A roadmap for the soul

The arterial roads in Massachusetts are infamous for their short onramps and thundering speeds. When I lived there a few years ago, I became skilled at slamming the accelerator before I was sure the way was clear, rapidly glancing over my (left) shoulder and hovering over the brake in anticipation of a car appearing from nowhere, which would likely be travelling at least 10 miles above the limit.

The roadmap out of lockdown has felt a little similar for me. As a rush of social events fill our calendar, and plans for Christmas formulate, I find that I have lost my nerve and my engine feels sluggish when I tap the accelerator. It has been almost two years of ground- and goalpost-shifting changes and I am weary.

It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitis who said that ‘change is the only constant’, and we therefore generally don’t give much mind to it. But in times where change follows unpredictable paths and we feel its onerous effects on our whole beings, it can interrupt what we’re doing like a misbehaving child and demand some special attention. In these moments, we do well to turn our attention not just to our mind and body, but also to our soul.

Here is a roadmap for change from the pen of the Apostle Paul:

Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Cor 4:16b)

Note that this map is tracking change in two spheres, and paradoxically, in opposite directions. On the outside we are decaying, or as another translation puts it, “it often looks like things are falling apart on us”. Perhaps, like me, the changing circumstances of our world have had you more conscious of things falling apart on you lately. Of course, we can renew our physical and emotional energy, and we can adjust our lifestyle to make tangible improvements to our health. Indeed, it is important that we do! We can experience temporary outward renewal. But no matter what the wellbeing industry tells you, the grave truth is that the long-term trajectory for our bodies is set.

However, on the inside things are getting better. We are equipped from toddlerhood to check in with and manage the various systems of our body, with increasing complexity and attention as we reach adulthood. But tracking changes in our soul is not a skillset that seems as easy to impart.

How do we track the daily character change that Paul tells us God is doing inside of us?

Here’s one lens, borrowed for our purposes from the field of addiction treatment, called the transtheoretical model of behaviour change (TTM). It suggests that people move through five sequential stages whenever they make a change:

Stage 1: Pre-contemplation

In this stage, a change is necessary but you’re not aware of it. Perhaps you’re in denial though the signs are there.

I’ll illustrate with a recent change of mine. I have had, for many years, a narrative about how men and women should relate in the private and public spheres of life. It’s a narrative that reflects some deep convictions I hold related to justice and my worth as a human. For many years it defined my behaviour, my thoughts, and what I paid attention to, without a sense that it might be faulty. It worked for me.

“Lord, give me eyes to see what you see. Make me ready to see what you see.”

Stage 2: Contemplation

You reach this stage when something prompts an awareness of the chink in your behaviour, thought pattern, desire, narrative, or whatever it is that needs changing. This stage is difficult because you know something needs to shift, but you like that thing, or need that thing. It serves you. If you give it up, what will take its place? You might procrastinate or self-sabotage to avoid change.

The place where my narrative has been most vividly expressed is in my marriage. And as a result, it is in this relationship where its ability to hold water has been tested the most. Often enough over the years I have been confronted with its gaps: times when I have caused hurt and failed to love self-sacrificially. In these moments, I could give up my narrative for a short while, but ultimately would return to it and double down on my convictions. I had no other story that compellingly addressed my need to be acknowledged for the contributions I make as a woman in the spaces and relationships I inhabit.

“Lord, give me courage to suspend my dependence on this thing so that I can see it, name it, and understand it. Give me self-compassion to see the need that I bring to it.”

Stage 3: Preparation

This is a research stage. What would you need to do to make a change? Where will you see implications of the change in your life? Who has made a similar change who you can talk to or read about? In what ways will this change be experienced as a loss?

I hit this stage in earnest during lockdown, just a few months ago! It has been a process years in the making because I have been reading and reflecting on the dynamics of gender and relationships for a long time. But I felt a final shove into Preparation after a difficult and painful moment of conflict. The flaws in my narrative were just so apparent to me that I had to work out a new one and rescript my whole approach to relating.

“Lord, convince my heart of a better way! Help me to be ready to throw the old way on the dung heap.”

Stage 4: Action

You make the change. It may be with toe-dipping openness to a new possibility or so much confidence you could pay a tattoo artist to inscribe it on you. But either way, you’ve reached the moment where you’re ready to act.

After a time of deep reflection, prayer, time in God’s word, tears, and conversations, I worked out that my narrative often boiled down to a single question: Is this fair? For example, is it fair that I’m doing this chore right now? Is it fair that X was given that promotion? I thought, if a narrative can be captured by a question, perhaps I can grow a new narrative from a new question. And perhaps this new narrative can reframe the concerns embedded in the old one, rather than dismiss them.

I thought, if a narrative can be captured by a question, perhaps I can grow a new narrative from a new question. And perhaps this new narrative can reframe the concerns embedded in the old one, rather than dismiss them.

So I planted a new question in the soil of my heart, softened and broken by the change process God had been doing in me to this point. I practised it, applied it to a range of relevant circumstances as they arose, talked about it with people I trust to flesh out its implications. For the first few weeks I kept noticing moments when I would ordinarily ask the old question from the old narrative and felt an incredible freedom to keep it on the shelf and reach for this new thing I was trying on. I felt as if I had pulled out a plug and drained away sewage-like behaviours produced by my old story.

“Lord, let me take action in your strength, not my own. Let me see my path through this change by the light of your word and with the help of fellow disciples.” 

Stage 5: Maintenance

Notably, this framework doesn’t end with action, but with sustained, stable change. You may relapse, but you have the supports in your life and the reasons in place to get back on track. Where it’s within your power, you’ve removed things or people that may trigger the old behaviour/narrative/desire/thought pattern.

It didn’t take long before I backslid on my new narrative and landed in more of the same hurt and conflict. But in this moment, as with future moments of regression, I could confess, confident that God’s overflowing grace was there to catch me and draw me back to the change he was orchestrating the whole time.

“Lord, I repent! Forgive me when I mess up. Remind me that you are renewing me day by day, and that this backslide is a part of that work as I grasp the breadth and depth of your grace.”

Perhaps that’s a helpful way to bring clarity to the renewing work God is doing in you today.

Though this framework is used broadly for all kinds of behavioural change, it has done its job here if we are led to see God at work in our lives. What has this brought up for you as you read it? Are you sensing God’s invitation to make a change somewhere? What stage in the process is that change up to? As you reflect, note that all change in your life is an opportunity to see God—be it overcoming a besetting sin, learning to run, or moving house. He’s in it all!

“So,” Paul concludes, 

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. (2 Cor 4:18)

As you fire up the cylinders to re-enter a post(-ish)-COVID society, take some time to check in with your soul. Where does it aim today? Paul tells us that our roadmap for the soul has its compass set on the risen Lord, and as we calibrate our path by him, we take confidence that what might be wasting away now will ultimately experience the same renewing change that he is doing in our souls in this very moment.

Alison Courtney holds a Master of Arts in Counselling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, USA. She is also a secondary school teacher with pastoral care experience in Christian education. Presently, most of her time is spent raising two young children. When spare time occasionally presents itself, Alison enjoys making art.

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