Don’t go into a relationship — or institution — thinking you can change them

I thought for a long time I could help the church change. How foolish. How prideful.

(Photo by Everton Vila/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

(RNS) — You don’t teach college students as long as I did without being asked from time to time to give relationship advice. And you don’t teach literature to college students as long as I did without being often tempted to offer relationship advice based on the real-life applications of good literature.

One thing I’ve found myself saying to students repeatedly over the years is, “Don’t go into a relationship hoping the other person will change for you.” Only in fairy tales do frogs turn into princes or old hags into maidens with true love’s kiss. Only in romance novels do bad boys become great men because they found a good woman.

To be sure, most of us grow and mature over the course of life. But a change in essential character isn’t likely to take place. It certainly shouldn’t be expected. Thus, I advise the young and in love, don’t bet on it. As Maya Angelou famously put it, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Another point I’ve made in some of my harder conversations with young people is that when you think a person with a bad history (whether that is a history of unfaithfulness, abusive behavior or any kind of character issue) will change for you, there’s an element of self-pride there. No one (apart from Jesus) is “special” enough to transform another person.

Such is the advice I’ve offered countless times to others over the years.

Then, the other day, I suddenly realized that all along I had failed to follow my own advice.

This epiphany came to me while having meaningful conversations during a retreat. (Retreats are great for bringing clarity, aren’t they?) Then, a few days later, Katelyn Beaty posted a Substack newsletter that provided even more clarity. In “No Woman Can Crack the Evangelical Bro Code,” Beaty writes of the well-intended but futile efforts by evangelical women to change institutional cultures constructed by “old boy networks.” She writes:

When things get hard, she can put her head down and tell herself it’s best and perhaps more Christian to stay in the institution and reform from within than to leave for her own well-being. God placed her here for a reason. Reforming from within often means carrying a lonely psychological and spiritual burden, while persistently ignoring one’s own gut and intuition, because how will this place ever change if not for her?

This insight has just as much application in areas of change beyond gender relations.

Many of us who seek change and to be agents of change do so by putting our hopes in the next generation. But in places where the old guard is grooming the next generation precisely in order to replace themselves with replicas of themselves, such hopes are in vain.

(Photo by Ben White/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

(Photo by Ben White/Unsplash/Creative Commons)

I thought for a long time I could help the church (or at least my slice of it) change. I could take a community and denomination rife with racism, cronyism, misogyny and abuse and change it.

How foolish I was.

And prideful, too, I guess.

Now, to be clear, no human institution or community is perfect. Every human institution and community (and person) can be and is influenced by others (whether for good or ill). I firmly believe we can and do make a difference by our mere existence, our presence and our very person wherever we are. This is what it means to be human, to be in this world and to be charged by God to be faithful to him and to one another.

But it is as true of institutions as it is of people: We ought not go in expecting to change them. Instead we must accept them for who and what they are (or aren’t) and enter into relationships (or not) based on who and what they already are.

Unlike fairy tales and romance novels, more complex literature offers us more realistic examples of relational evolution. In “Gone With the Wind,” Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara end up marrying the very person the other is — and somehow seem surprised the other doesn’t change much. Jane Eyre falls passionately in love with a man whose terms for love require her to violate her own Christian conscience. She flees, and though the two are reunited, it comes after her lover has been reformed under a discipline only tragedy can render. In “Pride and Prejudice,” the male characters don’t change. Rather, Elizabeth Bennet comes to recognize the errors in her own judgments, and she arrives at a better understanding of the people around her — and herself.

Certainly, even as with the intelligent and perceptive Lizzie Bennet, our judgments can fail, and our discernment can falter. Sometimes we don’t see who or what a person — or institution — is because of our own history, experiences, upbringing, expectations and blind spots. Such factors can’t be avoided. But being aware of our limited perspective can make us more likely to see and face new understandings when they are made possible.

And to be sure, there are other times when people don’t show who they are at first. Some are skilled with smoke and mirrors.

And most of the time — people, places, events and life being as complicated as they are — a combination of these realities is probably at play.

Just as important is owning our own misplaced trust in ourselves or self-pride in thinking our influence might be greater than it possibly could be; it’s also important not to bear the responsibility for what others have done or failed to do.

Ultimately, our responsibility is to know when it’s time to shake the dust off our feet (Matthew 10:14) — and then do it — in order that we might find the people and places we can embrace as they are.

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