Whenever you sin in response to what you are not getting from someone, even if that thing you want is a good thing, your heart is in a dangerous place. Before you can move forward in the relationship, you will need to change, especially before you engage the other person.
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Someone upsets you. The friend objectively and legitimately does something wrong. It is real. It’s an unbiblical action. They hurt you. Their behavior is an offense to you and the LORD.
To compound the problem, it’s not the first time they hurt you. An episode you may overlook, but this is a pattern. Your friend’s manner of interacting with you frustrates you continually, and you are at a loss as to how to fix them.
What do you do? You get mad. But you’re not just mad. You hope the person will change. You care for them. Your desires to not be hurt and help the person are mixed.
Motivating a person to change is not an easy process. Part of the problem is that you’re not able to change them. No matter how hard you pray, talk, or fuss, there is one constant: You cannot change people.
- A husband cannot change a wife.
- A woman cannot change her husband.
- A parent cannot change a child.
- A child cannot change a parent.
- A friend cannot change a friend.
Four clarifying passages
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. – 1 Corinthians 3:6 (ESV)
The most effective and loving thing you can do for another person is careful planting and watering of God’s Word in their life. You don’t want to go beyond that. You can’t go beyond that. If you try to make them grow (change), your efforts will blow-up in your face.
- What does it mean for you to be God’s water boy (or girl)?
- Are you at peace helping someone change while working within the parameters of watering and planting?
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. – 2 Timothy 2:24-25 (ESV)
Repentance is a gift from the LORD, not from a counselor, pastor, spouse, parent, or friend. If anyone other than God could bring change in a person’s life, it would circumvent the glory that belongs exclusively to Him.
- Is your soul at rest as you patiently wait on the LORD to change someone?
- Are your thoughts captivated by Christ as you think about the possibility of someone never changing?
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?
You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. – Matthew 7:3-5 (ESV)
Because you cannot change anyone, the most effective place to begin thinking about your relationship is with you. The key idea from Matthew is how the log is always in your eye, not in the other person’s eye.
If your starting point for change is not with you, the result will spin you and the other person into ongoing relational dysfunction. If you try to change them before you carefully address your heart, both of you will stew in anger.
- What does it mean to address the log in your eye before you examine the speck in another person’s eye?
- What hinders you from self-assessment before assessing someone else?
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. – James 4:1-2 (ESV)
James gave us three synonyms for why a person becomes sinfully angry with another person: passions, desires, and coveting. You find these three ideas in the angry person’s heart.
Knowing where to look for anger is a valuable insight when building relationally. If you are sinfully mad at another person, you want to address the source of your anger.
James says the source is in your heart, not with the other person. He further clarifies the origin as desires, passions, and coveting, meaning, you’re not getting what you want, and you’re mad about it.
Key idea: Whenever you sin in response to what you are not getting, even if that thing you want is good, you are wrong and need to repent before you engage the other person about what is wrong in your relationship.
This idea is a watershed principle that must be biblically engaged before you do anything else. (A watershed is an area or ridge that separates water by causing it to flow in one of two directions.) Think of being upset as being at the top of a hill and what you do next will send you in one of two directions.
Going the wrong direction
If you persist in addressing their problem first, you will not only tell them what to change, but you will become the main, active change-agent in their life. You will become their functional god. You can see this if you compare what you are trying to do to what only the LORD can do.
|I say you have a problem||The LORD says you have a problem|
|I say you need to change||The LORD says you need to change|
|I say what you need to change||The LORD says what you need to change|
|I will change you||The LORD will change you|
|I will force you to change||The LORD may make you change|
Some will argue how they have the right perspective about what is wrong with the other person, and all that person needs to do is change. They may be correct, at least partially. The main issue in view here is not what they can somewhat see but what they cannot see.
There are at least five things they cannot see:
- They have the wrong attitude toward the person—I am sinfully upset with you (James 4:1-3).
- They have not carefully addressed or changed their hearts first (Matthew 7:3-5).
- They cannot see the person’s heart to exactly know what areas need changing (Hebrews 4:12-13).
