By Becky Ahlberg
There is no one in the world you can change but yourself. No one. That is the consistent—some would say incessant—mantra at My Safe Harbor, a ministry begun by Anaheim (California) First Christian Church that helps single mothers break the dysfunctional cycle of broken homes. You can manipulate, coerce, or even try persuasion, but in the end, a person must want to change, and she must do it herself.
Too many of us live in “if-only” land. If only my spouse, my kids, my parents, friends, boss, employees . . . would change, life would be better. Here’s the tragic part: we, as individuals, expend so much effort trying (and failing) to change others, we don’t have much energy left to change ourselves. And that is the person we should focus on, for it is the only person we can change.
Many of us felt called to ministry because we wanted to be change agents, to make the world a better place, to pour ourselves into others—to fix things. That’s what I’ve always tried to do, fix things . . . especially things no one else could fix.
I Can Fix That
It’s funny the odd places we find our self-esteem . . . and lose our humility. I’ve prided myself—yes pride—about being a fixer. As a matter of fact, almost every job I’ve ever had started with someone coming to me and saying something like, “I’m not sure what I’m asking you to do, but I need you to help me fix. . . .” And they filled in another blank in my life.
There are certainly plenty of not-so-great things about me, but I think I have earned a reputation for seeing, analyzing, and fixing all kinds of problems and challenges. At one point in my life, I can remember sitting in faculty meetings and thinking, I could make six decisions, have them all be wrong, and fix them before these guys make one. Humble, I know.
And then I hit the wall. I came to another one of those places that I was just going to go in and fix. The hubris of it is staggering, really. And the emotional energy I expended trying to change so many things there took a toll, a BIG toll. I ended up on antidepressants and in counseling.
My counselor at the time, after about three sessions, finally said, “Well, I think I’ve figured out what’s wrong with you!” I was so relieved. Finally the news I needed so I could FIX it! I leaned in. The counselor said, “You have a terminal case of ‘I can fix it’—heavy emphasis on the I. And, news flash, that’s going to kill you.”
I was devastated. Soon I came to realize that taking care of my issues was going to be a full-time job for the rest of my life. So I stopped the counseling and the real work began, and I’m still working on it. And then came My Safe Harbor.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last eight years, in the hard work of starting and stabilizing a nonprofit like My Safe Harbor, it is that FIXING has not been my job. It’s been FINDING—finding God’s direction, finding courage, finding partners, and finding resources.
Fixing, for me, used to be, I know what to do, so get out of my way and let me get it done. Moving to finding has meant looking, listening, asking, and praying more fervently than I ever have, that I’ll find the next step and have the courage to take it. But even more than that, it’s been owning—to my very depths—that I don’t come to my work, or to the women I serve from a position of strength. What a relief! I still have much work to do on me, and I will need them as much as they need me if I am to keep making the changes required in my life.
Choosing to Change
But here is the great joy of understanding about change. We may be able to change only ourselves, but if we ask him, GOD will help change ALL of us. That’s what levels the playing field. NO PERSON comes to Jesus from a position of strength. We ALL need God to be part of our lives, and to give us the courage to change, and to be receptive to his leading in our lives. He doesn’t force us to change; he offers to help us change.
As leaders, the challenge is to be humble enough to do the work of change in our own lives, share the journey with those we lead, and watch God use us to help others choose change. We can’t change anyone but ourselves, but one of the great strengths of the church—perhaps the “mystery” that Paul refers to in Ephesians—is the strength that comes from watching, cheering, and urging one another on to become more and more like Christ. To choose change, not fight it, day in and day out.
A passage of Scripture that reminds me why I need to embrace change, and why I’m not alone in that process, is 2 Corinthians 4:5-9, 16-18:
For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Your troubles may seem neither light nor momentary, but if things need to change, try starting with yourself and fixing your eyes on the eternal.
Becky Ahlberg serves as executive director of My Safe Harbor, Anaheim, California, and a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor.