I’ve recently read Graham Greene’s powerful novel, Brighton Rock. At the heart of the book is the question, can a person truly change? Can someone who is evil become good? At one point two of the central characters, Rose and Ida, talk about this. In response to Rose’s assertion, ‘people change’, Ida says, ‘Oh, no they don’t. Look at me. I’ve never changed. It’s like those sticks of rock: bite it all the way down, you’ll still read Brighton. That’s human nature.’
On one level, the Bible seems to agree with Ida. In Jeremiah 13.23 the prophet coins a phrase which has become a well-known proverb: ‘Can a leopard change its spots?’ he asks, before seeming to answer, ‘no’. Bad people can’t become good people. This perspective resonates with many other passages of Scripture. Our human nature has been marred by our sin and rebellion and, as Paul puts it in Romans 5, we’re ‘powerless’ in the face of this. Deep down, heart, mind and soul change is something we simply can’t manage ourselves. A leopard cannot change its spots. Wherever you bite into a stick of rock you’ll still read the same thing. We need to pause and feel the force of this. On our own we cannot change.
But this is not the Bible’s last word on this subject. Indeed, it is not Jeremiah’s last word. He says that even though God’s people repeatedly broke his old covenant with them, a time is coming when he will do something wonderfully new. God will ‘put his law in their minds and write it on their hearts’. They will all have a transforming relationship with him. The possibility of a new way of living, one which involves dramatic change, suddenly comes into view (Jeremiah 31.31-34).
Jeremiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in the coming of God’s Son and the subsequent pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all who call on him and desire to be disciples of Jesus. And this is truly revolutionary. The New Testament church is profoundly counter-cultural, full of people who are putting their old lives behind them and pressing forward, however imperfectly, to live in new ways. They share their possessions, they care for the poor, they reach out to offer new life to others, they love one another and love their enemies too, their attitudes and actions are reshaped, the barriers between races come down, the oppressed are set free. Real change.
This is the final blog in the series ‘Discipleship in Challenging Times’, although the podcasts of the same name continue. The different posts have been challenging (not least for me!). They have covered topics such as racial justice, holding onto God through depression, vulnerable leadership, knowing God in our weakness, reaching out to comfort and help others, staying faithful in the unprecedented times we live in. None of this is easy. We struggle to live it out. But there is hope. That hope includes the daily forgiveness which is freely poured out on us by our gracious God. But there’s more than this. We are new covenant people! There is power to live differently. Ultimately, we are not like sticks of rock. The pattern that’s written through our lives can change. How has God changed you over the last few months? And how does he want to change you over the coming days, indeed, right now?