One of the things that has always struck me about Christ’s encounters with people in Scripture is the sheer abruptness with which they are willing to upend their entire lives.
Matthew is sitting in a tax collector’s booth. James and John are mending nets. Jesus walks by, asks them to come with Him, and off they go. My pastor attempted a few Sundays ago to give some context to the immediate enthusiasm of their response, explaining what it must have meant culturally and socially to these men for a Jewish teacher—a rabbi—to approach them with such an invitation, but even so: that’s an abrupt, life-changing yes!
Zacchaeus is in a tree, watching Jesus pass by, and then suddenly a dinner invitation prompts him to give his wealth to the poor and amend matters with everyone he’s ever wronged.
Thomas, who has loudly proclaimed his skepticism about the resurrection, sees the scars and makes a stunning shift: “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus inspires stunning change. Please pay careful attention to that sentence. Jesus inspires stunning change.
That doesn’t mean we humans always will, or should. And recognizing that is one of the greatest comforts and truths I’ve uncovered in the Christian life. I can’t change people. You can’t change people. We can’t change people.
Only Jesus can.
We all recognize it as common sense, and yet very few of us live this out in practice. We try to change people all the time. We
– push people to adopt the habits we know will be better for them, and grow frustrated when they fail
– try to debate and reason people into agreeing with us about something, then get irritated when they refuse to listen to reason
– threaten, cajole, and bribe people to behave in the ways that we want, then become frustrated when they don’t develop the motivation to behave that way on their own
– make rules to force people to do the things we want them to do and expect that eventually they will want those things naturally
On and on it goes. And it’s a source of much conflict in many relationships. We try to change people, they don’t change, and we either explode (at them, for their perceived failures) or implode (and blame ourselves, because we didn’t do enough to change it). We hope that with the right combination of incentive, punishment, encouragement, and reasonable argument, people will naturally do the things we want or hope or expect them to do. They don’t, and we lose it.
We fight. We argue. We resent. We wear ourselves out trying to alter the reality we don’t want to accept. But most of the time we refuse to believe the truth: we can’t change people.
Read advice columns for long enough and you’ll see the struggle written out, plain as day. How do I get my husband to stop leaving his socks on the floor? How do I make my mother be more loving? How do I get my best friend to see that she’s ruining her life? How do I talk my adult daughter out of dating a jerk?
Short answer: you can’t.
The reason all those transformations in Scripture are so striking is that God can affect instantaneous, shocking change in people. When people are willing to submit to Him, when they are willing to be changed (and that’s another important caveat), the results can be dramatic. But that transformation depends on God’s work always, and we can’t cause it on our own.
Many of us find that frustrating. We want to believe that if only we do x or say y we can bring about the result that we want. But in truth, our relative powerlessness should be comforting. If we acknowledge that we can’t change people, then all the pressure’s off. If no amount of doing or not-doing on our end can spark a transformation, we’re free to love people and serve them and leave the rest to God.
I have a friend I genuinely like. I have also struggled with her because she has no tact. None. Zero. Zilch. She has no sense of diplomacy or delicacy. Her statements are so blunt as to be shocking and, though they’re never uttered in malice, they’re sometimes hurtful. She is the type of person who will look at a cashier laboriously packing items into a bag and say, “Wow, that’s taking you forever.” She has looked at me before and said, “You’re too nice to people. You’re soft.”
I used to try to encourage her to soften her language a bit with others, frustrated by her defense that she “calls it like she sees it.” For a time, I tried to show her by example only to roll my eyes when she never understood it. But finally, I stopped. Because I can’t change her. God can, if she wants to be changed, but in the meantime my job is to love her as she is. Loud, abrasive ways and all. I’m called to love her even as I shake my head at her at the cash register and explain to the beleaguered cashier, “Please don’t feel rushed. We’ve got nowhere to be.”
The person that you struggle with—and you do, and you know exactly who it is—may or may not have a willingness to change. But God will determine that, and God is the only one who can do the transformative work of change in people—not just abruptly, but also subtly and over time. Laying down your frustration, your resentment, and your irritation over what people do or don’t—what you can or can’t make them do or not do—is an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and of your own failings, too, and the transformative power of grace to redeem them.