The short answer to the question, “Can people really change?,” is: most people can change, and some people won’t; but some people can’t. But, that short of an answer raises questions like why and how. Why can some people not change? When people change, how does change occur in them?
The Nature of Change
Change is always possible at some point for everyone; but, as one will read farther down, genuine change can have many obstacles and more than one false guide/approach. Change is almost never immediate, never unwavering; and genuine transformation is never achieved through passive inevitability, nor through mere behavior or emotion management. Moreover, change cannot be demanded or commanded by one person upon another. When change happens, it takes place organically from within and works itself outward.
Usually individual change begins with someone becoming acutely aware of either some personal lack/need, painfully and persistently cognizant of having endured some tragedy or trauma, or else feeling an inner discontentment with one’s identity (personal & tribal).
Then one moves from merely feeling said need(s) to making a decision to seek a healing community or therapeutic and personal development guide (spiritual or otherwise), and/or to change aspects of one’s personal and/or tribal identity.
Next, they find themselves aware of the necessity to narrow the gap between their new identity/tribe and their thoughts and desires and subsequent actions.
Finally, through intentional practice or participation in one’s identity-informed desires, genuine change in feeling, thought and actions occurs.
Where Christians Go Wrong
The first error, which Christians make, is to push historic, Christian morality on non-believers via public castigation of other faiths and lifestyles or political / culture war. Yes, the Christian worldview and message must be extended as an invitation or defended to those who question or attack it. Yes, disciples are to be made of those who wish to hear more about Jesus and his ways. No, Christians should not be ashamed to speak of Jesus. But, Christian sociopolitical lobbying and agenda making for the sake of Christian national reconstruction is terrible theology. The United States is not a theocracy, and theonomy has no place in it. The Kingdom of God cannot be legislated in and out of existence. I’m Anabaptist in faith tradition, and we have always believed in freedom of religion, instead of state-mandated religion, or by extension, theonomy. If belief is not voluntary (i.e. coerced), then it is not genuine.
Secondly, and in an earlier blog post about sexual attraction and lust, Lamb’s Harbinger asserted that it is wrong to guilt and shame anyone into changing their sexual orientation, just as much as it is wrong to guilt and shame someone for their inability to overcome any addiction or compulsion. It is not theologically right, and it does not work. Guilting and shaming and behavior modification that relies on isolation from possible temptation and safer “standards” only cause more harm. The desires and the actions are restrained by sheer will and in self-loathing. Conformity happens outwardly, but the desires lay deeply suppressed inside and grow increasingly worse due to feelings of shame and of alienation.
(Colossians 2:23 ESV) These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
For those who have been under the influence of legalistic (law dependent) sanctification, change is incredibly difficult; because these people were never rooted and grounded in love, so that they might grow in grace and in the intimate knowledge of the Rescuer. Legalists or ascetics are, in this way, False Teachers!
If Christians expect immediate or unwavering change from anyone, including those with differing sexual attractions than the biblical norm, then their expectations go beyond what the Bible presents as normal, acceptable spiritual formation and maturity. No one changes overnight (or even in the course of several therapy sessions), because they are lectured and commanded to change. No one changes on the level of heart desires permanently, without wavering.
The best Christian teachings on Christian maturity do not employ enforcement of behavior or emotion management or memorization or isolation from possible triggers/temptation. They are “heart focused”–identity and resulting desires focused. So, in keeping with the example of Christians and sexuality, those who have alternative sexual attractions would not self-identity with those desires, because they are first and foremost to self-identify as a new creature “in Christ,” and this identity extends to their whole being (1 Cor. 6:9-11, 19-20; 2 Cor. 5:17-19) as opposed to just one very temporal and secondary aspect of humanity–sexuality.
A Limitation of Personal Change that the Bible Admits
However, the Bible does admit a limitation in the ability of some Christians to change. Sadly, those who are led astray by false teachers and resultantly entrapped by and emboldened again in their old corrupting desires cannot change.
The Description & Effect of False Teachers
2 Peter 2:1-19 serve as the Apostle Peter’s description of a different kind of false teacher from the legalistic ascetic crowd. He describes the licentious (indulgent), greedy, exploitative and arrogant False Teachers. Peter describes their actions and motives. Though false teachers technically have a provision of redemption purchased for them by the Atonement of Jesus, they deny Jesus; and so, they remain condemned (vv. 1-2).
The Description of False Teachers
They are sensual (oriented to gratify their own sensory pleasures above all else, with no regard to definitions of human dignity in morality). They are greedy and exploitative (doing ministry for money, as a “profession” and to prey on the unstable). False teachers are brash and arrogant, not regarding the authority of spirit beings superior to them (commanding and rebuking angels: yes, charismatics do that). Peter also provides three illustrations of God’s posture toward such corrupting teachers: angels, Noah, and Lot — all pointing to times when God rescued a few righteous and judged the populace. He judged the angels, the pre-flood world, and Sodom and Gomorrah “en masse”. In other words, Peter is communicating that false teachers are damned.
The Effect of False Teachers
2 Peter 2:20–22 (ESV): 20 For if, after they [followers of false teachers] have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. 21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. 22 What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” (Brackets mine, for contextual clarity)
Not only do legalists cause tremendous harm and produce great difficulty in one’s ability to change, but so do licentious false teachers.
Christians who follow such false teachers are led astray into corrupting desires. They are saved. That is, they did escape the defilements of the world through the intimate knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; but through the faulty, indulgent, morally dismissive teachings and spiritually arrogant attitudes of false teachers, these poor Christians become entangled again and overcome (addicted and filled with compulsions)… and to a greater degree than they ever experienced before knowing Jesus. In that way, “the last state has become worse for them than the first,” because whereas they were rescued by Jesus into the way of righteousness, now they have been inoculated against the influence Jesus can have upon them. The lies of the false teachers have led them into permissiveness, and they are again entangled in their former (before Jesus) corrupt desires. They are overcome and stuck, and see nowhere to turn, if they see any reason to turn at all… because, “Jesus is ok with that; my false teacher said so.”
The Apostle Peter indicates these poor Christians literally cannot get themselves back to living out the way of righteousness, which is equated to the sacred commandment: to love God with all your heart, soul, body and mind… and to love your neighbor as yourself. In that way, there is a limitation—admitted by the Bible—about who can change versus who cannot be changed.
Is it possible for people to change? The answer gets complex. Everyone has the possibility of changing at some point. But, no one can change through the guilting and shaming and isolation of legalistic or ascetic methods. Likewise, Christian counselors and “leaders,” who teach “Jesus is ok with that” are only setting people up for insurmountable bondage to their corrupting, destructive desires. And, among disbelievers, God is made fun of for it.
Genuine Christian change comes through focusing on the identity exchange one obtains “in Christ.” Change flows from being with others who share that identity in an unfailingly loving and gracious way; and in that context, authentic change only happens when one intentionally practices the actions that are in accordance with the desires of the new self in oneness with the Body of Christ. There is no time frame for change, but there is an undying hope that if wavering happens, one will unquestioningly know that they are still loved and welcomingly beckoned by their Christ tribe to remember their true identity… and once again align their desires to match that identity. It is daily and momentary work. It is steady work. It is participatory work. But, given these criteria, one can truly change, as a result of something Divine authentically working within them.
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