Why haven’t I changed?

It can be frustrating.

You have habits of thought and habits of action that are ingrained in you—actions that were modeled by others around you, patterns of living that you’ve slowly given yourself to over time, inner thoughts or viewpoints that have gained the place of prominence in your worldview—and somewhere along the way you’ve realized that you need to change. And yet change never seems to come.

So you pray. You ask God to help you change. And still, things seem to stay the same. You’re stuck on repeat. Those habits of thought and action that you’re trying to break, that you’ve asked God to break, remain.

It becomes frustrating. I’ve prayed. So why haven’t I changed?

I’ve been there, and often I’m still there. And what I’ve found to be true is this: the answer to “Why haven’t I changed?” comes by first considering four other questions.

DO YOU KNOW JESUS?

When we’re talking about life change from God, we’re talking about the term “sanctification.” Put most simply, sanctification means to be made more like Jesus. That’s what we’re seeking when we ask God to help us put away a wrong attitude or action—that it would be replaced with a right attitude or action, that is, one that is more in line with God’s will for us expressed perfectly in Jesus.

This change to be more like Jesus can’t occur in us if we haven’t first been given a new heart by Jesus.

Before someone is saved by faith in Jesus, he cannot grow in Christlikeness. Scripture says “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8). Those who are apart from Christ, who haven’t been given a new heart by Christ, cannot do the things that are pleasing to God.

If you want your actions and your attitudes to be pleasing to God, you have to first know God, and that comes only through faith in Jesus Christ. When a person puts her trust in Jesus Christ, she does so through faith that Jesus is the Son of God who gave his life on the cross for her sins, was raised by God on the third day, and now rules in heaven at God’s right hand, and she does so through repentance, that is, turning from her sins to follow Jesus. When that happens, Scripture says she is given a new heart, a heart that can know God, leading to a life that is progressively changed more into his likeness.

So, first, do you know Jesus? Have you confessed your sin, placing your trust in Jesus alone for forgiveness, and turned to follow him by faith?

ARE YOU LISTENING TO GOD?

If you know Jesus, you can be confident that he desires that your life be changed to be more like him! He wants you to put off the wrong actions and attitudes, and he wants you to put on godly actions and godly attitudes. He wants your sanctification.

How do we know that? Because he actually prayed that for you!

In John 17, just before he was crucified, Jesus prayed this: “Sanctify them in truth. Your word is truth.”

Jesus prayed for your sanctification, but notice, he said that it would come through the truth of God’s word. If you want to see life change, you don’t only need to tell God in prayer, you need to hear from God in his word.

Scripture is God’s word to you in written form. From cover to cover, Genesis to Revelation, he has made himself and his will known in the Bible. As we seek life change, it can be helpful to search for certain things in God’s word. For instance, if you’re struggling with a quick temper, it can be helpful to look up verses on anger, passages like James 1:19–20. But it’s also good to read larger passages of Scripture, even places that may seem unrelated to anger or a quick temper. Because Scripture continually points me to Jesus, the more I read Scripture, the more I’m progressively changed to be like him. We hear the voice of God through God’s word, and as we hear his voice with faith, he changes us to be more like him (see 2 Corinthians 3:18). The question is, are we listening?

Do you have a steady intake of God’s word through the church and through your own time reading Scripture? Are you listening to the truth through which God sanctifies you?

ARE YOU OBEYING WHAT YOU KNOW?

We are to listen to God’s word and we are to obey God’s word. Change comes as God continues to shape our hearts and give us new desires for him and for godliness, and one of the ways that he does that is through our faithful obedience to what he has commanded.

Paul instructs each of us in the letter to the church at Philippi to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:13) and also to “hold true to what we have attained” (Phil. 3:16), that is, to keep obeying what we know to be true. Obedience matters. We’re to strive—that’s the word in Hebrews 12:14—for holiness, and part of that is through obeying God’s word to us.

So it’s a simple question, but if you’re wondering “why haven’t I changed?”, it’s an absolutely necessary question: Are you obeying what you know?

ARE YOU KEEPING THE LONG-TERM VIEW?

Finally, if you desire change, keep in mind that change is rarely quick, but even the truth that change is a process is ultimately for our good.

The word that has been used twice already is the word “progressive.” Sanctification is progressive. God progressively, or little by little, makes us more like Jesus. It’s a process, a lifelong process that is only complete when we one day see Jesus face to face (1 John 3:2).

This is why the writer of Hebrews instructs the church to continually strive after holiness (Hebrews 12:14) and it’s why the apostle Paul says that “the new self is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). It’s a continual process of sanctification from God in us that we’re to pursue.

Change is often slower than we’d like, and while that’s not easy, it is good. It keeps us focused on him for the grace to change, and not patting ourselves on the back for the speed by which we’ve changed. It keeps us relying on God, which forces us to continually walk with God, which is where we find life. It keeps us humble, and the Lord lifts up the humble (Psalm 147:6).

In my home, we have a doorframe where we chart the growth of our children. I don’t see my daughters’ growth every day. I can’t even tell a difference after I’ve been away for a few days or a week. But when we have them stand by the wall once or twice a year, and I place my hand on their heads, and mark where they are, it’s quite incredible to see how much they’ve grown. And the same is true for us.

Since change is a slow process, don’t get discouraged when you pray today and tomorrow you don’t see much change. But if you’ve been walking with Jesus, look back one year. Are you further down the road than you were this time last year? Are you more like Christ than you were this time five years ago?

Keep walking with Jesus and next year at this time, look back, and give thanks to God for what he has done to begin bringing about the change that you’re praying for now.

Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash