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A Problem with Expecting Someone to Change

The Problem with Expecting Someone to Change on Your Timetable

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In any discipleship situation, the discipler’s theology must inform their discipleship process. Theology and application act as guardrails to keep the counseling process moving in the right direction while avoiding the inevitable hazards that inferior theology and deficient applications cause. Maintaining this type of counseling equilibrium has several benefits, such as keeping the discipler from losing hope or even sinning while caring for others. The Bible provides us with a case study to make this point.

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Counselor’s Temptation

But first, have you ever tried to motivate your child to turn from a destructive 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 you prayed for or pleaded with to change, but it did not happen? It is not politically correct for a trained biblical counselor like myself to admit that biblical counseling has built-in liabilities that sets itself up for failure in some counseling situations.

More specifically, I refer 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 contextualizing biblical counseling in a local church that envisions, equips, and engages the entire church in the model and methods of biblical counseling. However, biblical counseling in a para-church practice or even a local church will have built-in liabilities if the only means of motivating a person to change is the formalized biblical counseling setting conducted by—assumed—trained people. That narrow model for soul care is sub-biblical and a set-up for—at least—four possible inferior outcomes.

  • The desired change hoped for may not happen during the expected counseling season.
  • If change does not occur, the biblical counselor may lose faith in the change process.
  • If change does not take place, the counselee may terminate the process.
  • If change does happen, there is no way for the person to receive ongoing care among a community that knows him and has the competency to maintain an appropriate level of care that ensures long-term transformation. The Christian life is repentance and ongoing repenting because some of our problems persist long after addressing them.

The Counseling Window

The Counseling Window

Many Christians are receiving training to be biblical counselors. Presumably, toward the end of their training, they engage in the wonderful world of biblical counseling with the expectation of seeing lives changed for the glory of God. Undoubtedly, they will see God change many lives through formalized biblical counseling. But to think so narrowly about how and when change happens can make a biblical counselor cynical and pessimistic about why everyone does not change during counseling. This problem occurs when a counselor has an expectation for transformation during a short season of sessions. The implication is clear: “I expect you to change during our prescribed number of counseling sessions.”

The New Testament does not teach a formalized “start-stop date” for a specific change in a person’s life, making biblical counseling sub-biblical at best. Though change could happen during a counseling window, it is not a New Testament expectation or imperative. Suppose the counselor or the counselee does not discern and guard against this false expectation. In that case, they may embed inherent liabilities in the counseling process that impede progressive sanctification in a person’s life. It’s akin to parents pressuring kids to change, which could happen externally. However, helping a person at the heart level depends on God granting the prerequisite repentance for that transformation—something no parent or counselor can create.

Another liability is the counselee expecting change to occur during the counseling window. The counselor and counselee hope for the best—a reasonable perspective—but it’s incumbent to provide more than lip service to the higher authority and His intentions. God changes hearts while providing the empowering grace needed to mature a person into Christlikeness, but it’s not required of Him to do so at our behest. 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 non-negotiable fact is why disciplers must guard their hearts against becoming perplexed or frustrated when they do not see transformation according to their preconceived timetable.

Diagnostic Questions

If the discipler does not protect his heart, he will lose faith in the change process for the person he is attempting to help. He will become impatient, possibly rude, harsh, or unkind (1 Thessalonians 5:14). If the discipler does not adjust, he will fall into the ditch of cynicism, suspicion, or even worse, he’ll start grumbling and gossiping about the unchanging person. To expound on these counseling hazards, I have eight excellent diagnostic questions to help assess your thoughts about those you want to see change and the process to get there. These questions apply to any soul care provider: parent, child, friend, small group leader, and husband or wife.

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

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it is time to refocus on the only One who can bring authentic change to us. After you examine your heart, you may want to review your discipleship model and the methods within that framework. It may have some inherent liabilities that need your attention. You may find it beneficial to extend your discipleship model and methods to any context where you want the transformation to occur within a specified timetable. This inherent liability can just as accurately be a liability in any discipleship situation, whether you are trying to disciple a friend, family member, or counselee. The essential theological question to start with is your view of the doctrine of repentance. More specifically, do you believe repentance is a gift from God?

