What If We Stopped Trying to Change People?

The project deadline was ten weeks away.  But, fifteen weeks in advance, I began work on it.

A colleague, recognizing the disparity, questioned me about it.  “I know how fast you work,” she said.  “You’ll get that thing done in half the time you allotted.  Why start so early?”

“John,” I said.

“John?”

John is a colleague of mine in another department.  He is an affable man and kind, very thoughtful, and he does good work.  He is also always, always late on deliverables.  John will tell you he will have something finished in a month and then won’t give it to you for two.  John says he will call you tomorrow and then calls next week.  John promises something will be ready before you can blink and six months later you are still waiting, still sending emails.  John takes forever.

And here’s the thing: I can’t change John.  So when a project of mine involves John, I have two distinct choices.  I either a) start it early to make room for his lateness or b) don’t involve him if I can avoid it since getting things late is more pain than it’s worth.  So, when working with him is unavoidable, I start early so that I can get everything done on time.

I think that most of us suffer from wanting to change other people.  We want John to get things done on time.  We want to turn our non-believing friends into believers.  We want our children to just please do a little more of this particular thing and a little less of that one, thank you very much.  We want our spouses to start loading the dishwasher differently.  We want our neighbors to stop mowing the grass at 6:30 am.  We wish our sister would call and ask how we were when we were sick.

It’s not wrong to want those things, or those changes.  But I think we get into dangerous territory believing we can accomplish them.  From the large to the small, nothing we do is possible without God.  So why would we ever succumb to the idea that we can change other people: their habits, their hearts, their hopes, their attitudes, their behaviors?

That doesn’t stop us from trying, of course, always in a few distinct and particular ways.  We nag, in hopes that ceaseless repetition and unpleasant reminding will affect the change we desire.  We guilt and shame, hoping that a sudden revelation and penitence will spark reaction.  We flatter or cajole, thinking positive motivation might be enough.  Or we manipulate, desiring to achieve our own ends perhaps without someone ever realizing.

But all of these methods fail.  Nagging and guilt and shaming and manipulation destroy relationships.  Flattery and encouragement to a particular end shows itself to be false.  So soon we’re back where we started, frustrated that we can’t change someone and yet still, somehow, desperately wanting them to change.

Here’s the thing: most of us already know that only God can change someone. But far fewer of us like to recognize that He will do it in His own good time, and not ours.  So we pray for God to change a non-believing heart, sure – but then try to wrestle the affair back into our own hands when we think He’s taking too long.  We give our husbands and their dishwasher-loading up to God – but Week 4, when the dishwasher is still getting loaded the wrong way, we return to complaining because clearly God does not have his hand in this.

But what if we loved people where they were, and as they are, for as long as God took to transform them?

I’m not talking here, of course, about remaining in an abusive or a dangerous situation until God changes a heart.  But I am talking about learning to come to godly peace with the fact that people won’t change…until God changes them.

What would change, if:

  • You stopped wishing your friend who never calls would call, and recognized that she’s just not going to…until God changes her?
  • You acknowledged that your adult son’s girlfriend and his taste in clothes are probably not going to change no matter how much you wish they might…until and if God changes them?
  • You stopped hoping the pastor would learn how to deliver sermons differently, and recognized that he’s going to give them the same way he does now….until God changes it?
  • You recognized that your unbelieving friend is going to go on being selfish and cursing like a sailor and insulting people…until God changes her heart?
  • Your husband is going to keep on loading the dishwasher the same way, forever and ever, amen, until God changes it?

Responses may differ.  Maybe you’ll give up your attachment to how the dishwasher gets loaded.  Maybe you’ll decide that friendship will slowly fade…or maybe you’ll decide to just love your friend, knowing she’ll never call you.  Maybe you’ll find a different church…or find a way to enjoy the sermons.  But the choice is yours, and it frees you to love people.  To go on serving God.  To be and do what He wants, rather than getting caught up in what you would prefer.

We can’t change people.  Only God can.  And since only He knows when and if He intends to do that, the best we can do in the interim is to acknowledge the situation as it is, and adjust our responses accordingly.  By doing so, we can become godlier, too: focusing not on bending people to our wishes and whims (no matter how right or holy or just they may be), but ceding sovereignty to the Lord and doing our best to love and serve regardless.

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