Most of us know that we can change. In fact, since you’re reading a blog where I talk about personal growth and development from a Christian perspective, I dare say most of you are actively trying to change for the better. We believe we can grow. We believe we can become better versions of ourselves. We believe in change and new beginnings.
But do we believe the same thing of other people? Do you think everyone you meet is capable of the same level of change that you are? Maybe you can say “yes” to these questions as an abstract idea. But if other people are changing and growing, do you suppose that you would notice?
I’m sure most of us would like to think that we hold space for others to grow. We probably also like to think we’d recognize change when we see it, but research indicates that most of us aren’t very good at this. To quote Psychology Today, “People tend to get attached to their initial impressions of others and find it very difficult to change their opinion, even when presented with lots of evidence to the contrary.” We tend to size people up quickly and then stick with our initial impressions even if we see proof that we were wrong.
A chance to notice change
I started thinking about this topic after hearing a short message on it this past Sabbath. The speaker talked about the fact that many of us are spending our quarantine time learning new skills or working on some kind of personal growth. Then he challenged us to be ready to recognize changes that others have made when we come back together with them again.
Quarantine is forcing us to take a step back from most of the people in our lives. For many of us, we won’t have seen our work colleges, fellow students, friends, church brethren, or families for at least a couple months. When we go back to life without social distancing, will you still have the same impression of these people as before? Or will you be willing to make a new first impression based on how they might have changed and grown?
Maybe one of your coworkers rubbed you wrong when you first started your job and you’ve felt the same way ever since, only to find that they’ve become much more friendly than you expected. Maybe you’ve been judging someone in your church for years in regards to a particular failing, and when you take a closer look you discover they’ve done incredible work that you never noticed. If we want people to realize that we’ve changed, then we should also make sure we’re noticing when they change.
Our glorious potential
Even just on a human level we all have enormous potential for growth. Every day, people are overcoming addiction, discovering ways to live with (or even recover from) mental illness, leaving behind unhealthy patterns of behavior, and committing to new personal growth. When you add God to this mix, the results are even more astonishing. And yet, for some reason, Christians often have to fight a tenancy to judge others for where they are now or where they were in the past. We of all people should know how powerfully someone can change. We should want to see them realize their incredible potential, and we should recognize when they take steps toward that goal.
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” — C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Every single person we meet has the potential to be a child of God — a literal part of His family and a co-inheritor with Jesus Christ. Knowing about that possibility for change (and having first-hand experience with how much God has enabled us to change) should make Christians all the more more eager to see and recognize growth in others.
Seeing the potential in others
If you do Google searches about seeing the best in others or recognizing their potential, at least half the results that come up on the first page are about you realizing your own potential. And most of the articles about seeing other’s potential are focused on those in leadership roles or who want to become mentors, so that’s about you enabling change in others rather than recognizing what they’ve done on their own. We’re a very self-oriented culture, and it shows.
Recognizing others’ full potential and helping them achieve growth is an excellent thing to do. We should help others grow and encourage them. But we also need to make sure that we’re not just encouraging them to grow the way we want them to, or steamrolling over their own personal growth efforts. We’re not God to decide what’s best for someone else or dictate how they need to change. We need to give them space to grow in the way that’s right for them, then support and encourage what God is doing in their lives.
If we want to see change in others, we need to see them as they are now, not just think of them as they were when we met. Listen to them. Notice their actions. Spend time with them. Learn about their struggles. Encourage them when you see something positive. Assume the best of them. Pray that God will let you see the same potential in them that He does. And maybe when we come back together again, we’ll be able to update our first impressions and see the changes that the people around us have been working to achieve.
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