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You’ve got this person in your life, and they really need to change. For years, your husband has struggled with self-control. For years, your wife has struggled with self-loathing. For years, your son has struggled with laziness. For years, your daughter has struggled with body image issues.
At this point, you don’t know how to help them move forward. You don’t know how to help them overcome the sin that has beset them for so long. You’re worn out, and pretty much hopeless. You’ve resigned yourself to things always being the way they are.
What are you supposed to do? Fortunately, the Bible gives us straightforward wisdom on how to really, actually help a person change. And odds are, the Bible’s wisdom probably runs contrary to your own ideas of how to help a person change. It certainly runs contrary to mine!
So, how can you help a person change?
(NOTE: This post assumes you’re more aware of ways you need to change than those around you. If you’re not, you’ve got a bigger problem.)
Repeatedly Pray for Them
We tend to get this wonky, thoroughly unbiblical idea in our minds, that we can actually change people. That by the force of our will, we can move a person from ungodliness to godliness. We think that if we get sufficiently angry, they will see our point and change. They will feel the force of our anger, come under the cutting conviction of the Holy Spirit, and repent.
Of course, this is complete nonsense. We know this both from Scripture and from experience.
James 1:19-20 makes this clear when it says:
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.
The harsh reality is that we cannot cause a person to change. No matter how angry we get, no matter how much we raise our voices, no matter how much huffing and puffing and blustering we do, we cannot cause a person to change. Only God can create true godliness in a person. Only God can bring about repentance. Only God can soften the heart.
If God is the only one who can create change, then the absolute best thing we can do for a person is to pray for them. Not in a, “God, please change this person because they are annoying me,” kind of way, but in a, “God please change this person for their good and Your glory,” kind of way.
Do you want someone to change? Pray for them! Constantly, repeatedly, without ceasing. Pray that God would bless them, fill them with joy, increase their knowledge of Him. Pray that God would give them victory over their sin.
Instead of criticizing the person you want to change, pray for them. For every time you criticize, pray ten times! This is an area I have repeatedly failed in over my life. I have criticized far more than I have prayed. I want to change. I want my prayer-to-criticism ratio to be 10 to 1. Why? Because God really does change people when I pray. The best way to help a person really change is to pray for them.
Repeatedly Encourage Them
This also sounds counter-intuitive. If we want a person to change, encouragement certainly isn’t the answer, right? After all, if I encourage them, they’ll think everything is okay, and everything is NOT okay. They need to hear my criticisms, not my encouragement.
But this isn’t how it works. The Biblical authors followed a very distinct pattern. Before bringing any criticism, they began with encouragement. The way Paul responded to the Corinthians is a prime example of this. The Corinthian church was an absolute circus. The church was embroiled in spiritual gifts mania, sexual immorality, defiling the sacraments, and a host of other problems.
But Paul began his letter to the Corinthians by telling them how GRATEFUL he was for them!
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in Him in all speech and all knowledge even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:4-9)
Do you want to help a person change? Give thanks to God for them. Encourage them. Point out the areas where you see God at work in their life. We often fixate on a person’s weaknesses to the point where we miss all the good things God is doing in a person.
Encouragement is fertilizer for spiritual growth. If you want a person to grow, pour encouragement onto them.
Occasionally Correct Them
There is a time for correction, but that correction should be occasional, and in line with 1 Thessalonians 5:14, which says, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
Sometimes our correction will take the form of admonishment. Sometimes it will take the form of helping someone in their weakness. Sometimes it will take the form of a rebuke. But it will always be done with a spirit of patience. Not anger, not frustration, but patience.
How do we help people really change? PRAY. ENCOURAGE. CORRECT. REPEAT.
Too often we get the sequence of events backward. We correct far more than we pray or encourage. The result? No change.