How Do People Change?

People everywhere need to change. I’m not taking away from the exciting, challenging, and helpful things that people do every day. People genuinely fascinate me. But every person I’ve ever met, every historical figure I’ve ever read about, and every person in my house (including me!) has needed help changing something. It might be a bad habit, a moral/spiritual blind spot, an area of sin or ignorance, or simply an area that is undeveloped or immature. People need to learn, repent, grow—change! Change might frighten you, but that doesn’t mean it’s not needed!

As a parent or friend, wouldn’t it be helpful to know how we can help our kids or friends change? As a boss or teacher or leader, wouldn’t it be valuable to know how we can help the people entrusted to our care to change? Change is universally required—we can either help the process or not. I don’t know about you but I want to be part of the solution. I want our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, city, and this great big world of ours to get better, smarter, and reach its potential. So how do people change?

I’ve thought a lot about this over the years as a pastor. I want everyone to experience the spiritual freedom, good news, and new life that comes with a relationship with God. People need to encounter the full measure of the love, joy, and peace that is only possible in Christ. I believe this is what every human being is looking and longing for, whether they understand it or not.

But there’s a danger in talking about life change. It’s far too easy to focus on external things and miss the root of our problems. Disciplining a child for yelling only teaches the child that yelling is wrong, not that yelling at your brother (the surface level behavior) reveals a heart that is unloving (root issue). Helping people change surface level behaviors without addressing the heart is like rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship—ultimately meaningless. Real change is heart change.

A Change of Heart

As I’ve worked at preaching, coaching, counseling, and parenting, I’ve seen firsthand that God’s word is “alive and active.” You’ll never touch the heart unless you have something “Sharper than any double-edged sword.” We are so unbelievably good at rationalizing and believing things that are untrue or unhelpful for us. But God’s word, “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Heb 4:12).

That sounds painful (and believe me, sometimes it is!) but the truth of God’s word exposes areas that need to change for what they are. Here’s the secret to wholesale life change: People change when they hear and believe the word of God. God’s Spirit takes the seed of the word planted in the heart of faith and brings growth and change beyond anything we could possibly imagine! “Some a hundred times what was sown.” (Mk 4:1-20). In other words, there is hope for all people to change. Even you!

Helping People Change

Change is a guarantee in a relationship with God. It’s true that God loves you just as you are. But God loves you too much to leave you as you are. So, can we join God in the work he is doing? Yes! In fact, it’s God’s plan for you to have a crucial role in the process: to preach. The Apostle Paul wrote, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Ro 10:14).

Preaching is sometimes seen as negative because the truth can be (and often has been) used as a weapon to wound rather than a tool to build others up. Other times, preaching heeps up condemnation which leads to death rather than bringing true conviction which leads to life. But Biblical preaching means to speak the truth in love to help others grow in Christ (Eph 4:15-16). This can be done anywhere, not just on Sunday morning. You can speak the truth in love to your spouse, child, friend, or a perfect stranger (although, love is always deeper in the context of a relationship). You can even preach to your own heart when you need to hear and believe the truth. But this takes courage. It’s risky opening your mouth. But people will not change unless someone dares to speak the truth in love into their lives.

I’ve experienced this in my own life. In my mid-twenties, God used the preaching of Timothy Keller, Chris Dolson, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and others to bring God’s word to life in my mind and set fire to my heart—it changed everything. I’m pretty sure I was a Christian before, but after that time, the very air I breathed seemed different. Did I still have struggles and doubts after this time of spiritual awakening? Were there areas in my life that still needed to change?? Of course. But God wrecked me—in the best way—and in a way that could not be undone. And I trust him to finish the work that he has started.

This sort of life change is possible for you and your kids and for everyone you know. Do you believe that? If so, maybe you’ll be the one to speak the truth in love into their lives. I pray you have the courage.

So, if you want to know God’s will for your life, it’s to change. But this is such a good thing because the gospel delivers the uncontainable love of God that radically and dramatically changes lives and generations for good. Preach it!