What are the basic ingredients of positive character change? Four: distress, truth, the Holy Spirit, and intimacy. Distress is the universal motivator to change. Distress usually comes from circumstances that press in on a person, although it sometimes comes from conscience—a recognition that what one ought to be and wants to be does not line up with what one is. Distress may be immediate (like unemployment, a coming-apart marriage, serious physical illness, or depression) or background (like meaninglessness, fear of power structures, the inevitability of death, or unexpiated guilt). Distress may afflict one person more than another or more at one time than another. Despite these variations, distress is a universal experience, because it is linked to sin, a sinfully corrupted nature, and life in a sinful world, which are experienced by all people. A person cannot change without a healthy dose of truth that reveals the person’s present reality, illuminates the better future one might attain, and how to get from the one to the other. "Truth" covers a lot of territory—for example, the biblical Book of Proverbs has much practical wisdom that people of all religions would recognize as good advice, and there is much truth to be found in careful observation of human nature, which is publicly available. But the absolutely pure repository of truth is the Bible, and the heart of the Bible is the gospel. All truth, biblical and extrabiblical, coheres with itself because truth is not merely a body of knowledge but a person—Jesus Christ—in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17). Knowledge is essential, but without the disposition to acquire it and act on it, change does not occur. This is an especially acute problem when we are talking about change in a person's character, one's moral disposition. The Holy Spirit alters that disposition so that a person wants a better thing than they wanted before and is willing to endure the pain of change necessary to achieve it. The Spirit is the power who transforms a person. The Spirit of Christ also mediates the presence of Christ to them. By being with Christ by the Spirit in the Bible and in prayer, Christ rubs off on the person, who becomes like the company they keep. That company includes others who are also being formed into Christ’s image by the Spirit. Intimate relationships are often the essential environment of change. Truth often comes not from a book but from the mouth of an intimate friend. Intimate friends pray for each other to be clothed in the Spirit’s power. Intimate relationships can even be the source of the distress that motivates change! Moreover, intimate relationships form the environment in which change can be sustained over the long haul.
While there are many points of contact between this recipe for change and the model implicit in the culture at large, there are big differences too.
(1) The culture at large does not like to think about character change in the first place, because (a) it has lost a philosophy of human nature that includes moral character and (b) it is allergic to the notion that one’s character is defective. When the world is forced to think about character change, it unhelpfully reduces character change to skills acquisition. For example, if the character problem is a lack of generosity, the solution is the blunt counsel to “be more generous,” perhaps with a practical method, but without addressing the person’s interior disposition not to be generous. (2) The truth provided to the individual who needs to change is often sound and good, but it is hollow without Christ in the center. He is the ultimate answer—the reason to change, the model of what to be changed into, and the one who made change possible by putting failure to death on the cross and rising again for our new life. (3) Mainstream change plans do not rely on the Holy Spirit as the agent of change. The person who needs to change is expected to change themselves by their own willpower. When it comes to moral transformation, this is a weak power source. (4) Mainstream change very often does not include intimacy. Few are prone to lose face with others, even with close friends and family, by revealing failure, so they are on their own. When intimacy becomes necessary, it is professionalized. The one-way, narrow-bore intimacy of a therapeutic relationship may be very helpful, sometimes critical, but it is necessarily buffered from ongoing, everyday living where change must be acted out and sustained.