No person is ever satisfied totally with the way he or she is as a human being. Actually, that is a good thing since none of us is exactly like Jesus yet! But many people are not simply unsatisfied in their quest for growth; they are very dissatisfied with who they are as a person. Therefore, the question logically comes: “How did I get this way?” While an answer to this question is a legitimate pursuit, a better one must follow, namely, “How can I change?”
We get the way we are in two basic ways. One, we are born with certain qualities, or certainly tendencies in many areas of both capability and character. While inheritance is not the total issue, nor the final word in who we become, it unquestionably plays a fairly major role. Two, we are molded by our environment, particularly our closest relationships in that environment. Within these two general areas, many possible combinations of inheritance and environment work together to make us who we are at a given point.
Our basic tendencies which are inborn can be positive or negative. Our outside influences can also be positive or negative. In between the two extremes, neutral tendencies and influence are possible, but the extremes are the most important to understanding why we are as we are.
If I am born with a “bent” toward a given quality or ability, my “discipling” (atmosphere, influences) can alter it in a major way. Suppose I have a bent toward mathematics. A strong atmosphere for mathematics by parents and/or teachers can produce a highly skillful mathematician. On the other hand, a negative atmosphere toward math can stifle the bent almost entirely, while a neutral atmosphere would allow it to go in either direction.
The same principle holds true in a character tendency. If I have an inborn tendency for being an unselfish servant, my discipling can affect it significantly. Parents who are themselves unselfish and who actively direct their child toward serving will undoubtedly end up with an unselfish child. On the other side of the coin, selfish parents who train their child in selfishness (consciously or unconsciously) can stifle the positive natural bent in the child’s character. A more neutral environment can produce either general direction (“Allow” is a better word for this influence than “produce.”)
Now let’s apply the principle to negative abilities or character qualities. A person without aptitude for math will never develop math abilities in a negative atmosphere for math. Conversely, a very positive atmosphere for math can significantly alter the person’s ability to do well in the subject. The earlier the emphasis and the more intense the positives are applied, the more the skill can be developed. For example, the person with little or no aptitude for learning new languages has already learned one foreign language quite well–his mother tongue! At any age, a person with high aptitude can learn a new language. At a very young age, with proper training, a person with a low language aptitude can learn a new language. But the older this person gets, the more difficult to offset the lack of aptitude and lack of early training.
Now, let’s apply the principle to a much more sensitive area–that of character qualities. Suppose that I am born with strong tendencies toward selfishness. A selfish environment will strengthen the tendency in a major way. Clearly, two negatives do not a make a positive! However, a positive atmosphere of discipling (parents’ example plus their training of the child) can significantly alter the natural tendency toward selfishness. Again, the earlier and the more intensely the training is applied, the more significantly the change.
When negative tendencies are met with negative atmosphere, the depth of negative character traits goes farther than when positive tendencies are met with negative atmosphere. Changes later in life are possible in either case, but the will be quicker in the latter, and probably more complete. Once growth occurs for a person in either case, a positive atmosphere will likely sustain the changes. A neutral atmosphere will likely sustain the status quo for the positive/negative combination, but probably will not for the negative/negative type person. A return to the negative atmosphere may offset the growth for the positive/negative background person and it will almost certainly destroy all progress for the negative/negative background person.
Thankfully, a person’s own convictions and resolve push virtually any negative atmosphere into the neutral zone. The goal must be to change the atmosphere and the character, and to keep it changed. Success in changes will never be permanent by accident–it takes planning and perseverance. A neutral influence is never an acceptable goal. Satan is strong, sin is real, and we cannot approach righteousness without a serious commitment to it.
The question remains: “How can I change?” Whether we started with negative or positive tendencies, the wrong training took us in the wrong direction. Depending on the degree of negativity in either tendency or environment, the changes may be easier or harder to effect and maintain, but the changes are possible. “All things are possible with God!”
The actual path to change is fairly simple (but not easy). In the case of a child with positive tendencies, he needs mostly direction in which to channel and develop the tendencies. In the case of a child with negative tendencies, he needs a balance of correction and direction. His natural direction must be continually corrected and changed into the right direction. When this approach is applied frequently and consistently, the changes will occur at some point.
Therefore, an older person who missed the early training has to once again become a child (Matthew 18:1-2), and accept the needed correction and direction from God through His Word and through his people. Lasting character changes without God’s principles and God’s plan of discipleship are an impossibility!
The conclusion of the matter is all of us need to develop an accurate view of our weaknesses, develop long-range and short-range plans for change, and put the plans into effect daily. Disciplers are needed to help us see our weaknesses accurately, to formulate practical plans on a weekly basis, and to then help us with the follow-through on a daily basis. If we have deep convictions about our weaknesses, deep desires to change, a plan to help us change behavior, and a strong prayer life to allow God to change our hearts, we will change both character and actions. We will become more and more like Jesus.
At this juncture, our two basic questions have been answered, at least in a general way. Now, one last question remains: “Will you change?” No matter how you got this way, you can change with the help of God. The only issue now is how badly do you want it. Let’s go after it!
—Gordon Ferguson (July 1994)