- They have not tried to help the person in a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1-2).
- Regardless of their perspective, they cannot change the other person (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
Going the right direction
Biff is upset with Marge. She has done a dumb thing, and Biff is correct in his observations about what she did. Marge should change to restore her fellowship with the LORD and Biff. That point is not arguable. However, there are some problems in Biff’s perspective about how he should cooperate with the LORD in Marge’s change process.
The most prominent thing is he is more aware of her failures than his own. He is so caught up in his rightness that he cannot see his wrongness. His rightness blinds him to his wrongness.
His wrongness is unwittingly dismantling whatever truth is in his arguments. He’s shooting himself in the foot. Before he can join the LORD’s restorative efforts in Marge’s life, he will have to adjust his heart. The implication from Paul’s teaching is that this is the law of Christ (Galatians 6:1-2).
Biff is angry–a self-righteous posture before the LORD and his wife. Biff is blind. He does not understand how to help his wife change. He thinks Marge can change according to his preferences and timetable, which is why he is forcing her to change. Paul said a person like Biff would be quarrelsome (2 Timothy 2:24-25).
Marge cannot change the way Biff thinks she should or when she should, and the more he tries to foist his preferences on her, the more he is going to compound and complicate their marriage. There is a better way for marital problem-solving. Here is a short snippet of what Biff needs to do to cooperate with the LORD in the restoration of his wife:
- Marge has a problem.
- Biff needs to help her.
- Biff cannot help her until he successfully addresses his heart.
- Biff needs to change first.
- Biff needs to identify what he needs to change:
- Biff is angry, which means there are passions, desires, and coveting in his heart.
- Biff is blind to his sin as he is pressing his wife to change.
- Biff is self-righteous—a greater than/better than attitude toward Marge.
- Biff is in opposition to God because Christ did not come for righteous people (James 4:6; Luke 5:32).
- Biff is worse off than he ever imagined.
- Biff needs the transformative power of Jesus working in his heart.
Bill needs a divine undoing
When Isaiah saw the LORD high and lifted up he became undone (Isaiah 6:1-6). Here are his words,
Woe is me! For I am [undone]; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts! – Isaiah 6:5 (ESV)
Let me paraphrase this passage by using Biff and Marge’s marriage as the template:
Woe is me! For I, Biff, am undone; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in a marriage with a person of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts! – Isaiah 6:5 (RTV)
Biff must come to “Isaiah’s place” in his relationship with Marge, to where he is broken completely regarding his sin. Then he will be able to become a means of grace to her.
The irony is that Biff is trying to force Marge to do what he cannot do himself: He is as challenged to change himself as Marge is to change herself. Bill is a pious, self-deceived, self-reliant man trying to impose change on his wife while he is not able to change himself.
First things first
Biff must address his heart by identifying why he is so upset. From there, he can begin the process of change on himself. As he does this, he will realize how hard it is to change. Starting with myself has historically been one of the most difficult lessons for me to learn.
- I want someone to change.
- I sin in the process.
- I begin addressing my sinful heart.
- I realize how hard it is for me to change.
- I begin to show pity for the person that I want to change.
- We both stand in need of God’s transforming Gospel.
Perchance the LORD grants Biff the gift of repentance, he will be in the best possible place to serve his wife. God appreciates the broken, humble heart.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:17 (ESV)
There is a chance Marge may never change but if Biff’s brokenness is genuine, whatever is wrong with her will not have so much control over him, at least her problems will not tempt him to sin (James 1:14-15). Biff will be free while in the bondage of a broken relationship. Like Paul or Joseph in their prisons, Biff will be able to rejoice (Acts 16:25).
Call to action
- Have you tried to change someone?
- God is the only person who can change anyone. Are you resting and hoping in the LORD’s work in those you’d like to see change?
- Do your good desires tempt you to press too hard for change in someone’s life?
- Have you fallen into the rightness trap, to the point it has blinded you to your wrongness?
- What would hinder you from changing first? What do you need to do?
Also published on Medium.