God’s grace is sufficient. God can change anyone. The Spirit can empower a person to change. God’s Word is sufficient. So why do some people not change?
You may want to read:
- Seven Reasons a Person Will Not Change
- Should You Waste Your Time with Unchanging People?
- The Doctrine of Repentance
The “change question” is the number one query when someone makes an appointment with me. The questioner wants to know the “ins-and-outs” of personal change, whether they are talking about themselves or someone else.
Of course, I can’t answer their question with specificity because I don’t have all the details about what is happening. And I do not understand why they are not changing, or if they ever will change. Everyone thinks about these things, especially concerning those they love.
Why does he not change? When will he change? I will interact with both of these questions, plus the always relevant topic of our attitudes and responses that we have toward those who is not changing.
As you sit across from someone in a discipleship context or as you think about someone in your family, you wonder if repentance will take place. These are valid and biblical thoughts.
And if you filter the “change question” through the grid of Scripture, what will come out the other end are two possible reasons why a person does not change:
- If a person is not a Christian, he cannot change.
- If a person has un-repented sin in his life, he cannot change.
He Is Not a Christian
Not being a Christian is an obvious reason why someone is not changing. Though he can make a few behavioral changes, those changes will not be permanent because the Spirit of God has not changed him or is not controlling the individual, as instructed by the Word of God.
All that he thinks and does comes from his heart, and if the power of God has not changed his heart, any change that he attempts will not be sustainable (Luke 6:43-45). On his best days, he will be cyclic in his behavior.
Some unchanging people live in Christian environments. They “go to church” and have church friends. They participate in church activities. Typically, he has learned the language of Christianity while being in an unregenerate condition.
He is Christianized, but not born from above (John 3:7). This situation happens if he has been associated with Christianity or familiarized with it during his childhood or maybe it has been the predominant view of his culture.
A person like this can put on church clothes and do churchy things, but the overwhelming power of God has not changed him. It takes a lot of discernment to be able to see through all the Christianize manifestations (while understanding that your assessment is subjective analysis at best).
Don’t be surprised if you pop the question, “Are you a Christian?” and he gives you an affirmative nod. Be careful about accepting his response when your conscience is saying something else. We want to believe the best because we pull for people. And we take off our discernment caps and do not press the matter, which could be a mistake.
If you do this, you won’t be serving your friend. I don’t want anyone to assume that I am a Christian because I say I am a Christian. If someone has a concern about my faith because of the behaviors they see in me, I want them to love me enough to say something–even if they are wrong.
Which is worse:
- Suggesting that they are not a Christian and they get offended at you.
- Saying nothing, and they genuinely aren’t Christians, and they go to hell.
I’m not asking you to call them on the carpet with a judgmental or uncharitable attitude. I’m asking you to love the person so much that you want to share your heart about what you are observing in their lives.
Always hold your subjective assessments loosely and humbly. But by all means, if you have concerns about a person’s salvation, you must proceed, though not in a suspicious or condemning way, but in a caring and wise approach. Who knows, maybe that is all it takes for your friend to be on his way toward change.
Fundamental Idea: Do not quickly dismiss the salvation card.
He Has Sin in His Life
Perhaps the person you love is a Christian–to the best you can discern it. But they are stuck and are not changing mentally, attitudinally, or behaviorally.
If they are a Christian and are not changing, there is a sin in their lives. Sin has captured them like what Paul talked about in Galatians 6:1-2.
It could be that they are enjoying their sin more than they enjoy making God’s name great through holy living. Whether their sin has them or they are holding on to their sin, they will not grow into Christlike maturity.
Sin won’t let Christlike maturity happen. You cannot grieve or quench the Spirit of God and expect Him to empower you to grow into Christ-likeness (Ephesians 4:30; 1 Thessalonians 5:19).
Caveat – It is essential that you distinguish between episodic sinning and pattern sinning when you’re trying to serve your friend. Everyone sins. That’s understood. There are hundreds of imperatives in the New Testament that would imply we have ongoing problems with sin.
The difference between an episode and a pattern is how we respond to sinning. The episodic sinner will be fighting the good fight against sin, repenting of it, and seeking help for the recurring episodes.
The pattern sinner is not repentant at the level of his heart and continues in it consistently. He may pretend to repent, but he is not fighting a fight against sinfulness, and he is not soliciting the help of others to help him in that fight.
In either case of (1) no salvation or (2) stuck in sin, you have to be courageous, full of grace, and willing to help your friend. You must also hold your assessments humbly while ministering grace to your unchanging friend.
