“People don’t change.” We hear this modern proverb all the time in TV shows and movies, especially in character arcs where a previous villain or antagonist takes on a redemptive narrative. I’ve even heard this from peoples’ actual lips in real life.
What’s the premise behind this pessimistic sentiment? The premise, I think, is that if a person is evil they’ll always be evil, but it’s interesting that the same is never said of people who are so-called “good.” In such narratives in TV shows and movies, we see “good” people become evil all the time; so clearly, people do change in this regard. But a person turning from evil to good? No, people don’t change. But is that true?
While I think this is a superficial indication of the world’s deeper spiritual issue that there is no room for forgiveness or redemption for people who repent (and thus create a culture like “cancel culture”), I want to go in another direction. Why do such fictional characters and even real people believe “people don’t change”? There are only a few evil villains in these shows and movies that do become good, such as the Evil Queen, or “Regina Mills,” in the show Once Upon A Time and the Scarlet Witch and Winter Soldier in the MCU movies. What do such characters have in common in their redemptive character arcs?
The common denominator among them all is a works righteousness-based morality. They have to do enough good things—or one huge, super good thing—in order to redeem themselves and be considered worthy as “good.” And who has the final decision on whether they’re good enough? The supposed “good guys” who create subjective standards as to what settles for “good.” Hardly any of these former villains meet those standards; and if they do, they constantly struggle with an identity crisis on whether they’re good or evil (which makes for a good analogy for simul iustus et peccator, but let’s save that for another day). So, why is it that so many of these villains fail to become “good” according to the heroes’ standards? I don’t think it’s that they’re not trying hard enough as the “good guys” would think, but I think it points to a deeper human problem.
Think about it theologically. Can a human person, born into original sin, make themselves good? The answer is no. Paul, quoting from Psalms 14 and 53, writes, “‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one'” (Romans 3:10-12). Later on, Paul will continue to write about his struggle to do good while he keeps doing evil (Romans 7:15-19). If Paul, a Christian and Apostle, finds it difficult to do good when the sin in him inclines him toward evil, how much more impossible it must be for an unbeliever—an unregenerated sinner—to make him or herself good.
This is one reason why I don’t like New Years resolutions. The premise behind these resolutions is to become a “better” person, or “a better version of you,” as they say (whatever that means). We all joke that New Years resolutions last for about two weeks before our feet on the treadmill find themselves in the local bar. We joke about this for a reason—because we cannot make ourselves better; we cannot make ourselves change. Even if we do accomplish our goal, then what? How long before we revert back to our old ways? Even if we do manage to change one small part of ourselves, it doesn’t last forever.
Does this mean we’re screwed? Do we have no hope? No. As the Confessions say, “Just as people who are bodily dead cannot on the basis of their own powers prepare themselves or dispose themselves to receive temporal life once again, so people who are spiritually dead in sins cannot on the basis of their own strength dispose themselves or turn themselves toward appropriate spiritual, heavenly righteousness and life, if the Son of God has not made them alive and freed them from the death of sin” (FC SD II, 11).
Thus, we see that although it is impossible for someone to change themselves, it is not impossible for God. People may not be able to change themselves, but Christ changes people. Do people change? Done by themselves, no. When it’s done by God, yes. How does this change come about? The Confessions continue:
Therefore, in His immeasurable goodness and mercy God provides for the public proclamation of His divine, eternal law and of the wondrous counsel of our redemption, the holy gospel of His eternal Son, our only Saviour Jesus Christ, which alone can save. By means of this proclamation He gathers an everlasting church from humankind, and He effects in human hearts true repentance and knowledge of sin and true faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. God wants to call human beings to eternal salvation, to draw them to Himself, to convert them, to give them new birth, and to sanctify them through these means, and in no other way than through His holy Word (which people hear proclaimed or read) and through the sacraments (which they use according to His Word).FC SD II, 50
The change comes about by God’s efficacious Word and His Sacraments. The change comes about when you are baptised in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in which you have been made sons of God (Galatians 3:26-27); and “which is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life long. Thus, a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after… purging whatever pertains to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new creature may come forth”—so that what is “born in us from Adam, irascible, spiteful, envious, unchaste, greedy, lazy, proud—yes—and unbelieving” daily decreases “so that the longer we live the more gentle, patient, and meek we become, and the more we break away from greed, hatred, envy, and pride” (LC, Baptism, 65-67).
The change comes about when you are fed Christ’s true body and blood in the Holy Eucharist by the efficacious power of God’s Word, which “nourishes and strengthens the new creature” God has made you in Baptism; for because “our old self” (Romans 6:6) keeps rearing its ugly head, “the Lord’s Supper is given as a daily food and sustenance so that our faith may be refreshed and strengthened and that it may not succumb in the struggle but become stronger and stronger” (LC, The Sacrament of the Altar, 23-24).
The change comes about in Confession and Absolution where, after contrite confession, God “absolves [you] of [your] sins through the Word placed on the lips of another person [your pastor]” (LC, Confession, 15).
The change comes upon your whole body and soul through Baptism, into your mouth and stomach in Eucharist, and into your ears through Absolution so that you have trifold assurance that God has totally changed you in Christ. In Christ, through His Word and the Sacraments, He changes you from evil to good—the One who is the essence of Good makes you good. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:10-11).