It's Not Our Job to Change People
How can we relax into the reality that we can't change people (even if we try)?
It’s not our job to change people.
Now, of course, people do change (let’s not believe the myth that “people don’t change.” Obviously people change. I have immensely. If you’re reading this, I’ll bet you, too, can look back at many of the ways in which you’ve changed!).
So yes, people can and do change, but nonetheless I believe it’s not our job to change them.
Now, to be sure, when people make substantive changes in their life (such as how they think, what they feel, what they believe), they will almost certainly be able to point to individuals in their life who played significant roles in their transformation: maybe an author or podcaster, perhaps a co-worker or acquaintance, maybe a close friend or a family member.
So, yes, people change… and, people change as a result of the inspiration of, or, the challenge from, other people.
Somehow I believe both that people-change-people, AND, that it’s not our job to change people.
Let me try and explain.
My understanding of how a person changes is that it first requires a space in their heart to open up enough to allow new information in to their mind. If that can happen, and if the novel information is not immediately rejected, then it might either replace something old, or update an existing idea with new data, or maybe just settle itself on to the bookshelf of your mind as an entirely new and noteworthy idea.
Consider for a moment from your own life something that you changed your mind on. Can you put into words exactly how that happened? I don’t mean—like I said a second ago—who some of the influencers were in that process. I mean can you tell me exactly how and when and why your mind changed? Again, you might be able to tell me about a story you heard that opened your heart, or what piece of data and research you found that broadened your perceptive, and those things are great. But I’m talking about that final moment when suddenly you stopped being a person who thought X and almost quite suddenly became a person who thinks Y.
How does that happen?!
What I’m getting at here is that it’s kind of magical that such a thing can even happen (If you’ve never looked in to neuroplasticity, I suggest you give it a whirl). It’s astounding that we can literally change our hearts and minds on a given idea or topic—especially when that something was something that was a really big deal in our lives in the past. Such as a big theological concept, or a significant political position, or how you see relationships, or your beliefs about the essence of what it means to be human, and so on.
And while we can list the people who helped us get there, and we can name the stories or arguments that we found convincing, at the end of the day the actual turning of the dials, the flipping of the switch, the updating or creating of new neural pathways, I think happens on a level beyond our conscious choosing.
When I think about all the ways I’ve changed and transformed over the years I just end up coming back to the word Grace. Because for me I can’t fully explain it, but I know it’s a gift. I know Im grateful for it.
That’s not to say it wasn’t hard work, or that I (or you) don’t deserve credit for the changes we’ve made. It’s just that, it’s not always obvious to me why I changed, how, or when. I just… did. And that’s, I dunno, Grace. I don’t know how much credit I deserve, truthfully.
So when I say something like, “It’s not our job to change people,” there’s a sense in which that brings me great relief because I don’t actually think I can change people. At the end of the day, sure, I might be one of the people that so-and-so might point to and say, “you really helped me see things differently,” and I’m suuuuper honored to play that role for people, but I can’t take credit for their actual heart and mind having been changed.
As I said, I think such transformation happens at a level of consciousness that I cannot influence. Such change is a thing of Grace, and I’m not the Giver of such Gifts.
JESUS SENDING OUT HIS DISCIPLES, BUT TELLING THEM IT’S NOT ABOUT THEM
Here’s a story in the Gospels from Luke 10.
1 After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2 He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ 6 And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7 Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9 cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ (jumping ahead a few verses…)
16 “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
A couple quick observations.
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The first thing that stood out to me in this story was how the author said that Jesus sent these 70 disciples to go on ahead to the cities that he himself was planning to visit. Almost as though the only job the disciples had was to prepare people for an interaction with Jesus. Your job, Jesus said, just go out and announce the kingdom. Prepare them for my presence.
Next, I notice how Jesus wanted his disciples to be mindful of their output. Protect their energy. If the town welcomes them, then he says “don’t move from house to house.” Like, don’t be all frenetic and anxious, trying to get everywhere and do all the things. And then even more to the point, he didn’t seem to want his disciples to waste their time or energy on people who clearly were not interested in what they were selling. If they ran in to people who responded to them with, “ah hell no! get outta here!” then Jesus was like, “uh, yeah, just move on. Shake the dust from your feet. Accept their rejection, and move on.” For me, this makes sense in light of what I mentioned a minute ago about how, in order to change our minds, it requires the teensiest opening in our heart space first. If that isn’t there yet, ooof, just move on. Do not waste your precious time and energy.
And then the last thing I want to say here is right at the end Jesus told them, “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me.” Now, for sure, many of us came from church contexts where folks LOVE this verse because it gave us license to be obnoxious Christians, standing on the corner with our bullhorns, condemning people to hell, and then be like, “what?! if they reject you, don’t worry, it’s not you they’re rejecting, it’s God!” So this verse has become a kind of cover for Christians to be terrible citizens and rude neighbors, all the while claiming some position of superiority, and not at all being bothered by how much they bothered people.
So I see that, and I name that. But let’s set that aside for a moment. Instead, what if we hear Jesus say, “Whoever listens to you listens to ME, whoever rejects you rejects ME,” and we direct our thoughts to, “Oh, right, it’s not my job to change people.” God (the giver of the gifts of Grace) is the one who handles the change. If people “listen to me” then it’s only because I’m a conduit of a deeper message of truth and love. And if people reject me, again, they’re not rejecting me, they’re rejecting the Source from which I live and move and have my being.
Either way, it has nothing to do with me.
NOW LET ME BE THE LOVER
I started out by saying, “It’s not our job to change people.” My hope is that such a statement would bring us a wave of calm. A relaxation. An invitation to let go of any weight we might be holding that we are responsible to change people’s minds.
Many of us find ourselves in situations (whether online or IRL) where we get in clunky conversations with people who think radically different from us. And for understandable reasons we might often feel responsible for, or motivated to, try and tell people when we think they’re wrong, and this is why I think I’m right.
And while I’m not against this inclination (clearly, I engage in this kind of fool’s errand more often than I probably should), I do try and bring to these moments a different posture than I have in the past. Specifically, I try and hold an openness that it’s not my job to change their mind. I couldn’t do it even if I tried. So instead, I merely share what I think or believe, answer questions if they are posed in good faith, and let whatever happens happen.
If any of my words or deeds make their way to their minds through an opening in their heart, and someday down the road they too are Graced with a change in perspective, then wow, what a gift. I’m grateful to be a channel, a conduit for love.
And if my words bounce off the hardened shell of their heart, because for whatever reason (and usually it’s fear) they are not ready in their life to hear such a thing, then I merely shake the dust from my feet, try not to take it personally, and move on.
I’ve heard it said that the only thing that truly changes the heart of a human is great Love and great Suffering. While I don’t wish to be part of great suffering for anyone, I do like the thought of being a conduit of Love. So in that spirit, I’ll close with these words from Leonard Cohen. May you hear them as though God herself is speaking to you today, reminding you that she is the Source of Love and the Giver of Grace
“You have loved enough,
Now let me be the Lover.”
May we be people who make of ourselves conduits for Love, so that if God wants to help people change how they see themselves, one another, and the world around them, may She always know
She’s got us out here,
ahead of her,
preparing the way,
as conduits for Her love,
as channels for Her grace,
a Grace that can truly change a person.
NEW SERIES ON PROGRESSIVE CHRISTIANITY
As most of you know, I identify as a progressive Christian.
This term has been the source of much confusion and angst for some Christians while, for others, it has been a helpful way to articulate our religious identity.
If this looks like something you’d dig, make sure you follow along!