As a recovering addict and alcoholic of 22 years, I am often perplexed at how hard it is to change. The path to change (in my case, sobriety) took a strange course. Three separate visits to outpatient rehab didn’t do it. Getting arrested and draining my college fund for legal fees didn’t do it (I wasn’t going to college anyway). Even the shame of waking up in my own filth didn’t do it! In the end, it took something as simple as planning a beach trip with my Mom and panicking at the thought of a long day sober. Just one day, a day spent with someone I treasure, was too much if it meant I had to brave the horror of sobriety. I was trapped. I knew something had to change and, by the grace of God and the help of AA, for me, it did.
For many of us, the process of change feels like a mystery. What is the chemistry, that strange brew of necessity and desire, that catalyzes change? To achieve it, what strength is needed both from within and without? In one instance, change happens with hardly a shrug, like my brother who gave up smoking just because he felt like it. Then, in another instance, the hope of change withers with all the futility of mighty Sisyphus once more rolling his boulder. We wonder at the complexity of it.
Even Disney strains under the weight of this mystery. In Frozen, the juggernaut hit of 2013, Kristoff’s adoptive parents sing a song to woo his would-be bride, Anna. In it, they sell the idea that, sure, he’s a fixer-upper, but with some love he can change. Then, almost anticipating the outcry from battered wives and recovering co-dependents, the countless number who have tried “fixing-up” a person who can’t or won’t change, the troll-parents add this caveat:
We're not sayin' you can change him
'Cause people don't really change
We're only saying that love's a force
That's powerful and strange
How’s that for a mixed message! “People don’t really change.” But...they are saying he can change—with the force of love. And they’re not alone in that message. Fairy tales and children’s stories are replete with it. Beauty and the Beast, and The Princess and the Frog come to mind. The message is: “Love can change a brute into a darling.” And it can! Sometimes. Experience tells us that people change. The question remains, however, why does it all seem so unpredictable? Why will one kiss turn a frog into a prince while the lips of others grow chapped from trying?
The gospel truth is that love can motivate change. Believe it. In fact, it’s one of the core beliefs of the Christian faith—that the love of God in Christ is so compelling that it calls sinners to change, to be transformed in and by Christ (cf. 2 Co.5:14-15). In words far more inspired than mine, the Apostle Paul wrote, in Titus 3:3-5 (NASB):
For we too were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we did in righteousness, but in accordance with His mercy.
Think of the notorious rogue, Augustine. A 5th Century bishop and theologian, he became a cherished author and inspiration for Christians all over. But he started his life as a promiscuous man of insatiable hunger, what some today might call a sex addict. When he sought help, he remembered his mother who was a Christian. She had taught him about Jesus’s love. He felt compelled in spirit to go and read the Scriptures and it was there that he found the lamp for his feet and the light for his path. He changed radically and made Jesus his Lord. As the gospel song says, love “lifted” Augustine.
Many more people have been lifted by the love of God in Christ. Examples abound. The apostle Paul comes to mind, another notorious sinner. Where my craving was for substances, and Augustine’s was for sex, Paul’s craving was for violence, motivated by his own ignorance and self-righteousness. But then, on the Damascus road, Paul met with Jesus and saw for himself the love and mercy of God. Later, he wrote:
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost sinner Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
Christ’s love compelled him. But not just him. Paul, Augustine, myself—we’re not unique. Countless others have been changed because of the patient love of God. What needs to be said is that it takes more than a warm-feelings kind of love to change a person. A prisoner is not freed because of kind words. Chains are not broken because of a gentle hug. When a power greater than ourselves has us in shackles, it takes an even greater power to set us free.
The problem is, we don’t understand just how dire our situation is. The curse of sin is not like the common cold or a bruised shin. It won’t respond to minor treatments. It’s stage four pancreatic cancer. It’s a sure death sentence without serious help. Dale Ralph Davis, in his commentary on Judges, writes:
Sin is not simply an action you do or fail to do, that you can choose to do or not to do. Sin is a power that holds you in its grip. That is precisely what the apostle meant when he averred that all—both Jew and Gentile, both religious man and pagan man—are ‘under sin’ (Rom.3:9), by which he means ‘under the power of sin’ (RSV). And until the church getas a proper view of sin, we will never see salvation as much more than a moving religious charade rather than as an act of holy, vicious violence by which Christ wrenches his people out of the clammy clutches of the prince of darkness (cf.1 John 3:8).
If the power of sin is great, then the power that breaks it has to be greater still. Where can a person find this power? Nowhere but in the resurrecting, grave-breaking power of God. It’s because of Him that change is possible.
Even if you don’t believe in Him, God’s common grace is available to all for physical, mental, and emotional healing. Lest He come under the charge of pettiness, God’s power is granted for the aid of all who earnestly seek help. To a degree. Complete change outside of Him remains impossible. Spiritual healing, especially—the true freedom of the soul and the victory over sin and death—is possible only in Jesus. That is the healing that is most needed. It’s the inner person that is mortally wounded and most in need of treatment.
So, in answer to the question, “Why does change come so hard?” my deepest hope is that we’d know this: First, that we are fighting a battle against sin, a force greater than we often give credit. Of course it’s hard to win. It’s the giant, Goliath. It’s the casino with all the odds and algorithms weighted against you. Saying “it’s hard to win” is an understatement.
Second, and lastly, change comes at the cost of Jesus’ blood. A hard task requires a high cost, and Jesus paid the ultimate. Yes, help can be found even by the faithless. God gives help to all who ask, without favoritism and regardless of their religious affiliation because He loves us. His help can be found in halfway houses, in self-help literature, and yes, even in a princess’ kiss. But whether acknowledged or not, help comes from God first and foremost, as the source of all good things (cf. Js.1:17).
If anyone would desire change, let them look to God. Let them, like Augustus, seek God in the Scriptures. Let them, like Paul, fall on their knees in prayer and let them rise up to be baptized, calling on His name. This is the hope and the promise: that the healing of our souls and the power to change is found in in Christ alone.