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How to Change
January 3, 1993


Happy New Year! Will it be a new year or just more of the same? Is your life predictable? Is it boring? Do you find yourself wishing you could change but finally give up? Some people make New Year's resolutions. But how long does the resolution last? How many diets have you started only to find that it is very difficult, even impossible to break the eating patterns. People have a difficult time breaking addictions—smoking, drinking, overworking, temper, eating. Do you find yourself running old tapes? Do you remember saying, “When I'm a parent, I'll never treat my children like that!” only to find yourself repeating exactly what your parents did to you? I sometimes ask brides during the premarital counseling sessions, “Would you like to be married to the groom's father? Chances are in a few years your husband will treat you just like his father treats his mother.” After all, the only training most of us have had to be married is by observing our parents. The only training most of us had to be parents is by how we were reared. And we find ourselves repeating what was done to us. We run the old tapes. Changing patterns of behavior, changing operating systems, changing personality traits, is a difficult task. Is it impossible? Or are we really caught in a vicious cycle of repetition?

Our scripture lesson this morning says we are caught in repetition. Ecclesiastes cynically wrote, “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to harvest, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time for war and a time for peace.” Ecclesiastes was illustrating the popular philosophy of cycles where everything is cyclical, everything has a season, everything is under inexorable law. History is a cycle of events which occur in endless repetition. According to this passage of Scripture, we are doomed to repeat—hopeless, But, thank God, the Bible doesn't end when with Ecclesiastes! 

Ecclesiastes logically concludes, “What’s the use”. Notice how the editors of the Bible separates verse nine. In the New Revised Standard Version, an arbitrary title is inserted between verse eight and verse nine, as if first nine is starting some new section, as if he has moved on to a new topic. I think it makes more sense to read verse nine as a conclusion of the section rather than as an introduction to the new section. The logical conclusion of cyclical, repetitive repetitive events is verse nine—“What gain has the worker from his toil?” What gain? In other words, why work? What's the use? Why try to change? We're doomed to repetition. What's the use of New Year resolutions? If we are doomed to a life of a “time for this and a time for that”, what’s the use?

But thank God, the Bible does not stop with Ecclesiastes. Thank God we are not condemned to predestination. Thank God we are not condemned to repeat our parents’ behavior. Thank God we are not condemned to forever repeating the bad habits we have learned. Change is possible. Breaking the cycle is possible. Conversion is possible. But change is not easy. Change is not the result of an intellectual resolution. Change is not realized by lip service. Yes, behavior patterns can be changed. Yes, personalities can be changed. Yes, we can learn new ways of communicating. Yes, we can improve our relationships with one another. Yes, but how? 

There is a word we avoid whenever possible. There is a word that is not popular because it implies deep surgery. There's a word that Jesus used to define his ministry—“Repent.” Jesus began his ministry preaching as did John the baptist before him—we have to repent. Mark 1.14-15, “Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God and saying, the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Repent literally means to turn around; to make an about face. Repent means to renounce and start over. We're talking about radical surgery. There's a verse we all need to memorize and put into our heads, Acts 26.20. Paul, preaching to King Agrippa, expresses the good news. “Repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance.” That's a three step process to break the cycle of repetition. Listen again. Repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. Can you remember that? Are you quick studies? Say it with me. Repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. One more time, repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance—a remarkable verse.

The first step in changing is to repent, turn around, change one’s thinking, honestly confront the problem, confess it, express it, get your head around it, focus it into a phrase, into a state. Alcoholics who are sincere about recovery begin their repentance with the admission, with a confession. They have learned to make a public confession and usually in a safe environment like an AA meeting. Repentance begins with publicly admitting “I am an alcoholic”. Focus the entire problem into one simple statement. There is power in stating the obvious; there is power in articulating that from which you are repenting. There is power in admitting and confessing that I have a problem with food, or I have a temper, or I am running my mother's tapes, or I react to my spouse and we are immediately caught up in repetitive destructive behavior. The first step in change is to make a clear, honest confession.

The second step: Paul said, “Repent and turn to God.” “I am powerless”, says the alcoholic. We can't do it by ourselves. We self-made people who think we need no one else have created a helpless, hopeless case, powerless to change. We were not created to live independently, completely on our own resources. We were created to need God. We are out of step with creation. We are out of touch with the power of healing until we are connected to God. Power comes not from ourselves. Power comes from the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit can only help us when we are willing to repent, when we are willing to admit honestly we have a problem and ask for God's help. Turn to God said Paul, repent and turn to God. And turning to God without repenting is only half the battle. Turning to God and expecting God to work a miracle in our lives without repentance, without any resolve to change, without admitting and confessing what the problem is, is hopeless. It's like going to the doctor and expecting the doctor not only to cure you, but to tell you what's wrong with you, to tell you the problem. 

We've also learned from Alcoholics Anonymous the importance of a support group. Not only do we need God, but we need to experience the power of God as it comes to us through other people who listen to us, who encourage us, who love us and support us. Repent and turn to God. 

The third step according to Paul is to do deeds consistent with repentance. That's an important step. Do deeds consistent with repentance. Change your behavior. Whether you feel like it or not, do deeds consistent with what you want to change. Recovering alcoholics immediately stop drinking. Before they feel like it; before they have been healed; before they have recovered; before their body is ready; before their mind is ready they stop drinking cold turkey. Somehow we in our culture have been taught that we change our head first, that we change our thinking first, and then our behavior changes. No, no, no, it's the other way around. We change our behavior and the behavior changes our feelings. The behavior changes our thinking. Act as if you're already changed. That's faith. Act in the faith that the transformation, the change has already occurred. We break the patterns of behavior by changing our behavior. We change a bad habit, we break the pattern, we break the power of the pattern by changing the behavior.

So do you want a new year? Do you want to break a habit? For example, and I oversimplify this just to illustrate the process, take a workaholic. We have a lot of them in this culture. We have a lot of them here in Silicon Valley. A workaholic works evenings, weekends, 70 to 80 hours a week. His boss loves him but his wife is ready to divorce him. He's a stranger to his family. He’s a workaholic.

The first step in recovery is to repent, to admit and to say out loud to someone else. “I am a workaholic.” Secondly, turn to God. Admit your powerlessness in the face of your addiction. Pray, get some support from family and friends. The third step is to change behavior. Start small. Leave the office at five o'clock two days a week. Take no work home. Plan the evening with the family. Do not answer the phone. Many of us are addicted to that stupid telephone. Let it ring! Change behavior in small, but drastic ways. Don't wait until you feel like working less. Don't wait until your thinking changes. Just do it. Make some small drastic behavioral changes; otherwise you're doomed to repetition, doomed to repeat endless cycles.

Do you want a new year? Paul said, “Repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance.”

© 1993 Douglas I. Norris