But don’t think that grace, courage, strength, humility, discernment, and perseverance are at odds with each other. You must balance all of these Christlike character traits as you fight the fight for your friend.
Case Study of the Unchanging Person
As you are fighting this fight for your friend, it is essential that you have the right perspective on the change process. Paul said,
Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. – Galatians 6:1-3
You want to make sure you’re guarding your mind as you enter into someone else’s sin. If you’re not thinking rightly, you will become entangled, which usually means you can become self-righteous–which may manifest as anger and impatience.
In Luke 15:11-17 we are offered a template that you can apply to the unchanging person. This story is about the prodigal son. As you think about this son, think about your friend. Note the downward progression that eventually led to his repentance:
- Vs. 11 & 12 – The prodigal son asks his dad for his inheritance so he can run away from home and live a self-centered life.
- Vs. 13 – He leaves home and begins a hedonistic spending spree.
- Vs. 14 – He continues to rebel, and because of his rebellion there is only one outcome. He won’t listen, and his demise continues its downward spiral. (You see a similar downward spiral in Romans 1:18-32)
- Vs. 15 – He is living for self. Though things are falling apart, he persists. He finds like-minded sinful friends. It continues to get worse, which is the way of sin.
- Vs. 16 – God is graciously bringing him to an end as he contemplates snacking with the pigs. Be sure your sin will eventually find you out (Numbers 32:23). You begin to wonder how long he will stick to his stubborn ways.
- Vs. 17 – The light finally comes on. He comes to his senses. He is now in his right mind: he repents of his sin and begins to turn toward God and others.
What you need to know is that there is nothing you can do as far as making this son repent. You cannot make anyone repent. Repentance is a gift from God, that He grants in His timing–if He allows it at all (2 Timothy 2:23-26).
When you’re helping someone, remember that you do not know “which verse they are in” as it pertains to the prodigal’s story. Is the person in verse 13 where the long downward spiral has just begun? Or is he in verse 16 and is just about to repent to God and others? This issue is vital information to remind yourself when a person is not changing.
And God will not give you the answer. If He did, you would rest in the awareness of knowing when and where he would repent. Meaning, your faith would be in the identified outcome, and you could rest in this information rather than God.
The Lord will not give you the answer because He wants you to trust Him as you lovingly wait, while actively pray and engage your friend in the change process.
You must guard your heart. The unchanging person’s journey may have just begun–even though you have been waiting a long time already. Your job is to trust God all the way to the end while praying, loving, and helping him to change.
Keys to remember:
- Having the right perspective is essential to serve your friend because in most cases he will not be ready to change when you first engage him about change.
- Understand that repentance is a gift from God and you can’t force it upon anyone. God grants repentance to people when He wants to, where He wants to, and how He wants to.
- Before you ever address the heart of the person you’re serving, make sure you’ve discerned the state of your heart–and that you continue to do so.
Perspective on the Unchanging Person
I have had many situations where I needed to change, but was not willing to change. I’m grateful for people, who were willing to persevere with me. They patiently and lovingly walked me through the process of repentance.
At times, the temptation is to give up on people, especially if you become frustrated with them or if you’re afraid to confront them. I appeal to you not to give up on your friend.
Your desire to help is a gospel desire: Christ died for us while we were sinners, not after we stopped sinning (Romans 5:8). To help a sinner, while the sinner is sinning is God-like.
As you know, it is inherent in sheep to wander. We all wander. Regeneration and sanctification are processes. I spent the first 25-years of my life getting to the cross, and the rest of my life has been growing in cross-centered sanctification.
You must have faith in the process of regeneration and sanctification. If you do not have hope for the process that your friend is in, he will know it. He will be aware of your displeasure, and your attitude will be an unnecessary hurdle that he will have to scale.
One of the ways you can regulate your attitude toward him is by expressing regular heartfelt gratitude to God for the privilege you have to be a minister of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).
Talk to God. Talk to Him often, which is not only right, but it will help you as you talk to your friend. Tell God what you want to say to your friend first. Run it by the Lord before you share it with the struggler. This process will help you to govern your heart rightly.
Lastly, let your friend know you care for him. He must feel and understand your care. Though he may reject it and even mock you for it, you must persevere. It is not unusual for someone to get mad when you care enough to speak truth into their lives.
Ask God how to persevere with your unchanging friend. The Father will tell you. And when He does, you get out your water jug and seed container and begin the arduous work of watering and planting, while trusting God for the growth.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. – 1 Corinthians 3:6
Also published on Medium.