A Change In Behavior, A Change In the Mind

A Change In Behavior, A Change In the Mind

We want a behavior change, but it doesn’t seem to happen. However, it will happen with many changes in the mind (repentance).

We always notice significant behavior change, don’t we? Yet, people who change dramatically are often given the stage and a microphone to trumpet the difference. I remember as a child listening to a story of a gang member and how he met Jesus, and his life was turned around.

We marvel at how this happened. It’s always the dramatic change we notice because it’s so obvious.

But I think some of the greatest stories of change happen over a much more extended period. It might be years, not days.

It’s safer to do it in small incremental shifts when you want to change course on an ocean-going cruise liner than in sudden sharp rudder turns. This change is so subtle that no one on board even notices.

If we were to take a long view back over your life and observe how you have changed, I think the subtle and unseen influences have changed you the most. Those slight course corrections add up over time. The changes in behavior are so tiny that we and others hardly even notice them.

That’s where journaling can be so revealing. Looking back over past journals to see how we thought and behaved even a few years ago can be very revealing.

Repentance, with a little ‘r.’

Some words are loaded with emotional baggage—loaded terms. You hear a word, and the brain immediately adds specific values and beliefs.

In the faith world, it could be words such as God, Church, Sin, Heaven, Hell, Pastor, etc.

You hear these words, and immediately, there is a visceral, internal emotional response. You attach a specific response and meaning to that word, possibly because that particular word was always connected with certain other words and emotions when you were learning the language.

One of those words for me, and I think for many others, is ‘repentance.’ It was always attached with negative consequences.

  • ‘If you don’t repent, your going to hell.’
  • ‘If you don’t repent, God will be angry with you.’
  • ‘You haven’t repented, and that’s why these bad things are happening.’

Repentance was loaded with guilt, shame, control, and fear.

But the Greek word metanoia,  translated as ‘repent’ in the Bible, means ‘to change your mind.’

Repentance can be seen as those minor changes of the mind. As small as all the minor alterations to a car’s steering wheel as you drive down the road. Hardly noticeable but absolutely necessary.

Walking down a different street

This behavior change is captured beautifully in Autobiography in Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson.

“I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.”

Portia Nelson, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery

Mind change (repentance)  happens in those moments of eyes being opened and choosing to change the behavior. We walk around the destructive hole and then walk down a different street.

Paul’s change in behavior

Let’s look closely at how the Biblical character Paul changed.

There was both the dramatic and the subtle.

The dramatic was the road to the Damascus event.

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” Acts 9:1-6

Powerful and incredible. Don’t we love to pray that those we think need to change have an event like this?

But the subtle and minuscule changes in Paul we hardly know anything about.

But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. 

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. Galatians 1: 15-18

Paul had three years in the desert where there were probably millions of little repentances (mind changes). Learning, wrestling, praying, trying something new. Three years of having his cruiseliner of thinking patterns turned in a different direction.

At the end of the three years, he was a different man. His behaviors had changed, and people noticed.

He writes this.

I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me. Galatians 1:23-24

Everybody could see the behavior change.

To change behavior takes time, and many little moments of mind change (repentance).

The Change in behavior dance

There are many models of how people change their behaviors, but I believe that it’s a dance combo of head, heart, action, and support.

It’s the head or our logic coming to some new understanding. A new belief germinates in the mind.

The heart brings an emotional response to the situation.

Action is taken. Physical, observable, tangible.

Support encourages the small millimeters steps being taken.

I don’t believe these factors always happen in a perfect sequence. It’s more of a dance.

Sometimes we have to take action and wait for our heart and head to come round.

We want a behavior change, but it doesn’t seem to happen. However, it will happen with many changes in the mind (repentance).

Mental health is a dance between millimeter changes in our mind (repentance) and changes in behavior. Click To Tweet

Quotes to consider

  • The Greek word metanoia, poorly translated as “repent” in the Bible (Matthew 3:2, Mark 1:15), quite literally means “to change your mind.” Until the mind changes the very way it processes the moment, nothing changes long term. “Be transformed by a renewal of your mind,” Paul says (Romans 12:2), which hopefully will allow the heart to soon follow. Richard Rohr
  • You learn to be calmer or more compassionate the same way you learn anything else: through repeated practice. Rick Hanson
  • You will never leave wherever you are until you’re much clearer about where it is you’d rather be. David Riddell
  • If part of me likes a compulsive habit, then it will remain, even if most of me doesn’t, until such time as I become more fully persuaded. David Riddell
  • A desire within you isn’t owned by you, until you indulge it. It may simply be your mind presenting options, which is it’s job. David Riddell
  • To achieve radical change, I need to call some of my feelings ‘liars’ and choose to side with truth against my own emotions, until my feelings come around. David Riddell
  • How can I re-assess you until you demonstrate your changed mind? Until then, I must keep you trapped in your past, for restitution must come before restoration of trust. David Riddell
  • Changing one’s own behavior is a much more promising strategy than insisting on change from the other. Terrence Real
  • I believe that one first changes the behaviors, then, if one is lucky, the feelings follow. Terrence Real

Questions to answer

  1. What is your motivation for the other to change their behavior?
  2. Review a period of your life. How has the principle of many little changes in the mind changed your behavior?
  3. Are you insisting on the other change their behavior? What needs to change in your mind to drop the demand that the other change?

Further reading

God is Going against the Grain and it’s Terribly Good

Accepting Consequences and Finding Paradise

Embracing the Pain and Finding the Christ light

Barry Pearman

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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