Can We Change Others?

You cannot lead someone to permanent change by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves. (author unknown)

No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or by emotional appeal. (Marilyn Ferguson)

Many years ago when I was a college professor I had a colleague who was fond of saying that you cannot teach anyone anything he or she does not already know or is not ready to accept as true. Back then I thought this professor was just lazy and did not want to exert the effort required for effective teaching. (I still think he was lazy, but that’s beside the point.) As the years pass I have come to believe that his basic assumption was correct. People are not willing to change or learn until they are ready to do so. I’ve seen this after years of teaching, preaching, and counseling. This fundamental truth about human beings has two implications I want to explore in this article.

Those of us who want to help others (and that in one sense or another includes all of us) can do only so much to bring about change. We can at times be there to help people do what they cannot do for themselves. Or we can be the bearer of light to those who are willing and ready to open their eyes to truth and grow as children of God. Or we can be faithful to what we believe to be true and add our witness to that of countless others until somewhere down the line the cumulative effect convinces others to change (but we must accept the possibility that we may not be around to see that transformation come to pass). But we must not assume the awesome and unreasonable responsibility for change in others. That burden and responsibility rests with them, not us. Anyone who has been in Al-Anon can testify to that truth.

The second implication I want to mention is what this means as far as change within ourselves is concerned. We and we alone hold the key to our own transformation. Others can do only so much to help us see the light, whether that light is what we need to do for ourselves to be healthy and joyful or what we need to do within ourselves to expand our hearts to match the unconditional and indiscriminate love of God. We and we alone create our vision of God, ourselves, others, and the world. We may have a lot of “help” along the way from others such as our parents and friends, but each person is ultimately responsible for the vision he or she creates in life. The problem is that eventually the vision we created begins to control us. And as a result any change in that vision becomes very difficult if not impossible. That’s the truth behind the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” My prayer is that the vision I am creating now and which will one day control me is healthy and open enough to allow me to continue to grow and change, for I still have a long way to go.  

We are all familiar with that famous painting of Jesus knocking at the door and waiting for the person on the other side to let him in. We may also be familiar with the observation that the door upon which Jesus is knocking has no handle. Only the person on the other side has the power to invite God’s grace and truth to come in and bless his/her life. Jesus will not barge in where he is not wanted. Violating our freedom to choose is contrary to the nature of authentic love.

During this season of Lent we would do well to keep this painting in mind. Only we can let God’s truth into our hearts. And only others can let that truth into their hearts. If we in the words of Paul are to grow “from one degree of glory into another” in the likeness of Jesus, we would all do well to listen to who as well as what is knocking at the door.

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