How (Other) People Change

Walking with Loved Ones Through Five Stages

Am I helping or hurting? Aiding or enabling?

Parents, friends, and church family often find themselves in this precarious position. Someone we know and love is in sin’s grip. We agonize over whether the help we might offer will help them find freedom, or just drive them further away.

We know that love will not allow us to simply ignore the situation. Scripture calls Christians to bear one another’s burdens through the chaos and mess of life, especially the darkest seasons (see Galatians 6:2, Colossians 3:13, 1 Peter 4:10, and others). We are called to do so with caution and care, in such a way that we are not pulled down into temptation ourselves (Galatians 6:1), but also persistently calling others to change (Galatians 6:5).

But what does that mean practically? Can we even tell when our words or actions are likely to help in the fight against sin or unintentionally enable it somehow?

What You Cannot Do

First, some caveats. While you will not find the phrase “Stages of Change” anywhere in Scripture, I want to introduce you to a tested and popular paradigm used among counselors around the world, because it has been helpful to me personally as a pastor, counselor, and Christian. It’s called “Prochaska & DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model (1983).”

Now, it must be said from the outset that the Holy Spirit can and does work how he wills. He can cause hearts and minds to change in an instant. He need not follow a particular pattern, or adopt any set of steps or stages. He is free to change you or someone you love when and how he chooses to. And if he withholds change, nothing you or I might do will make a difference, however many times a counseling strategy has worked before.

It must also be stated up front that you are not responsible for someone else’s change. That’s between them and God (Galatians 6:4–5). However, you are responsible to love them (John 13:34–35) as a brother or sister in Christ, including doing everything in your power to challenge and encourage them to walk in line with the gospel (Galatians 2:14).

With those things in mind, here are five typical stages of change, with counsel for what you can do or pray for someone at each stage.

Stage 1: Pre-contemplation

At this stage, people aren’t even thinking about change yet. Whatever sinful behavior they are engaged in, they are enjoying it enough that the cost of surrender and change seems too high. When someone is in this stage, we should set good, healthy boundaries to protect ourselves and others. We cannot expect them not to sin when they see no reason to change. If they violate these boundaries, we establish and administer consistent consequences.

We see this kind of boundary in 1 Corinthians 5 when the apostle Paul exhorts believers to separate themselves from an unrepentant sexual sinner (1 Corinthians 5:1–5). Paul’s counsel was clear: a boundary (you cannot be a part of the Christian community) and a consequence (you will be given over to the devil) with a purpose (that your soul will be saved in the day of the Lord). The church wanted the man to change and be reconciled, but to accomplish that they had to remove him from fellowship, set a clear boundary, and warn him about the terrible consequences of unrepentant sin.

How can we help at this stage?

Have conversations with them and explain what you are seeing. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes not. Most of the time when they are in this stage, they just don’t care. Nonetheless, honest and open communication about the sin you see is key. How is it negatively impacting them or others? What would you like to see instead? What are the consequences they can expect if they continue down the current path? This stage can be especially difficult for two reasons.

First, if you are the one suggesting change, it’s likely that you are in a different stage than they are in your own battle with sin. The distance between you in maturity and godliness may create unhealthy expectations in you or bitter resentment in them. So we often wear ourselves out trying to force others to change when, frankly, they don’t want it. At this stage people may want your money, or your time, or your pity, or your approval, or something else, but what they don’t want is change. If your friend or loved one isn’t, on their own, beginning to think through why they should make a change in the first place, all your persuasive arguments and valuable resources are likely to be ineffective.

Second, when helpers begin to feel like we are spinning our wheels — when change doesn’t come immediately or quickly — we begin to be punitive. There’s a subtle difference here. We can subtly move from thinking about what is best for the person to trying to make them pay for what they’ve done to us. When we do, we cross the line from consequence to punishment.

How can we pray at this stage?

When someone has not even acknowledged the need for change, we pray down heaven that the Lord through the Holy Spirit will open their eyes and convict their conscience (John 16:8). It’s usually best to keep these prayers confidential. Letting someone know that you are begging God to change them when they see no need for change in the first place is more likely to cement their wayward steps than to change their course.

Stage 2: Contemplation

At this stage, people actually begin to think about change. That is, it is now on their radar that change might be worth the work. They are not yet convinced that change is necessary, but they are willing to consider it. When someone is in this stage, we can help them weigh the proverbial list of pros and cons to move them toward fuller repentance.

How can we help at this stage?

Honesty. Being honest (almost brutally so) in this stage pays dividends later. We get into trouble when we oversell the pros and undersell the cons. If we are not willing to be honest about the cost of change, then we will lose credibility. We begin to look like a “snake oil salesman” — promoting the wonders of a miracle cure, while downplaying any side effects.

Instead we must be like the physician who tells his patient, “This may be painful, but it’s worth all the pain.” Change typically requires pain. Christians understand and embrace this as much as anyone. Our most fundamental change came through excruciating pain and at great cost (Romans 6:23; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 10:10; 1 Peter 3:18).

How can we pray at this stage?

At this point, we can pray for God to grow the seeds of conviction in their hearts, and that he would grant us patience and humility while we wait. It’s so hard not to try and seize the reins of control — to restrain ourselves from trying to craft the perfect sales pitch or find “fail-proof” strategies. Whether or not God gives our loved one the ability to change, confessing his sovereignty and our helplessness is a rich blessing in the process. Rest in his power and goodness, for he is the one who is able to save, not us (Isaiah 12:1–2).

