“Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing Himself.” Leo Tolstoy.
There hardly is anything more challenging for human beings than committing to change. Whether it is changing how we think or act; overcoming weaknesses or implementing new habits, the old maxim “you cannot teach an old dog new tricks” is indeed, to many of us, as true as it is sad.
I thought about that as I talked to someone this past week. Once again, this person reacted to a situation in a way that only brings pain to herself. Impulsivity got the best of her, and, before she knew it, hurtful words poured out of her mouth, pushing someone away.
“How much does one have to lose before they change?” I thought to myself.
Truth be told, we all struggle with that, in one way of another. As Tolstoy’s quote from his political manuscript “Three Methods of Reform” states, we have ideas about changing others, but hardly recognize how much we ourselves must change.
This is true concerning all aspects of life. We plant our feet on social or personal behaviors that may have worked in the past, but do not work anymore. We say things that we shouldn’t… and repeat them once more. Bad habits remain unchanged. Sins continue to master over our lives. We settle in our ways and refuse to move. In the process, some of us collect a long list of losses, heartbreaks and even enemies. All because we refuse to look within ourselves and, not only acknowledge our flaws, but take steps toward change.
During one of his missionary journeys across the Roman empire, the apostle Paul established the church of Ephesus, located in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey), where he spent three years. Later, while in house arrest in Rome, the apostle wrote the letter to the Ephesian church, which is believed to have been written as a circular letter, to be sent to all the churches in the area. In that epistle, Paul does not confront the church with any particular issue. Rather, the apostle used it to instruct believers on key elements of the Christian faith, as well as affirm the nature of the church — believers were to understand that they are showered with God’s kindness, brought near to God, chosen for greatness, and empowered to overcome all weaknesses.
On the fifth chapter of the epistle, these sober words jump off the page: “See that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise.” Or, in other words, “Don’t just aimlessly, carelessly walk through life. Live carefully, act with purpose.”
The word “circumspectly” here is the translation of a Greek work used in accounting terms referring to precision, careful counting. It means we are to live with precise, deliberate and calculated movements. It means we make a decision to change our ways before we are confronted with the next challenge. It means we bite our tongue when tempted to lash out, or leave the room when feeling our blood pressure rise. It means we avoid situations where things that tempt us are freely offered, and intentionally walk past places we should not enter. It means we pray before acting … and do not move until we have peace to do so.
It means we commit to change. Not others, but ourselves first.
“That’s the way I am” is simply not the great excuse some people believe it to be. As I think about my own life, I realize how much my relationships changed after I understood that God freely gives us the power to overcome our weaknesses, whatever they are. For many years, I lived by Frank Sinatra’s motto and “did it my way.” The results were nothing to brag about. It was not until I surrendered my weaknesses to God and started doing things his way, that I was able to change my record (no pun intended).
Today, when tempted to impose change upon others, I confront myself first. If everyone did the same, we might not be able to change humanity as Tolstoy envisioned, but we can certainly change our families. Perhaps (wild thought) … even our country.