitting round our dinner table, but I don’t have a meltdown about these daydreams never becoming realities.

There are, however, times in my life when I feel that I should be able to fulfill a certain task or responsibility. I’ve said yes to a request or made big plans for a new venture, and I feel inept and stupid and weak. Or sometimes I am just living my life, minding my own business, when I hit a wall of discouragement and fatigue. Then that feeling of I-just-can’t-do-this-anymore comes washing over me and the tears start flowing.

At different times in my life, the walls have been built with different bricks:

  • When we had our third baby in less than three years, the bricks were fatigue. “I can’t keep these three little ones fed and happy and still have time to sleep myself.” 
  • When we lived in Scotland with four little kids and our investments went south, the bricks were anxiety. “How long can I keep feeding the six of us on $25 a week?” 
  • When I faced a new ministry in a new city the bricks were loneliness.  “I can’t enter another room alone and unknown.”  

I remember one October morning, seated at my friend’s kitchen table, confessing to Anne all my insecurities about a new ministry initiative I had agreed to:

“I think I made a mistake, Anne. I just can’t do this,” I moaned.

“I think sometimes we say I can’t when what we really mean is I won’t,” she replied.

Whoa—that made me catch my breath. Was I doing that? What was driving my resistance? Why this heaviness? This fearful self-absorption? Was I truly unable to do this, or was I just overcome by the effort and the outcome?

The Bible says that no purpose of God will ever be thwarted (Job 42:2). He will accomplish all He purposes to do (Isaiah 46:10; 55:11). And somehow in the mysteries of His ways, He uses us! He invites us in, gracing us with the privilege and power to accomplish all His glorious purposes. It is an invitation. He knocks, He calls, He opens. And He supplies all we need to fulfill His purposes in and through us.

When we are tempted to sulk in the fears and fatigue surrounding us, we sometimes feel “I can’t do this” rising up. When you do, will you take a minute and ask yourself, “Is this really impossible for me? Or is it just really hard? Does it demand more than I think I can give? Is this an I can’t or an I won’t?” 

At this point we all have a choice. If it truly is an “I can’t!” then admit it, turn away from it, and focus your energies on others things. There is no sin in being incapable of doing something.

But if this is really an “I won’t!” then examine your heart. Dig down deep through the layers of feelings you are struggling with—the exhaustion or self-hatred or fear or loneliness. Pour those feelings out to your Father. Ask Him who weighs your spirit (Prov. 16:2) to show you why you are struggling here. Be honest—with yourself and with your King. 

Give it all to Him, tell him how weak you feel. That’s perfect, because the weaker we are the more His power shows through and then He gets the glory. Tell Him you feel like you can’t do this, but you are willing to see Him do it in you and through you.

And then you have the joy of seeing what only God can do. He gives strength to the weak, assurance to the worried, and friendship to the lonely.  And then your heart swells with the assurance that God can be trusted.

“He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thess. 5:24) What situation are you facing today? Is it an I can’t or an I won’t opportunity?

About the Author

Jani Ortlund

Jani Ortlund

Jani Ortlund is the Executive Vice President of Renewal Ministries. Serving Jesus through writing, speaking, and discipling are her chief passions in life. Jani and her husband Ray, Pastor of Immanuel Church, have four married children and fifteen grandchildren and … read more …

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