I heard a man ask another man this question: “Do you think a person can change?” The response was, “I hope so.” The curious thing about this question and answer is the story behind the question and the story behind the answer. The man who asked if a person can change asked it because he was suffering from a dissatisfying marriage which was on the brink of divorce and he wanted to be able to change so that his marriage relationship could work. He was failing to become the kind of loving person he wanted to be. Thus, this question haunted him. The man who answered the question suffered from alcoholism that had gotten him into lots of troubles. He tried over and over to quit. He needed and wanted to be a different person, free of his habitual life-destroying patterns. Over the years, neither person had been able to change, so they wondered if it was possible and they hoped that it was. Can a person change? And why should we?
All of us have areas of our lives that we wish were different. Perhaps we have tried many times to change something. Maybe we have tried diet plans, only to end up right back where we started. Maybe we want to forgive someone, but we cannot bring ourselves to do it. Maybe we are bitter over the terrible things life has dealt to us and we cannot overcome our negative and depressive personality. Maybe we have tried to control our tongues, but we cannot change how we talk. Maybe we have an emotional or psychological struggle with something and cannot seem to overcome our thought patterns. There are certain basic traits about our personalities that make up who we are, which may not change, and perhaps they need not. But there are many things about us that need to change and that can be changed. If we do not know how, we get discouraged because we have not been able to succeed at making those changes and sticking to them. We may have given up trying. Maybe we too have wondered “can a person change; and if so, how?”
What do we mean by change and why do we want to change? I think most of us mean that we want to change from what we perceive to be negative effects in our lives to experiencing more positive ones. We see that the negative effects are being harmful to us; destructive to our well-being and threatening to a healthy, good, or peaceful lifestyle. What motivates our desire for change? For many, change is fear driven. It is because we fear the loss of our health, or our happiness, or our relationships, or our possessions, or our existence. Whatever the motivation, our idea of change is usually to exert our will-power and become more disciplined. But the Bible presents to us the possibility for a greater kind of change and a more noble reason for change. The greater kind of change is to become a follower of Jesus Christ and to be Jesus’ instrument of love, doing good for others who need what He has to offer. This kind of change transforms us from death to life (Ephesians 2:4-5; Luke 15:24) and from our sinful ways to the ways of a holy God. This involves changing from liars to truth-tellers, from negative attitudes to positive attitudes, from tearing-down-others-talk to building-up-others-talk, from resenting to forgiving, from indifference to love, from keeping to sacrificial giving, from impatience to patience, from living for our own agenda to living to help accomplish God’s mission, from self-centeredness to other-centeredness, and so forth. Why should we change? One reason is because we are called to be restored to the image of our Maker. (Romans 8:29-30; 1 Peter 1:14-16) Another reason is that Jesus calls us to daily minister His loving acts to others. (Luke 6:27-38) Also, we should change because God has shown us His plan to create a future righteous world, and we want to become fit citizens for such a world. (2 Peter 3:11-13) Furthermore, “Why would we want to continue, or go back, to a way of life that was not good? (Romans 6:20-21) That would be insane. Thankfully, God has put the desire for change into us by the Spirit of His love. (Romans 5:5) However, in a sinful and corrupt world, such change does not occur without difficulty, struggle, and sufferings. (Romans 8:16-18; 1 Peter 4:1-2; Galatians 5:17)
You may wonder, “Why should I put forth effort to change now; why not just wait for heaven when I will be instantly and completely changed?” The answer is that you don’t wait for heaven because you are in heaven now. Heaven is the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is where Jesus reigns as King over His people. When you became a born-again follower of Jesus, you became a child of the King and a citizen in His kingdom. (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43; Colossians 1:13-14) You are now under the reign of the King and so are subject to living the lifestyle of His people by living under His loving rule. You are part of the people of God on earth. We are showcases for outsiders to see what living can be like in God’s kingdom of Heaven. (1 Peter 2:9-10) This is what God wants unbelieving people to see. We are lights in the darkness. (Ephesians 5:8-10; Matthew 5:14-16) We are lifelines for people who are drowning. We are witnesses to the grace of God so others can see the difference Jesus can make in the lives of people who love and follow Him. We are continually changing to reflect the life of heaven to the people around us. What a beautiful picture and reason to give ourselves to the changes our good Shepherd and King wants to bring into our daily lives. The Kingdom of Heaven is joy and peace and all the rest of the fruit of the Spirit which He is now growing in us. (Romans 14:17; Galatians 5:22-25) Yes, it is true, the marvelous, wonderful, and completed Kingdom of Heaven is yet to come, but it has already begun. (Matthew 6:10) Our changing lives are evidence of this. Walking in the Spirit as partakers of His Divine nature means we are walking under the rulership of our gentle, kind, and benevolent, but uncompromising King.
