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The number of people who want to change is smaller than you may think. Sometimes we forget this as we make our appeals–especially to those we love the most. Though at some level of their hearts they may want to live a different kind of life, too often they choose what is familiar because change is hard.
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? – Luke 14:28
Biblical repentance is hard for all of us. It is like trying to lose weight or trying to quit smoking. What is that one annoying thing you want to change, but have not been able to kick yet? How many of us have tried, but found the discipline and will to rid ourselves of bad habits is harder than we first perceived?
A lack of change is a common counseling outcome. If you do not understand this problem, you may become frustrated with people who stay stuck in their problems (Galatians 6:1-2).
Even so, God’s grace is sufficient for anyone to mature in Christ (Philippians 4:13). There are no problems that are beyond the scope of His grace (1 Corinthians 10:13). To say or think your set of problems are different and you cannot change is to deny the power of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and mediation (Romans 1:16).
Imagine trying to persuade Christ with an excuse for not changing. What could we say?
My unwillingness to change is always because of me, not Him. He has given me all I need for life and godly living (2 Peter 1:3-4; Philippians 4:19). At some point, I have to realize any lack of change in me is a matter of personal choice. If I choose not to change, I need to examine my excuses. In this piece, I want to cover seven of the more common reasons that have kept me from transforming. Perhaps you can identify with some of them.
The gospel is the power of God for salvation and sanctification. Problem-centered, problem-focused people do not perceive this. Though the answer is right in front of them, there can be reluctance on their part to submit to God’s wonder-working power (Deuteronomy 30:14; Romans 10:8).
Through the years the Lord has sent me a few problem-centered people who did not want to change. Though they would not say they had decided not to change, the truth is they did not want to change. They were “the glass is half-empty” people.
If you asked them how they were doing, they would give you their list of problems. After a while, you would be tempted to grow weary of them. Grace and gratitude were not part of their day-to-day speech.
It did not matter what you said or what angle you took to turn the conversation toward Christ and His grace, their problems were always too big, and God’s solutions were too small.
People stuck in a rut for an extended period can find their identity in the rut. I was recently talking to a man who had a foster child. The foster child hoards his few belongings in his room while choosing not to play with all the other toys his foster parents have provided for him. This kid has a squalor identity, which is all he knows. He does not think it is odd to hold on to his few broken possessions tenaciously.
If he continues to live in this kind of fear-based thinking after he becomes an adult, he will entrench his identity into self-captivating thought patterns (2 Corinthians 10:3-6). A life of freedom, hope, peace, love, grace, and security may be good ideas for others, but not for him.
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. – 1 Thessalonians 5:14
One of the most common themes I have seen with unchanging people is their desire for an easy answer. Like the guy who joined the fitness center in January, but by April you could not find him with a radar.
When some people find out what is involved in the change process, they balk at the opportunity the gracious Lord holds out for them. We live in a drive-through, pill-centered culture where everything has to be instant.
If I can’t be instantly gratified and satisfied, then I’m not interested.
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. – Luke 14:27
Sanctification is a cross and a death, not an easy street. Being holy will cost your life, which does not sell well in suburban America. Sin is an interruption to the movers and shakers who are looking for a quick fix so they can keep on living the dream.
Sanctification by the sweat of your brow is passé. Legitimately stuck individuals may want to be free, but many of them do not want to pay the price. They go into sticker shock when you tell them about the cost of change.
You can have what you want, but you will have to die first. (See John 12:24.)
One of the ironies with this type of worldview is that they will do whatever it takes in an area of their lives where they want something to change. It is when it comes to their sanctification that there seems to be no persevering grace.
We know there is a form of perverse pleasure in sin (Hebrews 11:25). If there were no pleasures in sin, we would not like it. I eat ice cream because I enjoy it. I dislike mayonnaise because it does not taste good (Psalm 34:8).
Our ultimate loyalty is to ourselves. We are not motivated to choose things we perceive to be bad for us. If a person continues to select a sinful habit or lifestyle, it is because there is pleasure found in their choice, which is greater than a desire to change.
They may bemoan the fact of their sad circumstances, and they may very well be telling you the truth. What they are not telling you is their sin is not as bad as doing what it takes to change. The habituated angry person is like this.
He may be able to talk at length about how bad his anger is and the devastating effects of his verbal rants on others, but there is more to the story. He chooses his sinful approach because he has learned it works for him. It gives him what he wants (James 4:1-3).
