Will vs. Shall: Two Roads in the Woods

While a student at the University of Kentucky I had junior seminar in Renaissance Lit. English 422 I think it was, but don’t hold me to it. We read John Donne (OK in a renaissance sort of way) and Christopher Marlowe (way ahead of his time). Of course we examined Shakespeare’s sonnets—I never really and still haven’t “gotten” the sonnet. The sonnet seems more like a mathematical marvel than an artform. I remember liking Edmund Spenser a lot. Muiopotmos: or The Fate of the Butterflie was great. So was The Shepherd’s Calendar—loved Colin Clout. (I was not ready either emotionally or intellectually or mentally, for The Fairie Queene at the time. I just remember finding it easy to believe that Spenser never finished it.)

Our professor was Dr. John Shawcross and he remains one of my all-time favorites. Dr. Shawcross was one of those college professor types that they portray in the movies—equal parts funny, informed, and mad scientist. In fact, I discovered some time later that he was somewhat famous in Renaissance Literature circles. In fact, because of my association with Dr. Shawcross I was little bit of a celebrity in the mind of my Renaissance professor in graduate school.

As a class we were looking at something from one of those people mentioned above when Dr. Shawcross told us about the difference between “will” and “shall.” “Will,” I remember him saying, suggests determination. Most of the time “will” means trying really really hard to make something happen eg, “I WILL make this happen if it kills both of us!” “Shall,” on the other hand, has much more of a prophetic bent. In some ways “shall” removes you and I from the equation in favor of some greater force; some natural or supernatural ripple that will bring about some end. If not the opposite of “will,” “shall” suggests an ease and sense of providence that “will” simply lacks. Or maybe the most profound difference between “will” and “shall” is understood as the juxtaposition between “knowing” and “believing.”

As a part of my devotional life I’ve been reading and re-reading John 1 every day. It’s always interesting what new insights bubble up during these kinds of exercises—which is why one might undertake such a practice I suppose. So when my eyes kept rolling over John 1:12-13 I recalled that moment in English 422 when Dr. John Shawcross explained the nuances of “will” and “shall:”

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

We become children of God not by the will of the flesh or the will of man. In other words, clinched fist, bare-knuckled “will” holds neither sway nor currency in our transformation and renewal. When it comes to our relationship in this context it’s all about “shall”, not the clinched-fist determination that is so often esteemed by others. So maybe it’s not a matter of “willing” some sort of outcome, but “allowing” God to work.

So it comes to this … what if we find ourselves in moments when we’re trying too hard; moments when we tense our jaw and grab as tight as we can and squeeze with everything we’re worth, but instead of freezing up in tension we should be letting go. Seems a difficult concept for Agonistes to grasp, frankly, when so much of my formation is owed to the wrestling match.


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