“When I was young, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
“When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and so I tried to change my family.
“Now I’m old, and I realise the only thing I can change is myself. And suddenly I realise that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”
This quote, attributed to a 19th century rabbi, has been speaking to me a lot in the last couple of days. When I look around at the world, there’s so much that seems to be crying out for transformation. And not only in our world, but also in our communities, in our families, our marriages and friendships – there’s so much sorrow and broken-heartedness. So much dysfunction, fear and rage.
The incredible, prophetic Wendell Berry wrote in 2013 of the world we have created: “We are … a populace in which nearly everybody is needy, greedy, envious, angry, and alone.”
If you’re anything like me, the challenge of seeing the problems in our society, or something broken in my relationships, immediately creates a mental taskforce in my head. I immediately spring into action to ‘fix’ the problem, to strategise solutions – to research and reflect and talk about what can be done. And there’s a time and place for that.
Then I spring into further action – this is the point where the 12-point plan hits the road. I organise, I marshal the troops, I set up meetings and coffees, I write opinion pieces. There are state of the union addresses. Maybe I donate to a cause, or sign up for a workshop to meet like-minded people. And there’s a time and place for that.
But too often I neglect to do the real, hard work of change – that of changing myself. Of repenting for the numerous ways that I contribute to the sorrow and tragedy of our world, the ways I fail my community, or injure my family, my husband and my friends. I’m not just talking about forgetting to be kind, because I’m too wrapped up in myself – although there’s plenty of that – I’m talking about wilful disobedience. Impatience, greed, anger, pride: the lot.
Proverbs says that the earth can’t bear up under a pauper who becomes a king (Proverbs 30:21-22). I believe that this verse is pointing to the spiritual truth that someone who has been given a position of royalty without the training to be queen or king, is a destructive force. God save us from the people who are given power without the character to bear it. God save me from trying to change the world, with an attitude like mine.
I’m not fond of repentance. A Jesus who calls me to change my ways often makes me uncomfortable. I’m used to talking to my friend Jesus, the one who tells me how much he loves me; not king Jesus, who requires radical transformation in me, and whose gaze, while loving, can also be grieved. But here’s the thing – both views of Jesus are equally true, because of all the things that the son of God might be, one-dimensional isn’t one of them. But if you’re anything like me, friend Jesus tends to get a lot more air-time.
But today king Jesus got to speak. And through that conversation, I realised that all of my strategies and manifestos mean nothing if my heart hasn’t changed. What right do I have to think I can make a change in the world if I can’t even change myself?
It’s here, in so many narratives in our society, where the story typically ends. A desire for change becomes infused with condemnation and effort: “Try harder! Sort out your life! Eat more greens! Have you met your goodness quota today?”
But today I also realised, with sheer, overwhelming gratefulness, that that’s not the repentance that Jesus asks for. The call of Jesus, as I heard it today, isn’t a call toward trying to change myself.
It’s a call to a throwing-up-my-hands-in-desperation-and-crying-out: “God, you’ve got to help me!” kind of humility. It’s a call to be humble enough to accept the grace that’s offered, and let Jesus change me. Because the point is, I can’t do it myself. Any of it. Thank you, Jesus.
We’re hosting an event this week, called Does Activism Really Work? – if you’re itching to get started on something that will make a positive change in the world, come along to meet our community of activists, dreamers and doers – there’s still a few tickets left (and they’re free).