Four steps to graceful change in the new year.
Whether or not you’ve made any New Year’s Resolutions, this is a natural time to reflect on the changes we might like to make in our lives.
Unfortunately, a lot of efforts to change are driven by self-recrimination. We try to shame ourselves into the changes we’d like to make. “What’s wrong with me?” “What can’t I just do this already?”
The Role of Guilt
Guilt can play a part in the change process but there is a difference between guilt as a loving correction of the Holy Spirit and guilt that’s a temptation from Satan to remain stuck. Healthy guilt allows us to remain hopeful in the face of our struggles. It challenges us to change while simultaneously allowing us to feel hopeful about the possibilities for healing and transformation. Neurotic guilt simply causes us to ruminate about our mistakes and the hopelessness of it all.
Guilt on the Brain
Neuroscientists tell us that neurotic guilt make change more difficult. The more we beat up on ourselves, the more brain chemicals that accompany self-hatred inhibit brain cells from growing and making new connections–both of which are necessary for new behaviors to develop and new lessons to stick.
COAL: Fuel for Change.
The spiritual life is all about growth and change. In Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart (Image, 2015), I present a brain-wise approach for creating graceful change. The four-step process employs the acronym COAL which stands for Curiosity, Openness, Acceptance, and Love. Whether you are trying to be more consistent about your prayer time, get control of your temper, lose weight, or any other concern, research shows that approaching change with these qualities in mind facilitates the brain processes that allows our efforts to take root.
Curiosity refers to a genuine desire to understand ourselves. Curiosity allows us to ask important questions like, “What hurt am I trying to address with this behavior?” “What is the godly motivation behind my fallen choices?” The truth is, most of our unhealthy and even destructive behaviors represent a distorted effort to meet a legitimate need. As GK Chesterton put it, “Every man who knocks on the door of the brothel is looking for God.”
Curiosity allows to overcome the judgmentalism that shuts down healthy self-examination. It assumes that in the face of our brokenness we have something to learn and God has something to teach us.
While curiosity allows us to ask questions about our motivations in the first place, openness allows us to receive, with an open heart, the answers that come to us. Without openness, we may end up dismissing or negating the insights that come forward as the result of our attempts to understand our deeper motivations. Openness allows us to consider our insights in a spirit of prayer. Openness does not require us to accept, as gospel, every silly thought or excuse that pops into our head, but it requires us to admit that there might be more to our initial thoughts than meets the eye. Our prayerful openness gives God the chance to develop the pictures that begin to emerge under the light of his grace.
Acceptance does not mean that we rejoice in our brokenness. It simply means that we are willing to face the changes that need to occur and be patient with the process of change–even if that takes time. Acceptance stops us from giving up in frustration just because we’ve had a bad day and fallen off the wagon–so to speak. True acceptance facilitates the diligence and fortitude that graceful change requires. We address what we can, as conscientiously as we can, and trust God’s infinite mercy to make up the difference.
To love is someone is to be committed to working for their good. The same applies to loving ourselves. Committing to loving ourselves through change means finding healthy ways to meet the positive intentions or needs that underlie our destructive or undesirable behaviors. It means refusing to give up on ourselves when we become frustrated. It means clinging to the fact that God believes in our capacity for change even when we can’t believe in ourselves. Finally, it means being gentle with ourselves while we continue to steadfastly pursue our goals.
Cooperating with Grace
The Christian life is all about transformation, conversion and healing. By using COAL as our fuel for change, we can cooperate with God’s design of our brain to bring about greater peace in our hearts. To learn more about how you can fulfill God’s desire to make graceful change in your life, check out Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.