From the Bishops Change

Caravaggio's 'Conversion on the Way to Damascus' (1601). Caravaggio's 'Conversion on the Way to Damascus' (1601).

Can people change? We would certainly admit that we human beings need to change. There is a great deal about us that needs improving. But are we human beings capable of changing?

Some time ago, I was listening to a discussion of this question on television. The person being interviewed took the position that people cannot change. As an example, he pointed to our new year’s resolutions. Most of these resolutions had to do with personal improvement. We were going to enrich our minds by reading more good books and watching less television. We were going to get in shape by eating less, exercising more, and giving up smoking. We were going to improve our relationships with others by being more compassionate, forgiving, and generous.

That was only four weeks ago. As the person in the television observed, most of us have not done well with these resolutions.

But the person being interviewed went further. He stated that people change only in fictional novels or television programs. It is in the last chapter of the book, or the last five minutes of the show, that the drunk becomes sober, the grouch becomes pleasant, or the miser becomes generous. These changes, he argued, are the stuff of fiction; they do not happen in real life.

It is clear that this person would answer an unambiguous "No" to the question: "Can people change?"

But the New Testament gives a different answer. Jesus clearly believed that people could change. He called people to new and changed lives: Matthew, the tax collector, Zachaeus, the corrupt businessman, Peter, the denier, Martha, the complainer, James and John, the ambitious brothers, Saul, the persecutor, the woman caught in adultery, and many more.

However, it is obvious that, while Jesus called and helped, each person had to respond actively. First, the person had to take responsibility for him/herself. If we wish to change, we cannot blame others for the way we are. It is so easy for us to make excuses for ourselves. It is easy for us to say that we could change if only our spouse would change, if only our children would change, if only our boss would change, if only our neighbors would change, if only he would change, if only she would change, if only the situation would change. And God looks at us and says: "If only you would change."

Our main mission on earth is not to change the world, it is to save ourselves. It is not to change other people, it is to change ourselves. Each of us can probably look back and remember times and places when life treated us unfairly. But to blame the world for our faults is self destructive. It is an exercise in futility to blame our parents, to blame society, to blame anyone but ourselves.

In the Gospel of John (5:6) Jesus asked a sick man, "Do you wish to be healed?" This may seem a foolish question. However, Jesus wished to know if the man wished to change his life. If the man was healed, he could no longer lie on his mat and feel sorry for himself. He would have to get up, carry his mat, and go forth to live as an active member of society. There was a point to Jesus asking the man: "Do you wish to be healed?"

Jesus asks that same question to us. "Do you wish to be healed?" Jesus knows that we are capable of change. God created us and has given us talents, strengths, abilities, and blessings, some of which we probably do not even recognize. One of the most powerful examples of Jesus’ confidence in our ability to change is seen in the call of the apostles. He called a group of fishermen to become great spiritual leaders and the foundation of the Church. Jesus saw in them what they had never seen in themselves. He gave them insights into their own lives. And he provided them with the spiritual strength to become what they really were.

Can people change? The real question is: "Can I change?" The answer is emphatically, but conditionally, "Yes." If we will take responsibility for our own lives, stop blaming others and hold ourselves responsible for what we are; if we heed the call of the One who calls us to follow Him; if we allow the powerful love of God to provide the strength we need for the difficult process of change, then our lives will be changed for the good. 

* Printed with permission from The Catholic Weekly, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Mobile.




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