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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)?
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 life. Often, they choose what is familiar because change is hard. Biblical repentance is difficult for all of us, especially with life-habituating patterns. It is like trying to lose weight or trying to quit smoking. What about overcoming fear or anger? What is that one annoying thing you want to change but have not been able to kick the habit? How many of us have tried but found the discipline to rid ourselves of pet addictions more challenging than we first perceived?
A lack of change is a common occurrence among fallen souls. If you do not understand why, you may become frustrated with people stuck in ruts (Galatians 6:1-2). Our responsibility is to water and plant, knowing that no matter how complex things are, God’s grace is sufficient for anyone to mature in Christ (Philippians 4:13). There are no problems beyond grace’s scope (1 Corinthians 10:13). To say or think my set of issues is different from someone else is denying 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?
“Your grace was not enough.” “It would help if you did more.” “I am different, and my situation is unique.” Not recommended! My unwillingness to change is always because of me, not Him or even that woman He gave me. He has provided for 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, assuming the “thorn” is something that He wants me to change (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). If I choose not to change the changeable, I must examine my excuses. May I share with you seven reasons that have kept me from maturing in Christ? Perhaps you can identify with some of these.
The gospel is the power of God for salvation and sanctification. Problem-centered, problem-focused people do not perceive this the way they should. Though the answer is right before them, they can be reluctant 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, 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, the temptation would be to grow weary of them. Grace and gratitude were not part of their everyday 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. We see this phenomenon in our culture every day. The person is uncomfortable in their skin, so they take on a new identity contrary to biology and the Bible. Rather than changing, they choose an identity comparable to their internal disorderedness. I was 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 the other toys his foster parents have provided him. This kid has a squalor identity, which is all he knows. He does not think holding on to his few broken possessions tenaciously is odd. If he continues to live in fear-based thinking after becoming 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.
One of the most common themes I have seen with unchanging people is their desire for an easy path forward. Like the guy who joined the fitness center in January, but by April, you could not find him with 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. It’s sticker shock! We live in a drive-through, pill-centered culture where everything has to be instant. “I’m not interested if I can’t be instantly gratified and satisfied.” Sanctification is a cross and a death, not an easy street. Being holy will cost our lives, which does not sell well in suburban America.
Sin interrupts the movers and shakers, looking for a quick fix to keep the dream alive. Sanctification by the sweat of your brow is passé. Legitimately stuck individuals may want to be free, but many do not want to pay the price. It shocks their souls when you tell them about the cost of discipleship. “You can have what you want, but you must 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 bad enough while there seems to be no persevering grace when it comes to their sanctification.
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27).
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’m not too fond of mayonnaise because it tastes terrible (Psalm 34:8). Our ultimate loyalty is to ourselves. We are not motivated to choose things we perceive to be unfulfilling for us. If a person continues to select a sinful habit or lifestyle, it’s because they find pleasure in that thing, which is a pleasure that is always greater than a desire to change. They may lament their sad circumstances and even be telling you the truth.
The quiet part they won’t say aloud is how much they love their sin or the thing that has entrapped them. For example, the habituated, angry person can 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 anger because he has learned it works for him. It gives him what he wants (James 4:1-3). The choice of sin entices him to choose it as a better option than to do the hard thing, which is to exercise self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). We do what we want, making the angry guy no better than the crack addict; they choose their drug to get what they want.
Some people’s habituations keep them in bondage for so long that they 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 he was released, he would do something illegal to go back. He became an institutionalized convict. The prison was his home. He learned the system and became comfortable with it. People in stressful long-term situations may whine about their problems but can also be fearful of living a life free from what they have always known.
The world was a big and scary place for my brother. He could not control it, a self-reliant instinct gifted to us by Adam. 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 another. There is always a moment when he would be holding on to no one. He chose never to let go of what he had—what he could control. 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. 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 when God’s grace was becoming more real to him during that time, and it appeared he might pull through the ordeal. As things began to change for the better, another kind of struggle manifested. It sounded 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 will be measured and cautious about how I communicate how I am doing. I do not want to lose the attention I am getting. Their attention is all I have. It feeds my desire for someone to love me.”
Many people knew about his marriage problems, and some sympathized with him. He already felt ostracized because he belonged to a legalistic community that distanced itself 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 perverted 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 your troubles can only garner attention, then troubles may become a way of building a community. People like this can be manipulative in managing and maintaining their tribe. 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 change. If you pulled back the cover on the heart, you might find someone getting their approval drive stroked by their sadistic relishing in their problems.
This last group may be the most common. There are many reasons for being dishonest. I just gave you six of them, all of which have a component of deception. Do not be surprised by a person’s ability to spin the truth. After you work through the deceit attached to the reasons above, I want you to consider another purpose for lying: 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. It used to bother me, but I understand my lying profession more as I have grown older. People are scared and do not know if you can handle their truth. Thus, they incrementally reveal more and more about themselves.
I remember counseling a young lady 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. I asked her what she wanted to say, and she said she was married. In our first meeting, she said she was single. The whole time I believed she was and 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 steward them well and not judge her as I was bringing biblical help to her.
Caring for people takes a lot of biblical character, capacity, competence, courage, and compassion. You must maintain your biblical equilibrium while emulating the disposition of the Savior. Everybody is not mature or wise enough to filter through the excuses people use for not changing. I trust these few insights have helped you. Here are a few questions to assist in your ongoing reflection.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).