Christianity means change — whatever change needs to happen in your life — really is possible.
Four decades as a counselor, and five decades as a Christian, have shown me that John Piper is right when he says,
Christianity means change is possible. Deep, fundamental change. It is possible to become tenderhearted. It is possible to stop being dominated by bitterness and anger. It is possible to become a loving person no matter what your background has been.
When we think theologically about change, words like “justification” and “sanctification” and “new birth” come to mind. A former pastor of mine likened conversion (including justification and new birth) to complete change: old, dead life to new. Not evolved — like from an egg, to a chick, to a bird — but more like a fish being transformed into a bird.
Sanctification, on the other hand, is a lifelong change process in which Christians become better, more beautiful, more holy birds over their lives. The picture’s simplistic, but it’s a helpful metaphor for the kind of change we Christians believe happens.
Forty Years of Counseling
I have been working as a Christian counselor in the trenches of brokenhearted lives for well in excess of forty years. For the last six years, I have worked in a counseling setting in which over 95% of my clients are deeply committed, Bible-believing Christians.
On any given day, I hear stories of parental abuse (both physical and sexual), parental abandonment, marital infidelity, women who have been sexually traumatized, men and women who regularly struggle with pornography or chemical addiction, numerous cases of relational manipulation, and the sudden loss of loved ones.
Most of all, I deal with shame, particularly of those who have suffered abuse and abandonment. They battle internal thoughts that they have little value, or worth, because of the messages they’ve come to believe about themselves and whispers from their real-world experiences about their worth — messages which rise straight from the pit of hell.
Many of these lies include beliefs about themselves: I am here on earth, to be hurt and abused, and there is proof that my real worth is measured in the many who have abused or abandoned me. Or lies about God: I can profess him, but my deepest, most hurtful fear is that he is not there for me — that he is capricious and distant. I fear he doesn’t keep me in mind — that he doesn’t care. He’s sadistic. God, in his unbending goodness, is confused for his enemy.
Too often, the outcomes of these beliefs are the things identified in the opening quote — things that can be changed. Hard-heartedness, bitterness, and anger at self, others, and God. Controlling, withdrawing, dismissive, defensive, or dysregulated behaviors that hamper or even destroy relationships.
Change, in my life and in my counseling, usually involves comforting affliction and confronting sin, always pointing to Christ, remembering that before and after sin came into this world, we were and are image-bearers of the King. We are designed for beauty, health, and healing.
Change can be hard when we believe lies about ourselves and others. An odd truth is that as long as we believe lies, there are times we unwittingly reinforce them by finding people who act accordingly. The abused often find abusers. Or we reinforce them by doing what keeps us trapped: shame begets shame.
Change Is Possible
It is also not unusual for me, on any given day, to see lives transformed. I’ve seen marriages on the brink of disaster change into real examples of Christ’s love for the church. A husband and a wife learn to serve one another and their children, with smiles on their faces.
I’ve watched young women who move from cycles of shame, repeating past hurts in relationships, to the kind of strength that sets limits and lives out the dignity of image-bearing, saying, “If you want a relationship with me, you will honor me as an image-bearer.”
I’ve watched many hear new truths spoken in the quiet of their minds and hearts that remind them of not just who they are, but whose. A new narrative takes shape, saturated in the truth of who loves them, and who they are as a result.
Truth Will Set You Free
Freedom from lies, bondage, shame, condemnation, hurt, bitterness, anger, self-loathing, mistrust, defensiveness, anxiety, and depression lies here: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
I have seen hundreds of people finally experience that freedom, saturated anew in God’s word deep in their souls, from which they learn new patterns of life that say, “I’m beginning to understand how much Jesus loves me. He’s forgiven me, and he is ministering to me and healing me, in union with him by faith. He is changing me, how I see myself, and how I interact with others.”
Jesus is real, but he is not a genie in a bottle. Our union with him, in union with his Father, is both mysterious and tangible. With the Spirit, and the help of Christian brothers and sisters, change truly is possible. Sometimes it takes a very long time, talking, working through barriers, lamenting, struggling, praying, regressing, wrestling, advancing, with a close Christian friend, a pastor, or a trained helper like myself. But I have seen people genuinely change.
No matter how often you may hear, or read between the lines, that people never really change, that they always will be who they’ve been, that this marriage is destined to be hard, that this sin will never be conquered — no matter how much you hear Satan’s lies, don’t believe them. I have seen real change. You can change. She can change. God himself came, died, rose, ascended, and gave us his Spirit. Change is indeed possible.