The choice of sin seems better than the option to do the hard thing, which is to exercise self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). We do what we prefer. In this way the angry guy is no better than the crack addict–they choose their drug of choice to get what they want.
Some people who have been habituated in bondage for a long time find a twisted comfort in their prison of pain. My brother was like this. He went to prison when he was seventeen years old.
He was released three times. Each time after being released he would do something illegal so he could go back to prison. He became an institutionalized convict. The prison was his home. He learned the system and became comfortable with it.
People who live in stressful long-term situations may whine about their problems, but they can also be afraid of living a life that is free from what they have always known. The world was a big and scary place for my brother. He could not control it. He could control prison life.
He was not afraid of incarceration. He was like the trapeze artist who had to let go of one person to grab hold of the other person. There is always a moment of time where he would be holding on to no one. He chose never to let go of what he had.
A fear-motivated person stuck in dysfunction is not likely to reach out and grab God’s “hands” to be free (Matthew 14:31). He will choose to keep hanging on to what is familiar, never able to fully realize the freedom that is just beyond his fingertips (Galatians 5:1).
My friend’s wife committed adultery a few years back. She eventually left him for another man. Without question, it was the worst season of his life. He spent several years spiritually wandering through confusion and discouragement.
I distinctly remember during that season when God’s grace was becoming more real to him, and it appeared he might pull through the ordeal. As things began to change for the better, another kind of struggle began to manifest. It went like this:
If my friends see how much better I am doing, they may leave me alone. I do not want to be alone. The loneliness of being alone is eating away at my soul. I am going to be measured and cautious about how I communicate how I am doing. I do not want to lose the attention I am getting right now. Their empathetic focus is all I have. It feeds my desire to be loved.
Many people were aware of his marriage problems, and some of them sympathized with him. He already felt ostracized because he belonged to a legalistic community that distanced themselves from divorced people.
Losing his wife was unbearable, but the possibility of his friends not giving him any attention was terrifying. His heart was hurting and plotting. He did not want to trust God to be his only comforter.
He preferred to prolong the perception of pain with superficial caring friends. Lying was better than saying he was okay. He did not want to be left alone. He was like the uncoordinated kid on the sixth-grade basketball team pleading with the jock to, “Pick me! Pick me!”
Do not overlook this possibility with unchanging people. We all want attention and accolades, and we typically disdain isolation, even to the point of using pain to create friendships.
If the only thing that can garner attention are your troubles, then troubles may become a way of receiving community. People like this can be quite manipulative to manage and maintain their sphere of friends. They can also wear-out their welcome.
In the counseling world, we call them “professional counselees.” They are forever talking about their problems but never changing. If you pulled back the cover on the heart, you might find a person getting their approval drive stroked by talking about their issues.
This last group may be the most common of them all. There are many reasons for being dishonest. I just gave you six of them, all of which have a component of deception to them. Do not be surprised by a person’s ability to spin the truth.
After you work through the deceit that is attached to the reasons above, I want you to consider another reason a person will lie to you: They are vetting you. Counseling is a context where people tell many lies.
People lie to me all the time. It is kind of sadly-humorous at this point in my life. I used to be bothered by it, but I understand my lying profession more as I have grown older. People are scared, and they do not know if you can handle their truth. Thus, they incrementally reveal more and more about themselves. In time.
I remember counseling a young lady years ago who presented herself as a single person. After about two months of counseling, she said she had something she wanted to tell me.
I thought she was going to say she had an abortion. That is what popped into my head. I asked her what she wanted to tell me, and she said to me that she was married. In our first meeting, she said she was single. The whole time I believed she was, and I counseled her accordingly.
I would have never guessed in a million years she was married. She was secretly vetting me. She needed to know if she could trust me with her secrets and if I would not only steward them but if I would not judge her as I was bringing biblical help to her.
It takes a lot of patience and compassion when caring for people, which is why it is imperative you maintain your biblical perspectives while modeling the disposition of the Savior. Everybody is not mature or wise enough to filter through the excuses people use for not changing.
Rick Thomas leads a training network for Christians to assist them in becoming more effective soul care providers. RickThomas.Net reaches people around the world through consulting, training, podcasting, writing, counseling, and speaking.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology, and in 1991 he received a BS in Education. In 1993 he was ordained into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, CA. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).