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Doctrine of Repentance

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 grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the devil’s snare after being captured by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

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

If you believe repentance is a gift from God, you know you cannot conjure, contrive, force, manipulate, or artificially apply it to anyone willy-nilly. We do not will repentance into the heart of an individual regardless of the care context. Armed with this understanding of repentance being a gift from God, you are aware that the implication is that God might not grant it according to your expected timeframe. 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 twenty-five-year-old. If you tried to disciple me as a rebellious fifteen-year-old, who just landed in jail, you would have potentially been frustrated by my rebellion, stubbornness, and self-deceived thinking. Oh, and don’t forget my anger; it could sometimes be intense. But here is the good news: your watering and planting would not have been in vain (1 Corinthians 3:6). Ten years after jail, the Lord decided to grant repentance to me. As I look back, the subordination of human effort to God’s kind gift of repentance is evident. What if we applied these thoughts to the prodigal son who has come to you for help? He is angry, bitter, frustrated, and living in rebellion. He just demanded and received a lump of money from his dad and plans to run away from home.

Luke 1511-17 Prodigal

A Case Study

He sees himself as a victim. What is common sense to you should be common sense to him. But it isn’t. Even his brother is piling on the mess; envy has consumed him, and the prodigal has had enough of all of them. He is now sitting in your counseling office. You’ve never met him or his family. His daddy asked you to help him. You agree. How would you counsel him if he stumbled through your door? First, let’s look at what we know about 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!”

Before we get to the end of the story in verse seventeen, he’s sitting with you in verse twelve after receiving a fat stack of Benjamins. He is hunched in a rebellious stupor, angry at his dad, brother, and life. He blames his family for his miserable circumstances and is unwilling to see how the problems consume him or how they all began in his 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. According to the Bible story, he does not repent until verse seventeen. It will be many days—if not years—before he comes to his senses.

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Mysterious Repentance

The missing piece of information we do not have is how much time transpired from when he received his money (verse 12) and landed in the hog lot (verse 17). Our best guess is that it was a long time. He received his money. He spent it on reckless living. A famine came upon the land. He went and found a job. He came to his senses. It probably took several months to whittle down his fat stack 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 meetings. The best thing the counselor can do is water and plant while waiting for God to change the rebel’s heart. Repentance is a mystery, only adequately understood in the mind of God (Deuteronomy 29:29). We cannot will it, no matter how adept we are at discipling or caring for people. If the counselor expects to bring the person to a penitent, fruitful, and reconciling conclusion, the counselor would be disappointed. He could have talked to the prodigal until he was blue in the face, but he would not change. It was never God’s will for the prodigal to change until verse 17.

The Lord has brought more than one person into my life who came to me months or even years after our initial meetings 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. Sometimes, I became impatient, harsh, unkind, and frustrated with the person because of their resistance to change during our expected time frame. My immature thinking tempted me to put too much hope into the model and method rather than resting in God’s mysterious will. I was too self-reliant in my ability to disciple. Other times, I cared for them more than they did. It was not unusual for my fear to feed my advice, which felt more like manipulation on the counselee’s end. Rather than resting, trusting, and hoping for God to change hearts, I expected my training and knowledge to make a difference.

Call to Action

  1. Will you talk about a friend or family member you manipulated because you were not resting in God’s mysterious will for them? What should you have done differently? Is there something you need to do now to make amends for botching up the discipleship time with them? If so, will you do it?
  2. Why is it easier to fall into these traps with those we love while being more at rest with those we don’t know as well? How will you fortify your heart so you don’t push a loved one too hard?
  3. When you think about the gift of repentance, what goes through your mind about those you want to see changed today? What one thing will you do to change yourself so you can avoid the relational trap of over-caring?
  4. Is there someone in your life who is not changing? How are you responding to them? Do you need to go to them and repent of impatience, despair, frustration, or something else? If so, will you do that today?
  5. Talk about the liability of a para-church or church counseling practice that does not engage the entire body while extending the timeframe for change. What would you do if you had the authority to develop a counseling worldview in your church?

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