Can People Really Change?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014 @ 1:32 PM

Fear froze Janet.

Six months ago Jack, her husband of twenty years, confessed to years of sexual sin. She had trusted him, and he had broken that trust—and broken her heart.

Had he changed?

Jack was saying all the right things. He had cried and apologized numerous times. He attended therapy and recovery meetings, and he had signed up for an accountability partner in a small group. Jack talked openly with her about his struggles and asked her to pray for him and with him.

Hope rose. Janet decided to forgive him and rebuild their marriage.

Then, a respected friend said, “Men like that never really change. You’re setting yourself up for more heartache.”

Was Jack presenting another false front? Would he return to his old ways once the storm passed? Was her friend right?

What we believe about the possibility of change is one of the most important factors in our personal lives. This belief can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I talked with a friend who had lost important relationships due to poor choices he had made. He was filled with self-contempt and withdrew from even those who continued to love and support him. He said, “I no longer believe I have anything valuable to offer.” His belief directed his self-defeating behavior. He and others who struggle with addictions or long-standing patterns of destructive attitudes and behavior often resign themselves to living in defeat.

We must believe that lasting and substantial change is possible before we can persevere to growth.

Belief in the changeability of intelligence and other abilities also impacts one’s perseverance and determination in other important areas of life. Dr. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher on motivation and change, asserts that a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed trait mindset” is essential for motivation to succeed. Her research has shown how a “growth mindset” is often the key to academic, career, and athletic achievement.1

Belief in the possibility of change will shape how we interpret the behavior of others and how we relate to them. For example, my wife once was a substitute teacher in a particularly dismal special education classroom. The students were apathetic and disorderly. One boy told her, “We are the dumb kids. Nobody expects anything out of us.”

She was with them for just a few weeks, but she made it her goal to convey a belief in them by giving affirmation and raising the expectations for their work. She saw marked improvement in their classroom behavior and academic motivation.

Counselors who work with certain difficult populations, like severely delinquent children with attachment disorders, sometimes become disillusioned and cynical about the possibility of change for those in their care. This promotes another type of self-fulfilling prophecy, as they unintentionally convey a hopeless message. They often become more concerned with maintaining order than with passionately and creatively seeking to help. Marriage and family therapists may also descend into hopelessness when dealing with people who are highly resistant and controlling.

Let’s return to Janet, the lady at the beginning of this article.

Rebuilding broken trust is usually a painful and taxing process of three steps forward and two steps back. If Janet does not have the confident belief that real change is possible, she is likely to discredit positive change in her husband. A recent study showed that those who believe moral character can change are much more able to forgive and rebuild trust.2

Can Jack really change? YES! Change is indeed possible!

Counselors or pastors who have been serving for a substantial time have seen lasting change and healed relationships. Although I know of many situations in which healing did not occur, or trust was broken again, I also am personally acquainted with couples who have experienced restoration that has stood the test of time.

However, we have another testimony that is far more trustworthy and authoritative than the experience of counselors or pastors. That is the testimony of the Creator of the universe, the source of all true knowledge and wisdom. God’s Word shows us that substantial and lasting change in moral character and behavior is indeed possible. This is true for cheating spouses, control freaks, abusive husbands, addicts, anti-social teenagers, and those labeled with borderline and narcissistic personality disorders.

Paul prayed for the Ephesian believers that the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened to know what God had given them, and the “incomparably great power” given to those who believe. “That power is like the working of his mighty strength which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead,” (Ephesians 1:19-20).

Just as the Father raised Christ’s dead physical body, the same power is available to believers. However, resurrection requires the death of a former way of life.

The Ephesians had been enemies of God, living in utter selfishness and sensuality. They were lost in distorted belief systems. God showed His great grace when He forgave them and gave them a new life (Ephesians 2:1-5).

God has a plan for His children. “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). Paul was not speaking to perfect people, but to people who were in the process of change.

God promises to forgive and cleanse us when we confess and repent from our sins. (I John 1:9). God promises to help us with our weakness, when we don’t even know what we need or how to ask for it. (Romans 8:26). Even God’s discipline of His disobedient children is for the purpose of producing repentance and change. (Hebrews 12:10-11).

There are many examples of changed lives in the Bible.

Simon Peter thought his love for Jesus was great and his faith strong. He truly believed he would sacrifice anything for Jesus. Yet, when he was faced with persecution, Peter cursed and denied he even knew Jesus.

This was no surprise to Jesus. Before it happened, Jesus said, “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). Jesus spoke of Peter’s restoration even before his fall. He proclaimed that God would work through Peter afterward. Peter, who had been ashamed and afraid to acknowledge Jesus in the face of opposition, changed to become a powerful witness for Him, eventually facing a brutal martyr’s death.

Change is possible for anyone who is still living on this earth. God never gives up on us, and if we want to be like Him, we will never give up on each other.

“Love always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Even though positive change is always possible, that doesn’t mean it always occurs. In future blogs, we’ll discuss the essential features of change. We’ll chat about how to test for and recognize change and how to set loving boundaries that promote change.


1 Dweck, Carol, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Random House, 2006.

2 Schweitzer, Maurice E., Wood, Alison M., How Implicit Beliefs Influence Trust Recovery, Psychological Science, May 2010; vol. 21, 5: pp. 645-648., March 31, 2010.


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