The Problem with Expecting Someone to Change

RMlogo The problem with expecting someone to change

In any discipleship situation, it is essential for the discipler’s theology to inform the discipleship process. If not, the discipler can be tempted to lose hope and even sin during the process.

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Have you ever tried to motivate your child to change, repent, or turn from a bad behavior only to become frustrated because of his unwillingness to respond to your care humbly?

Have you found yourself at your wit’s end while trying to come alongside your spouse in hopes change would take place? Have you had similar frustrations with a friend that you have prayed for or pleaded with to change, but it did not happen?

A trained biblical counselor like myself is not considered politically correct when he admits that biblical counseling has a built-in liability that sets itself up for failure in some discipleship situations.

To be more specific, I am referring to the “professional model” of formalized biblical counseling where a counselor meets someone periodically in an official counseling context to work through a situational difficulty.

I am not referring to the contextualization of biblical counseling in a local church where the whole church is engaged in what they call biblical counseling.

I could be referring to a biblical counseling ministry contextualized in a local church if the leaders have not envisioned, equipped, and engaged the members of the church in the change process of each other.

If the discipleship philosophy of the local church is designated exclusively for trained people through formal biblical counseling sessions, that counseling ministry will have built into itself at least three potential liabilities:

  1. The desired change hoped for may not happen during the expected counseling season.
  2. If change does not take place, the biblical counselor may experience the temptation to lose faith in the process of change.
  3. If change does not take place, the counselee may terminate the process.

Trained for Change

Many Christians are being trained to be biblical counselors. Presumably, after their excellent training, they engage the wonderful world of biblical counseling with the expectation of seeing lives changed for the glory of God.

There is no doubt that they will see God change many lives through the process of formalized biblical counseling. But to think so narrowly about how and when change happens can make a biblical counselor cynical and pessimistic about why people don’t change during counseling.

This problem happens when a discipler presses the expectation for change into a short season of biblical counseling, which means, “I expect you to change during our prescribed number of counseling sessions.” The New Testament does not teach any formalized start-stop date for a specific change to take place in a person’s life.

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The Counseling Window

Though change could happen during a counseling season, it is not a New Testament expectation or imperative. If the counselor or the counselee do not discern and guard against this false expectation, there will be inherent liabilities embedded in the process of counseling that will impede progressive sanctification in a person’s life.

One of these liabilities is when the counselor begins to press for change during the counseling season. Another liability is when the counselee expects change to take place during the counseling window.

When a person comes to counseling, it is normal to expect change to happen. Both the discipler and the disciple hope for this excellent conclusion. That’s reasonable, but it is imperative that the discipler and disciple realize where change comes from and who initiates transformation in a person’s heart.

This simple truth is easy to forget: God changes hearts while providing the empowering grace needed to mature a person into Christlikeness. Though there is a responsibility on the discipler to counsel well and the disciple to humbly and practically respond to the discipleship provided, the timing of and power for change comes from the Lord.

This worldview is why disciplers must guard their hearts against becoming perplexed or frustrated when a person does not change according to their preconceived timetable. If the discipler does not protect his heart, he will lose faith in the process of change for that person he is supposed to be helping.

He will become impatient, possibly rude, harsh, or unkind (1 Thessalonians 5:14). If the discipler does not adjust his thinking, he will also fall into the ditch of cynicism, suspicion, or even worse, he’ll start grumbling and gossiping about the unchanging person.

Counselor Diagnostic Questions

I have eight excellent diagnostic questions that will help assess how you think about others and the change process. These questions apply to anyone who wants someone to change. A parent, child, friend, small group leader, and husband and wife would benefit from these questions.

  1. Have you felt yourself losing hope regarding the possibility of a person ever changing?
  2. Have you become impatient because of the person’s lack of responsiveness?
  3. Have you ever spoken harshly to a person because they seemed unresponsive?
  4. Have you, through your frustration, shared details about someone else?
  5. Have you felt self-righteous–a greater than/better than attitude–during the discipleship process?
  6. Have you ever sinned against someone while trying to serve them?
  7. Have you, based on your experience with a resistant person, questioned your ability to disciple?
  8. Have you ever become more focused on your strategies for change than God’s power to bring change?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it is time to refocus your thoughts on the only one who can bring authentic change to a person. After you examine your heart, you may want to review your discipleship model. It may have some inherent liabilities that need addressing.

I recommend you extend your discipleship model to any context where you want transformation to take place within a specified timetable. The inherent liability in counseling can just as accurately be called the liability in any discipleship situation, whether you are trying to disciple a friend, family member, or counselee.

An essential theological question to ask yourself, as it applies to your understanding of discipleship, is your view of the doctrine of repentance. More specifically do you believe repentance is a gift from God?