Our natural self cannot change. The person who loves God and believes what the Bible says knows that our natural, fleshly self, cannot change. (Romans 8:8; 1 Corinthians 2:14) It is corrupted and its only proper end is to put it to death. (Romans 8:13) We may think we can control our natural thoughts and behaviors because we falsely think we are strong enough to do it; or we may think we can change because we have tried to change something and it worked, at least for awhile. But even if we do manage to change something, our fleshly nature often returns to its former patterns, or it will rear its ugly head in some other way. If you think you can change, just try to change something and see how difficult it is. True change is possible, but it must come by the Spirit of God transforming us from the inside. It is not our natural, fleshly self that produces change, but our born-again spiritual self. When we rely on God’s Spirit and learn to walk in the Spirit, change can happen. (Galatians 5:16)
Does the Bible say we can change? The apostle Paul shows that he struggled with this when he said, “the things I want to do, I don’t do; and the things I don’t want to do, I do.” It seemed hopeless, but he found hope in God. (Romans 7:15-25) One of the things Paul discovered was that he needed to be changed before he could successfully work to change. Something needed to happen to him that would free him to make desired changes in his life. He needed to be free from a sinful nature and he needed to be free from faulty thinking. God could provide both of these needs so that change would be possible. God has given us power to change by making us partakers of His Divine nature. (2 Peter 1:3-4) Even so, the Bible tells us that our change is not automatic. Putting new thoughts and behaviors into our daily routines takes effort on our part, as well as on God’s part to work in us. (Philippians 2:12-13; Colossians 1:29)
Many components are needed to help change us. It is not one thing that enables us to change, but many things all working together. We need as many Spirit-led change agents as we can get. The more components we have working on our side, the greater is our formula for success. These must be Biblically based and the Holy Spirit must give power to them on our behalf. Right now, think of what it is you would like to change about your life. Following is a list of many of the components that we need for change to occur. On a scale of 0-10, to what degree would you say each one is present in your life? Examine yourself.
1. Being “born again” by God’s Holy Spirit is the absolute essential starting place. (John 3:3-6; 1 Peter 1:3) Spiritual birth is necessary because our natural self cannot be changed, but must die and be replaced by a newly created life. Many people emphasize the miracles that God can do in our lives. I saw a written list someone had printed that named all the miracles Jesus did in the New Testament. As I perused the list, I noticed that one miracle was omitted; the new birth. We cannot save ourselves; God saves us. If we are to experience changes in our lives, our continual positioning and attitude must be, “I can’t, He can”. (John 15:4-5)
2. Ask, seek, and knock; plead for the help of God’s Holy Spirit. (Luke 11:9-13) Having faith and anticipating the work of the Spirit provides us with hope. Do we persist in prayer and believe that God will help us? (Luke 18:1)
3. We must want to change. How strong is this desire in us to do whatever it takes? In my life I find that I have to fail many times at my attempts to change before I get serious enough to do what God says for change to begin to happen. The more intensely we hate how we are hurting God, ourselves, or others by our weaknesses, the stronger will be our desire to overcome. Such hatred, not of self, but of sin, brings greater determination and reliance on the Lord. (Luke 17:33; Romans 7:24-25)
4. We must decide that we want to change and make a decision on when we will start. The citizens of Jerusalem perished because they would not make a decision to do what Jesus wanted them to do. (Luke 13:34-35)
5. We must have a deep-felt love and passion for Jesus to be the Lord of our life. This means that I will submit to His will by choosing to obey His words concerning the various areas of my life. (Matthew 22:37; Luke 6:46-49) No continued arguing, no wavering, but coming to the point of “Jesus, if you say so, I will do it.” (Luke 5:4-5)
6. Discipline to follow through and do His will is something the Bible exhorts. “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness”. (1 Timothy 4:7-8) The apostle Paul tells us that he runs to win and it takes discipline. He disciplines his body so that after he preaches to others he will not be disqualified by failing to live what he preaches. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) We are to put to death the misdeeds of the body by the Spirit of God who dwells within us. (Romans 8:12-13) We need to overcome our fleshly desire to be at ease. (Galatians 5:17)
7. We must be able to exercise genuine repentance after every failure and trust God’s forgiveness each time. (Luke 13:1-5; 1 John 1:9-10) We need to get beyond guilt and fear as our chief motivators to change, and experience the love of God as our greatest motivation. We are compelled in our efforts to change by the degree we feel God’s love, and this depends on the degree to which we experience His forgiveness. (Luke 7:47)
8. We need to separate ourselves from things or people that will tempt us and cause us to fall. The Bible calls this “making no provision for the flesh”. (Romans 13:14) One example of separating ourselves from wrong things is to avoid TV, certain movies, or internet if you are too weak to stay away from impure images that produce lustful desires. We need to separate ourselves from places or people that pull us toward inappropriate thoughts or actions. (Proverbs 13:20) We don’t go there. As Joseph did, we run. (Genesis 39:11-12)
9. Insight into why we do what we do can help us recognize our weaknesses and recognize thought patterns that bring pressure on us to give in to them. The sooner we can recognize Satan’s temptations, the easier it is to catch what is happening and say “NO”, guaranteeing greater success in defeating the temptations. We very likely will need help from others to be able to honestly see who we are and to learn to understand ourselves. The Bible encourages us to come into the light and have exposed any hidden parts of us that are causing us to fail at overcoming problems, or pleasing God. (Lamentations 3:40; Psalm 139:23-24; John 3:20; Revelation 3:17)
10. A great way to experience change is to get involved in doing the ministries God has for us. When we are excited about the things Christ wants us to do, we leave little time for lesser pursuits. (Ephesians 4:11-13)
11. We can’t do it alone. We must tell others of our struggles and rely on others to help us. (Proverbs 27:17; Psalm 32:3; James 5:16) We need to surround ourselves with people who know how to encourage us and help us to stay in fellowship with Christ and stay straight. (Acts 2:42; Galatians 6:1-2) Contact somebody to help you.
