Can People Really Change?
In the wake of these past weeks of startling revelations about state government officials in Virginia wearing blackface, an obvious offensive act, and actor Liam Neeson’s revelations decades ago about wanting to kill any black person because a black person raped his friend, the question needing to be asked is “Can anyone change their beliefs and behavior”?
As a Christian this is a key and fundamental belief as to what our faith is all about. Jesus said he came to bring life and bring it more abundantly. Said in this context, a person can change what they were to what they need to be. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come; the old has gone, the new is here!”
The Bible is full of changed people. Zacchaeus, a hated tax collector to the Jewish people, upon meeting Jesus, says that he will give half of his wealth to the poor and pay back anyone he has wronged up to four times what he took. Jesus then announces that salvation has come to this house.
Maybe the greatest example is Paul the apostle. Previously he was known as Saul of Tarsus who went around arresting Christians because he thought they were heretics to the Jewish faith. Upon having a dramatic encounter with Jesus’ presence on the Damascus Road, Paul ends up becoming the greatest defender of the faith in his time. But take note that not everyone initially believed he had changed. A believer named Ananias, living in Damascus, had a vision from the Lord while praying. In the vision the Lord tells him that when Paul arrives to pray over him and baptize him. Ananias first response is to tell God are you sure about this and he goes on to say that doesn’t God know about Saul’s Christian hating reputation? Fortunately Ananias believes the vision, and the rest is history.
While this is an absolute truth theologically, it isn’t always true experientially. What I mean is when someone accepts Christ, all of their sins are forgiven, they now have The Holy Spirit living inside them, and when they die they go to heaven. Because they still live in a flawed and sinful body, they don’t become perfect in this life. So if someone still has weaknesses, strongholds in Christian speak, he/she might still commit acts that are wrong. If that is the case they need further ministry to overcome those strongholds.
So back to the original question, can people really change? They can, but we all need a system that can hold us accountable to prove that we have changed. This way we develop a track record of change for all to see. As an example, if a Christian man has committed infidelity in his marriage, says he truly is sorry, asks for forgiveness, and wants to restore his marriage, he needs to do whatever it takes to prove to his wife of his sincerity. Over time the track record will be established and the wife can believe her husband has changed.
Also for those who already have established a track record, it is imperative to create a lifestyle of accountability ongoing, so the likelihood of acting on are darker impulses are not realized.
A follow up question for our culture is what past issues prevent us from being disqualified for certain jobs, even if we have changed? We know there are laws that say if a person is a pedophile, even if he paid his debt to society, he can never work with children again. If an individual commits first degree murder and is sentenced to life in prison, he might truly experience a radical conversion, but will not be let out just because he claims he is a new creation.
It has been reported that one of the worst serial killers of my lifetime, Ted Bundy, was led to Christ by James Dobson of Focus on the Family. If that is true then he would be “changed”. This is difficult to comprehend because if you were the family of one of his victims, it is hard to fathom that Bundy shouldn’t rot in hell forever. However, to let him out of prison would be unconscionable. So just because a person might have changed, there are societal limits as to what that person is allowed to do.
Here though is the bottom line. Like most anything in our culture, certain changes are championed and others are met with cynicism. As hard as it is we Christians have to believe that God can change anybody. If yes, then at some point we must declare that person is truly different. If they are then the past can’t be held against them forever. If it can’t be held against them, then we should say they are allowed to become whatever they want: governor, senator, movie star, CEO of a business. But if there are no fundamental changes then obviously they should be restricted.
All of us should look very carefully at the log in our own eyes before passing judgments on others. As it has often been said, but for the grace of God, go I.