By Steven Norris
As I neared the end of my time in seminary, one professor posed a challenge to our class. “We’ve spent a lot of time learning to exegete (interpret) the scriptures effectively. To what degree, however, have we learned to exegete the broader culture around us?” As an experiment, he posed the idea of centering a whole chapel service around the concept of change but using the lyrics of a popular song as our “focal text.”
The song was Tracy Chapman’s 2005 song, “Change,” which contains these lyrics: “How bad, how good does it need to get? / How many losses? How much regret? / What chain reaction would cause an effect? / Makes you turn around / Makes you try to explain / Makes you forgive and forget / Makes you change?”
This is a time of year when many are reflecting on the idea of change. To what degree is it really possible to change who I am? Can I be someone different than I am? When I think about change, is it possible that I am more focused on superficial changes in my circumstances rather than real heart change?
Within the Christian tradition lies the conviction that change is not only possible, it is the goal of a life of faith. As a pastor, I believe in my heart of hearts that God calls us to a life of conversion. Without this conviction, my job would be hopeless. However, conversion is more than just a New Year’s resolution, a magic pill, or a one-time prayer.
Therefore, let me offer three observations about the nature of change at the beginning of this new year. First, lasting change must come from inside. While I can exert influence on someone that might lead to superficial change, lasting life change must begin in the heart. Even severe external motivations like jail or monetary fines don’t guarantee change. A person must desire change with every fiber of their being and be willing to do whatever it takes to make that change a reality.
Second, experience and observation tell me that will power alone is not enough to effect lasting change. The wisdom of the Twelve Steps tells us that surrender is the key and that we need a “higher power” (in other words, God) to step in and “do for us what we could not do for ourselves.” In other words, as Chapman’s songs alludes to in the quote above, we need to come to the end of our rope, the end of ourselves, to hit rock bottom before we can really change.
Finally, change requires discipline and hard work. Most of the people I talk to want change to happen in an instant. We want to snap our fingers or blink our eyes and see instantaneous results. Unfortunately, that is not how change (or faith) works. It is, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “a long obedience in the same direction.”
Conversion is about surrendering control and orienting our lives around a new center — the Way of Jesus. May you have the courage to make the needed changes in your own life in the year ahead.