12. Let the word of God transform your hearts and minds. (Hebrews 4:12-13; Romans 12:1-2) The word of God is a resource that can produce inner power to change. Recalling and meditating on Scripture is a valuable practice in helping us change. An exercise that I am endeavoring to implement into my life is to recall the fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23) I then meditate on the individual parts of the fruit at various times throughout the day, or before falling to sleep at night, and I try to pray each morning and night that God’s Spirit would build these traits into my life. I am finding that during the day a situation will arise and I am reminded of one of those qualities of God’s Spirit and am able to practice it in the situation. I may be in a hurry and standing in a long check-out line at the store and the Spirit reminds me of patience. I may be tempted to eat something I should not and the Spirit reminds me of self-control. I may be about to use harsh words with someone and the Spirit reminds me of gentleness. I also have times when I fail. This helps me to get more focused on my goal. I want to continue this practice in my life and see what God will do. How eager are we to receive instruction on how to walk to please God? Do we want the word of God to transform us? (1 Thessalonians 4:1) It is easy to get away from what we know or want to be doing. Often, we need to be reminded again, and get back on track.
13. Sometimes getting a different perspective or changing how we view our lives and situations can help us rise above defeat. For example, it is easy to define who I am by looking at one or two negative things in my life, or at a recent failure. And when that is all we can see, we feel discouraged and depressed. But if we can look at our overall life and see a lot of good that we are doing, or refocus on Christ’s love for us, we have a truer and more balanced picture of ourselves and our spirits are lifted. Strive to see the bigger picture in whatever you are involved in and you will not get so lost and down. The Psalms are great for helping us see things from God’s perspective, thus changing us from despair or doubt to hope and joy. (Psalm 31:9-10, 14-16, 24; 34:1-8)
14. Live by faith in what God the Holy Spirit can do. Learn to walk in the Spirit. God promised to put His Spirit in us so that we could walk in His ways. (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Acts 2:38-39; Luke 11:13) As we learn to yield to God’s Spirit we are able to see change and live the kind of life we know is good and right. If we walk in the Spirit the flesh cannot dominate us. (Galatians 5:16, 19) Instead of destructive thinking and behaviors, we will experience what God can produce in us, namely, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These qualities of life happen when we live by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-25) A person born of God cannot sin, but practices what is right. (1 John 3:9-10) This phrase, “born of God”, means that we have been given God’s Spirit to be in us and when we walk in the Spirit we cannot do wrong because God’s Spirit does not act contrary to His holiness. God’s nature is holy; there is no mixture of evil in Him. However, we still do commit wrongs because we frequently ignore the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), or we quench the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19) by resisting His voice or His known will. This happens because there is an ongoing battle between our fleshly nature and the Spirit. (Galatians 5:17) We must win by putting to death the desires of the flesh and yielding to the desires and power of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:16; Ephesians 4:20-24; Romans 8:5-6) We walk in the Spirit when we cooperate with God in practicing the above 13 items, and at the same time, trusting God’s Spirit to work in us to produce the desired results. We exercise faith that God’s Spirit is at work in us and we obey what we know is the Spirit’s direction for our lives. The Bible calls this “working out our salvation”. (Philippians 2:12-13) Learning how to walk in the Spirit is the key to seeing change take place. God promises in Philippians 1:6 that He will complete the transformation that He has started in us. He tells us that He will be faithful to discipline us as we need it. (Hebrews 12:7-13) Don’t become legalistic, perfectionistic, and self-driven. Relax, rest in Jesus. (Matthew 11:28-30) Trust Him. Hope in Him. You will be surprised at what He does in you.