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, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. – 2 Timothy 2:24-26

A Discipler’s Paraphrase

And the Lord’s discipler must not be quarrelsome but kind to all people, able to disciple them, patiently enduring evil, resistance, and ingratitude, and when he does correct an individual, he does this with gentleness. Who knows, God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. – RLT Version

If you believe repentance is a gift from the Lord, you are aware that you cannot conjure, contrive, force, manipulate, or artificially apply it to anyone willy-nilly. Repentance cannot be willed into the heart of an individual regardless of the care context.

Armed with this understanding of repentance being a gift that comes from God, you are aware that the implication is that God might not grant this gift according to your expectation. To be honest, He might not grant repentance at all.

Repentance during a discipleship context is a timing thing. Will God give the gift of repentance while you are discipling this person?

God granted me the gift of repentance while I was an unregenerate 25-year old. If you tried to disciple me as a rebellious 15-year old, who just landed in jail, you would have potentially been frustrated by my rebellion, stubbornness, and self-deceived thinking.

Here’s the good news: Your watering and planting would not have been in vain (1 Corinthians 3:6). The Lord did save me ten years later. As I look back, it is evident of the subordination of human effort to God’s kind gift of repentance.

A Familiar Case Study

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Luke 15-11-17 Prodigal

Let’s suppose the prodigal son came to you for help. Let’s say he was angry, bitter, frustrated, and living in rebellion. He just demanded and received a lump of money from his dad, and he plans to run away from home.

He sees himself as a victim, and nobody seems to understand him. His brother is eaten up with envy, and the prodigal has had enough of his family. How would you disciple him if he stumbled through your door? Here is part of his story:

  1. Luke 15:11 There was a man who had two sons.
  2. Luke 15:12 And the younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” And he divided his property between them.
  3. Luke 15:13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.
  4. Luke 15:14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.
  5. Luke 15:15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.
  6. Luke 15:16 And he was longing to eat the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
  7. Luke 15:17 But when he came to himself, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!”

Let’s further suppose the prodigal son came to you at verse twelve, just after receiving a fat stack of Benjamins. He is now sitting before you in a rebellious stupor, angry at his dad, his brother, and life in general.

He blames his family for his miserable circumstances and is unwilling to see how the problems consume him or how all of them began in his own wicked heart (James 4:1-3).

As a biblical discipler, your job is to call him to repentance. The facts are clear, and the truth is as obvious as the nose on your face, but he does not repent while with you. According to the Bible story, we know that he does not repent in verse twelve. It will be many days–if not years–before he comes to his senses. We know his repentance came in verse seventeen.

But he is with you at verse twelve, not ready to change. The missing piece of information that we do not have is how much time transpired from when he received his money (verse 12) and when he landed in the hog lot (verse 17). Our best guess is that it was a long time.

  1. He received his money.
  2. He spent it on reckless living.
  3. A famine came upon the land.
  4. He went and found a job.
  5. He came to his senses.

It probably took several months to spend all of his money and for a famine to come upon the land. It could have been a year or more, and though he comes to you in verse twelve, let’s say it’s one year before he repents of his sins.

That is a long time to be counseling someone in a formalized or professional sense of biblical counseling. In most cases, the counseling will stall or terminate if a person shows no sign of changing after a short season of meeting with a counselor.

The best thing the discipler can do is water and plant while he waits on God to change the prodigal’s heart. Repentance is a mystery, only adequately understood in the mind of God (Deuteronomy 29:29). It cannot be willed by the discipler no matter how adept he is at discipling or how much he cares for the person.

If the discipler expected to bring the person to a penitent, fruitful, and reconciling conclusion, the discipler will be disappointed. He could have talked to the prodigal son until he was blue in the face, but he was not going to change. It was never God’s will for the prodigal to change–not until verse seventeen.

The Lord has brought more than one person into my life who came to me months or even years after our initial meetings had concluded to thank me for investing in their lives.

In those situations, the person was sorrowful for how stubborn and ornery they were during our time together. In some of those situations, I became impatient, harsh, unkind, and frustrated with the person because of his resistance to change during my expected time frame.

My immature thinking tempted me to place too much hope on the process and the season, as well as being too self-reliant in my ability to disciple. Rather than resting, trusting, and hoping for God to change hearts, I expected my training and ability to make the difference.

Call to Action

  1. When you think about the gift of repentance, what goes through your mind–as it pertains to those you want to see changed today?
  2. How do you usually respond to those who do not change the way you expect them to change?
  3. Is there someone in your life who is not changing? How are you responding to them?
  4. Do you need to go to them and repent of impatience, despair, frustration, or something else? If so, will you do that today?
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