Are Human Beings Incapable of Change?

“Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.” – Summa Theologica, Part 1, 1:8


There is a phrase that is popular in our culture. I hear it in music, TV, books, and other media. It is the phrase, “People never change”. Is it even possible for that to be true? Time is change. The phrase is fatalistic and makes assumptions about other people that we have no ability to make. I understand why people feel this way, especially in romantic relationships that go bad. I think that if we were to dig deeper, this expression really is our frustration that we cannot control other people. We can’t change people. God’s sanctifying grace, united to our free will, changes people.

We are fallen creatures who are deeply wounded by sin. Notice that I said “wounded” not destroyed or helpless. After our Baptism, we must wage a serious war with sin while being infused with grace. It is through our battle with sin and periods of suffering that we are conformed to Christ in his Paschal Mystery. It is there that we are prepared for the Heavenly Sanctuary. We are called to be like Christ and that means the often slow and painful process of dying to self.

Human beings, due to concupiscence, get themselves into a lot of trouble. We have a tendency to take a good and use it improperly. We abuse the good. For Catholics, the material is not evil. We misuse something and then we sin, that item never becomes evil within itself. For instance, wine is a good that has been made by human hands through working the earth. It is meant to be enjoyed. When we drink to intentionally get drunk we have abused it and fall into the sin of gluttony.

Let’s take the drinking analogy further. Let’s say someone we love is an alcoholic. They refuse to stop drinking, that is, they refuse to change. In our minds they will never change and we may tell them so. Our obligation is to try to get them help. If that does not happen, then we fall on our knees and leave it to God. We cannot change them, but God can. This is deeply difficult because we have to watch a person destroy themselves; but we will destroy ourselves in the process if we keep trying to will them to change. We can’t. We must learn to rely on God, even if it is a long and arduous process.

The reason I don’t like this expression is because it sounds fatalistic. It is to look at someone and say they are beyond hope. No one is beyond hope. God has brought about the conversion of some of the hardest of hearts. Saint Paul, anyone? Rather than say that people are incapable of change, we need to focus on the grace God gives to perfect our nature. We need to be more focused on our relation to God and others. As a Christian I do not get to wash my hands of people. I may have to end relationships, but I should still serve those people in fervent prayer.

Truth be told, I have a very long memory. I dream about people that I have not seen in decades, some of whom have hurt me. Some of the people are from my childhood. I have no obligation to these people relationally. I wouldn’t even know how to find most of them, but I pray for each one if I remember that I dreamed about them. I don’t know where my prayer and God’s grace will meet in that person. The same goes for the people we deem beyond help. God doesn’t deem them beyond help and neither should we.

It is easy for us to forget that Christ died on the Cross for every human being that will ever live, even the ones who will turn their backs on him. He knew that they were capable of change if they would accept his love. We need to pray that those people accept this gratuitous gift.

The path to holiness is a long and arduous one for most of us. There are saints who race ahead of us to show us the way, but for most of us, it takes our entire lives and possibly some time in Purgatory. There will be periods in our lives where we will progress rapidly and then there will be times when we cannot even see the changes. As my Confessor told me recently, progress is all subjective and I cannot know the true depth of my progress, only God knows. As long as I am trying to walk the Christian life each day, even on the days I fail, then there is progress of some sort.

We may never get to see the change that occurs in other people. There are countless people who will come in and out of our lives. We don’t know how God is working in them or in us. People with addictions and deep seated sins come to Christ often. I think it is time that we stop focusing on our need for control and stop being fatalistic about our attitudes towards other people. With Christ anything is possible, even the conversion of stone hearts, even the conversion of the people we think are incapable of change. The process is not on our terms, it is on God’s and we need to keep that in mind in our dealings with other people. I am not the same person that I was 6 months ago and, more than likely, neither are you. Continue to allow God’s grace to work in you in order to persevere on the journey. It is arduous, but Christ is our guide and we are walking with our fellow members of the Mystical Body. Lenten blessings to you!

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