How do people change? How will we? There are three elements that must be in place for genuine change to occur and to last. If you’re going to change in a way that leads to even better changes and does not lead back into the bondage of old habits, these three elements must be in place.
First, you have to see the benefit that change will bring. You have to think it, feel it, want it, dream it, daydream it; you have to live with a vision of what your life will be. Without that hope, change won’t last.
We see this throughout the Bible: John presents the vision of being like Jesus to his readers and then adds, “Everyone who has this hope in him” – that is, everyone who lives with this vision – “purifies himself, just as he is pure.” The hope, the vision of a future that has not yet materialized, will draw us into change. The author of Hebrews speaks about how hope anchors us to a future, keeps us from slipping into self-indulgence and laziness, and keeps us diligently pursuing God’s promise (Hebrews 6:11-12).
Paul writes that we are able to say “’No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions…while we wait for the blessed hope…” (Titus 2:12-13). In other words, even established habits can be changed when we are possessed by the vision of a better future.
I have written about my mother when she was in her twenties. More than forty years later, after my dad died, I suggested she move to be near us. Before my dad got sick, he was talking about moving near us, and after he died it seemed even more important for my mother to move here. She thought that was prudent, so we had her up numerous times to do some house-hunting.
She found something wrong with every house we looked at. I eventually came to the conclusion that she didn’t really want to move, didn’t want to leave the house she’d lived in for 40 years, or the church she knew or the friends she loved.
But I don’t think that’s the whole story. I think she had a genuine desire to be near us but couldn’t envision what life here would be like. She had no compelling vision. We hadn’t painted a sufficiently clear picture of going out to dinner with new friends, being part of the women’s ministry at Lockwood, having dinner at our house a couple of nights a week, going to the boys basketball games and tennis matches, having someone to mow her lawn and take care of things around her house. She could see what she would be leaving and see how much work was required to make the change, but she couldn’t see the benefits. She had no hope, no vision of a life here.
Something similar lies at the root of the failure of many Christians to make the changes that lead to Christ-likeness. Researchers have found again and again that there is little difference in lifestyle between the average Christian and the average non-Christian: there exists a parity in the percentages of both groups regarding substance abuse, addictions, divorces, and unethical behaviors. How could that be? Is it because Christians don’t really want to change?
I don’t think so. At least, that’s not the whole story. A real Christian really wants to change, but without a compelling vision of the future, without a “living hope” (as St. Peter puts it), genuine and lasting change will not happen, and many Christians have no such vision.