What are the most common causes of failure to change? For clarity and efficiency of argumentation, we will restrict the definition of change to those transformations that affect living and working habits. Most often, habits stand in the way of success and performance.
“The will is everything!” Is it really?
In a 2011 study, 27% of respondents to the “Stress in America” questionnaire reported that a weak will is the most significant change deterrent. At the same time, a good proportion of those who participated in the study believe that the power of the will is something that can be learned and strengthened through exercise. The hypothesis is confirmed in recent research.
Popular synonyms for the will include determination, inner impulse, self-discipline, or self-control. Still, psychologists characterize the will, or self-control, in much more precise terms. According to most psychologists, willpower can be defined as:
(1) the ability to delay reward,
(2) resisting short-term temptations in order to achieve long-term goals,
(3) the ability to ignore unwanted thoughts, feelings, or impulses,
(4) conscious and effortful stabilization of the self,
(5) a limited resource that can be exhausted.
Indeed, repeated resistance to impulses weakens the will, just like a muscle gets tired after physical exertion.
“How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9)
Research has confirmed the hypothesis that the exhaustion of the will can be prevented through beliefs and attitudes. There are several examples in the Bible where the will is repeatedly required, but the person in question resists thanks to a constantly cultivated faith or attitude. We will discuss two examples. In the Old Testament, Joseph, the son of Patriarch Jacob, who was employed by an Egyptian dignitary, was harassed “day after day” by his wife, who openly made advances to him (Genesis 39:10). One day, Joseph had to respond to these indecent insistences and rhetorically asked, “How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9)
In the absence of this perspective—of adherence to the moral code of the Supreme Being—I see neither how nor why Joseph would have been infinitely opposed. Another example is the inner battle of Jesus, who, during the most difficult time in the Garden of Gethsemane, found His determination in the words addressed to God: “Yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). He thus prayed, aware of the weakening of His will and the possibility of giving up. In both cases, their will was weakened by overwork, but their faith in God supported it.
Equilateral or balanced
Some individuals are prone to perfectionism. We can define perfectionism as the tendency to set standards that are unjustifiably high and measure an individual’s value in relation to his or her ability to meet those standards. Usually, people apply perfectionist standards to themselves. The causes of this type of personality are many and include family, social, and media pressure, and unrealistic models.
Some individuals are prone to perfectionism
Therapists working with these kinds of people suggest that talking to patients about lowering their standards is not effective. They know or have already received such advice, which makes them less cooperative. Therapists are rather advised to work on the elements that precede perfectionism, namely, the need for acceptance and personal care, which seems to guide perfectionist behaviour. People in this category are advised to intentionally do things just well enough, even if this means imperfect when compared to the initial standards. This exercise changes their attitude towards alleged failures and their acceptance and sets standards in a more appropriate way.
I remember well how, during my pastoral activity, a young woman shared with me the frustration of not having reached the standard of moral perfection that she heard about and that was recommended to her, from various sources. I quickly understood not only the frustration but also the intention to give up the standard and the fight altogether. Indeed, “man will never rise higher than His standard of purity, or goodness, or truth”. This standard is Jesus, in all His perfection (1 John 2:6).
Moreover, Jesus fills in what is and, frankly, will always be missing from us humans. I am referring, of course, to the image in Jesus’ parable of a king who conditioned attendance to his son’s wedding on a gala dress. That wedding garment had to be worn by all people, the bad as well as the good (Matthew 22:10, 11). This means that no matter how high up you are on the scale of morally “good”, there will always be something to be supplemented by God’s free and undeserved grace or favour.
Underestimating the difficulty of the process
It is very possible that the process of change is much more difficult in reality than in the initial estimate. When encountering difficulties, there is a chance that the will and motivation will be weakened, or even nullified. Therefore, I find the two pertinent questions of Jesus very useful: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? (…) Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?” (Luke 14:28, 31).
It takes a bit of management and self-knowledge here, but also the perseverance of the righteous individual, of whom the Jewish poet says that “whatever they do prospers” (Psalm 1:3). By linking the difficulty of the process to the perfectionism analyzed above, we understand that we must ensure that the difficulty is not caused by unrealistic personal aspirations.
In this case, whatever we encounter is potentially manageable. At the same time, it is very possible that the failure to complete the change due to struggles is not attributed to the difficulty of the process, as it should be, but to the self, which leads to discouragement. If we understand that the difficulty of change lies mainly in the process and secondarily in our lack of capacity, this conclusion will help us to persevere.
Discouragement is present in the lives of most from the time of adolescence, when in the schooling process students encounter difficulties (costs, resources), high employment targets (very good grades) and constraints (limited number of openings available). When it comes to change, of course, attitude is crucial in this process. A spirit that is disheartened will not fight like one that is full of determination.
It has been known for almost a century that both encouragement and discouragement have a significant impact on performance, so it makes sense that these will also impact on change. We must understand, however, that while normal, discouragement must not have control over decisions and their implications. Settling for discouragement depresses the spirit and will stand in the way of change.
So, we are not guilty of being tried by discouragement, but we are responsible for the way we manage it.
The remedy for discouragement is often within, when we understand that we are only competing with ourselves, and we could really win against ourselves, next time. However, when internal resources are minimal, we need an external push, something that is no longer related to our natural abilities. It’s just like when you want to know that someone up there sees you, knows you, loves you. Both Old Testament poetry (Psalm 27:14) and prophecy (Daniel 10:19; Haggai 2:4) encourage us to “be strong”. And those to whom these words are addressed will be strong, in the hope and confidence that they will receive help from God because they are not alone.
The transformation of the spirit
Let us move on to what may be the reserve of power when will, failure, struggle and discouragement have jeopardized the completion of change. I call this section “the transformation of the spirit” because it encompasses two key words. Change means transformation, and transformation is important first in the spirit. Why? Because, according to the Christian Scriptures, it is the spirit that “gives life,” whether we are speaking of the Spirit of God (John 6:63), or the spirit of people (Haggai 1:14). This is because, when it is blocked by any of the above causes, the spirit needs refreshment, life, motivation—and sometimes, without the touch of Heaven, nothing happens.
It is not enough to follow patterns, but you need to change your mindset and reconfirm your adherence to biblical values.
When he said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17), the apostle Paul was referring to the renewal of the mind and the spirit. Someone who regularly seeks this source of renewal will only benefit. The same Paul distinguishes between conformity and transformation when he says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).
Yes, it is not enough to follow patterns, but you need to change your mindset and reconfirm your adherence to biblical values. Only then will you have the resources to persevere in a change that must be continuous.
How many times can we fail?
When observing, analyzing, and tackling each of the causes of the failure of change, we can only wonder how many times we can fail. The simple answer would be, “Whenever it’s necessary for change.” You read that right. Instead of inhibiting change, failure has a stimulating and catalytic role. Failure matures and creates opportunities for repositioning towards life and its goals.
God is willing to completely rehabilitate us
The story of the apostle Peter is a good example. He betrayed Jesus three times, as Jesus had told him he would, even though Peter did not believe Him (Mark 14:30-31). However, after repenting and meeting Jesus face to face again after the resurrection, the Saviour asked the failing disciple three times, “Do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15-17) From this final meeting, we learn not only that forgiveness is granted when we ask for it, but that God is willing to completely rehabilitate us so that we can reassume the role or duties we had when we failed, this time in a new spirit and with a fresh determination.
Laurenţiu Moţ identifies the main obstacles to change and searches the Bible with the hope of finding new resources to overcome them.