Stage 3: Preparation

At this stage, people are persuaded that change is necessary, but have yet to actually achieve it. The length of this stage varies. Sometimes people want to implement change immediately, other times people need more time. Our goal in this stage is to help them make a plan for what change will look like, while not getting bogged down in or overwhelming them with too many details.

How can we help at this stage?

Help them think through what life might look like in the near future and the more distant future. Will they have to go through some sort of treatment? Are there new routines that need to be created? A year from now, when change has settled into habit, what will be the triggers to backslide? How do they avoid them? Try to plan with some detail, yet know that there is no way to forecast everything. Know that things will not end up exactly like you planned them.

The biggest mistakes people make at this stage are to over-prepare and get overwhelmed, or to skip this stage altogether and make no preparations at all. We are not trying to build the perfect plan; we’re simply trying to find a plan that works.

How can we pray at this stage?

At this stage, we ask God for wisdom. We can’t possibly predict every impediment that may hinder the path to change; however, we want God to help us foresee as much as we can. Knowing that our plans come to nothing without the blessings of the Lord (Luke 12:13–21), we want to plead for Spirit-empowered discernment illuminated by God’s word. We need wisdom to help our loved ones make plans and preparations for the road ahead (Proverbs 6:6–11).

Stage 4: Action

At this stage, people begin the actual process of change. In some cases, Stages 2–4 move quickly. There are times where people are convicted about something and simply decide to change, but those instances are more rare. Usually people need to set a point in time when they know new behavior will begin. This is the main reason New Year’s resolutions are so popular. The beginning of another year offers a clear starting point which makes change easier to track.

How can we help at this stage?

We now take on the role of encouragement. Our friend or family member will need hope and comfort and strength when the road is hard. The cost of change is high, so we should not be surprised when people begin to feel discouraged. It helps to come alongside them and say, We knew this was coming and we prepared for it.

This is also the stage where we begin to relax the boundaries we set in Stage 1. Where there were appropriate consequences for bad decisions, now there should be appropriate rewards for positive decisions. As Ligon Duncan says, “It is in the context of covenant obedience that covenant blessings abound.” Even the Lord recognizes that we fragile and frail people need encouragement and rewards for our hard work (Luke 19:11–19).

How can we pray at this stage?

At this stage, we ask God for the gifts of compassion and encouragement. On the one hand, we want to ask for energy to support our loved ones when they are feeling overwhelmed, having the spiritual and emotional strength to listen well and bear their heavier burdens with them. At the same time, we want to consistently remind them of the incredible resources they have in Christ and the need for them to increasingly take responsibility for their own maturity and growth (Philippians 2:12–13), of course in the context of healthy Christian community.

Stage 5: Maintenance

At this stage, people strive to move from a novel act to an engrained habit. This is the longest stage, and the one with the highest likelihood of relapse. It can take anywhere from six weeks to five years depending on a variety of factors.

How can we help at this stage?

Change is not only difficult to achieve, but perhaps even more difficult to maintain. People will need ongoing encouragement. Usually around this time, at the six-week mark or so, we begin to move on with our lives. We assume the change has happened now. This often leaves those struggling to implement change suddenly alone and overwhelmed.

A threshold exists just before change becomes habit where perseverance feels impossible. The amount of effort it takes to continue a new behavior just doesn’t seem as worth it anymore. The economy of change seems bankrupt. That makes plans and celebrations so important. As our loved ones continue to hit predetermined milestones, we need to continue to notice and rejoice. Not every positive day has to be a party, but simple words of recognition and celebration are powerful tools toward long-lasting change.

Giving accolades, however, is of little value without our continued commitment to dedicated prayer. As we remind ourselves daily to be praying for them, more diligent in our checking on them, we will be more gracious in our listening to them, and we will be more exuberant in celebrating God’s grace with them.

How can we pray at this stage?

To that end, our prayers at this stage begin to focus on sustaining grace — the grace needed to overcome the inevitable difficulties that are unforeseen. We recognize that we cannot perfectly predict or plan for the future. If our loved one is to persevere, it is going to take the strength and wisdom and help of an unflappable God (Psalms 55:22).

Change Is Always Hard

Change is hard. For everyone involved. Parents are a wreck watching their children choose sex, drugs, or alcohol over the eternal joy of the gospel. Friends are horribly guilt-ridden watching their friend descend on a path of self-destruction rather than walking the way of life. Churches are confused and distressed as professing believers openly choose deadly sin above their loving Savior.

All of them want to know what it really means — practically in the moment — to help someone else change. Sometimes we bear patiently with a brother or sister, being willing to overlook an offense. Other times, we need to lovingly rebuke them and hold them accountable. Which is it this time? Am I aiding or enabling?

It’s not always easy to tell. But this framework may help you assess when someone is genuinely interested in being different and when they just want you to help them avoid the latest consequences for their bad decisions. It’s not inerrant, but as a pastor and counselor, it has been invaluable.

The good news is that the exhausting, slow, day-to-day effort of seeing someone through difficult change cannot compete with the refreshing moment-by-moment grace of God’s Spirit in the process. With God’s help, we may just find ourselves gifted and in a position to have a positive impact on our loved ones that will last forever.

(@RevJASquires) serves as pastor of counseling and congregational care at First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife have five children.