An electronic generation always wants to speed things up. Immediate is not soon enough. When it comes to heart change, things seldom work quickly.
There are very predictable time frames for just about everything when it comes to spiritual growth. Jeremiah 13:23 says, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil.”
Normal is a powerful force in our lives. Previous actions or pathways cut a groove in the brain, much as water cuts its own path through the countryside. To force the water to take a new path takes a great amount of effort. Most of the time, people are not willing to put in the kind of effort it would take to cut a new pathway.
As I watch those recovering from addiction, I see many eager beavers who think they can beat the clock. What is true is that foolish decisions or disobedience can definitely slow the process down, but I’m not sure I have ever seen anyone press things much beyond a certain predictable time table for the transformation process.
The first stage of transformation is an artificial high, where there is a seeming great level of progress. Then comes the stage where all the old stuff comes back up in a way that makes the person think that he has not changed at all. If he stays faithful during this ugly stage, there will be a period that is better, but lacks the joy of the first stage. This usually brings confusion and a nostalgia for the “really good” stage. Somewhere in this stage, the confusion and frustration will kick the person back into another difficult stage.
New believers go through many of these same stages, but the church generally is not willing to “allow” for the ugly stages. Once God shows up, everything is supposed to be happily every after. The reality is that heart change happens one choice at a time. The first choice of allowing God in frequently brings an overwhelming presence of God that does bring an immediate change. When life is good, better decisions are easy … and the tangible presence of God that often comes to the new believer makes life very good.
But good is a relative term. The addict who comes off the street is at first happy just to have a roof over his head. There is a “high” from being in a better place. Over time, the deeper things of the heart float to the surface and the old attitudes try to reassert themselves. For both the new believer and the addict, this is the season of real growth. The artificial high is a “tasting” of the good things of God and of life. The ugly period is the time that the person truly makes his life choice. Is he willing to live in a way that honors God? Is he willing to make the choices he needs to make to stay sober, even when it is a struggle?
The grooves cut by the old pathways run deep. Changing those pathways during flood stage—when life is overwhelmed with good things—that is one thing. But changing the course of the water during the dry season—that is all but impossible. When the “glory” fades, the old tendencies scream to be obeyed. Life is stressful. Can the new believer or the addict truly change the direction of those channels?
Too often, the church does not understand what is happening during this time of testing. The difficult stage is almost universal as people attempt to get heart change. When the ugly stage starts, people often give negative feedback. “What’s wrong with you?” or “I thought you had changed but now I’m not so sure.” This feedback is like pouring gasoline on the fire of insecurity raging on the inside of the one who is trying to change. He needs to know that the ugly stage is a normal part of heart change. He needs to be encouraged to connect with God and others in a greater way. Negative feedback often causes him to withdraw. When he does that, it is all but a sure thing that he will fall back to the old ways.
Much of the time, we lack the realism that we need to guide those going through heart change. It is a messy process. There will be steps forward and steps backward. There will be extended periods that are ugly. The key question is the direction and the connection. If the person stays connected to those who will guide him in a positive direction, he will likely get heart change. If he shrinks back in condemnation, he will likely fall back … possibly to a worse place than before he started the positive journey.
Do you want to help others get heart change? Do you have a clear picture of what it takes to change the direction of their lives? If you would like to know more about what it takes to get heart change, I cover these principles in detail in the Heart Change Handbook(available at effectiveheartchange.com). Doing things the right way is not immediate ... but it is effective!