In my last blog post, I told the story of Ernst Dumoulin. He murdered his wife on their wedding night, spent 16 years in prison, but, after release, became a church pastor. He had changed. His life after prison was completely different compared to his life before prison.

Change is not easy. Ask anyone who’s lost weight but put it all back on later. Or tried to cure their short temper and stay calm. Or to resist driving above the speed limit on an empty road with no-one else around. Attitudes and habits are stubbornly resistant to change, like weeds you hack down which soon return.

But change can happen, and to explain how I’ll use a story of change which includes four essential steps for turning life around. Some self-help books seem to suggest change can occur without cost or effort. It can’t, and I will not pretend that the four steps here are painless. Almost always change requires time, hard work, and sacrifice, but it is unimaginably worth it.

The story of change I’ll use is often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son.[1] It was told by Jesus and sits alongside other lost/found stories in Luke’s gospel, chapter 15. I will summarise the story, and when I quote the exact words I’ll be using the translation called the New International Version (NIV).

A father had two sons, both grown up. The younger son got weary of the quiet life on the family farm, and made an outrageous request to his father, to give him his inheritance money now. Remarkably, his father agreed, and gave his son a small fortune. Soon after, the young man walked away, and he kept going until he reached another country. Then his crazy spending started. Jesus said he ‘squandered his wealth in wild living’ (Luke 15:13). When money is thrown around, so-called friends are plentiful. From later in the story, we know many of those ‘friends’ were prostitutes.

But, of course, the boy didn’t have a bottomless pit of money. When it ran out the friends were gone. The lad was destitute and, to make matters worse, a famine ravaged the land. He was in another country, with no support, no nearby family, and now no money. The boy was famished. In desperation he begged a farmer to hire him, which he did and sent him into the fields to feed his pigs. Jewish law did not permit eating pork, so his work was demeaning and counter to his upbringing and beliefs. When he’d asked for his inheritance, he’d imagined the vast sum would provide him with a life of ease and pleasure, but that dream was now a nightmare. The boy stared at the pods he fed to the pigs, knowing they had more food than he did. No-one gave him anything, and before long he would die of hunger.

But one day, the wayward son came to his senses. He realised that back home even his father’s servants had food to spare ‘and here I am starving to death!’ (Luke 15:17). To stay was to die. To go home might mean rejection, but, if he confessed how wrong he’d been, just possibly his father would allow him to become a servant. His clothes in tatters and no sandals on his feet, he set off on the long trek home. The reception he got there was very different from what he expected.

It’s a great story, but what are its four steps to personal change?

STEP ONE  Realism    ‘I’m not an alcoholic,’ Jerry told me, ‘I just like a drink’. He liked a drink so much that consuming a few pints of beer had become a daily habit. Often it was more than a few and he’d have to be helped home. Jerry’s drink problem had wrecked the family finances, almost destroyed the last vestiges of his relationship with his wife and children, and he was about to lose his job. But he kept insisting he just liked a drink. Everyone except Jerry knew he was an out-of-control alcoholic. Many had tried to help him, but they got nowhere because Jerry denied he had a problem.

Nothing changes in our lives until we believe it must change. The word ‘must’ in that last sentence is important. Most people I’ve known who smoked wished they didn’t. Plenty of them had tried giving up but failed after a few days or weeks. But wishful thinking is far short of the total rejection of the status quo which change requires.

My favourite short book is one that has been used extensively in management and leadership training, but also has lessons for the ordinary lives of everyday people: ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’, by Dr Spencer Johnson.[2]  The main text covers just over 70 pages, but is a great example of how to use a fable to communicate deep truth.

The story is about two mice and two ‘littlepeople’ who live inside a maze. I’ll concentrate only on the littlepeople, Hem and Haw, who find a cheese-filled corridor and settle down to a pleasant life close by. Every day they feast on the cheese. But Hem and Haw become too comfortable. They get complacent and don’t realise the cheese supply is dwindling. One day there’s no cheese in their corridor, and Hem asks ‘Who moved my cheese?’. They’d assumed there would always be cheese, so had no plan what to do if there was none.

At first both are angry. Then Haw suggests they should go looking for new cheese. Hem refuses. There ought to be cheese where there was always cheese. Some time later Haw again proposes a search for new cheese. Hem is stubborn and turns down the idea. He will stay exactly where the cheese has always been abundant. By now both are looking emaciated, so one day Haw gives up waiting for Hem to agree, and off he goes to search the maze for more cheese. Along the way he finds small pieces, and generously takes some back to Hem to encourage him to search too. Hem not only refuses to move, he won’t eat the cheese Haw has brought. Well, Haw concludes, Hem can wait in that corridor if he wants, but he must keep searching. Haw explores ever deeper into the maze, round corner after corner. Finally, Haw finds a place filled with cheese, even some kinds he’s never tasted before. He could not be happier or more satisfied. He left a place with no cheese, and, because he did, he’s discovered a new place where cheese is plentiful and nourishing.

The lesson of the fable is obvious. Change must happen. We must find the ‘new’ when the ‘old’ is no longer there or good for us. Haw recognised the danger and misery of staying where he was. He did a reality check, and knew he must move. Likewise, before anything else, we must recognise when something is making our lives harmful, or wasteful, or unfulfilling, or pointless. Nothing better will happen until we accept that truth.

STEP TWO  Vision    The young man in Jesus’ parable didn’t have a vision in the mystical, dreamy sense. But he looked back, and realised what a better life his father’s servants had compared to what he was experiencing. He was starving, and wouldn’t be able to keep going much longer. The servants back home weren’t hungry; they’d more food than they needed, and they’d have food again tomorrow, the day after, and many more well into the future. That realisation generated a vision, that perhaps he could be like them, and have what they had.

It’s worth noticing his vision wasn’t a big one. All he imagined is that he might become a servant on his father’s estate. He could not have believed that he’d be restored to all he’d once had as a son, the status he had before he took his father’s money and squandered it. To be treated again as a son was impossible, and no-one tries to achieve what he knows is impossible. But he could believe he’d be taken back as a servant. It wasn’t a great vision, but it was possible so he was motivated to try.

Step two is to envision a better future, but it must be a vision you can believe in. You won’t reach further than your faith can stretch.

STEP THREE  Plan    The young man knew what he would do and say. ‘I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants’ (verses 18-19).

I like two things about his plan.

  • First, that it exists. He knew what he had to do: the journey he would take – the admission he would make – the request he would present. People have told me, ‘I want to be a better person’. That sounded good, but, as I probed, they didn’t know what being a better person involved, nor what steps they’d take to become that person. Someone else would say, ‘I want to get out of debt’. That was specific, which is helpful. But they had given no thought to the challenges they’d face in order to owe nothing, such as cutting out all nonessential purchases. Without identifying the steps their plan would involve, they’d near certainly give up when faced with sacrifices. The boy in Jesus’ story was very clear about both his goal and what he’d need to do and say to achieve it.
  • Second, that he would not hide or minimise how wrong he’d been. He would make no excuses or attempt to justify what he’d done. He would admit he’d sinned against heaven and against his father, thus making himself unworthy to be called his son. And, later in the story, that’s exactly what he confessed when he met his father (verse 21).  It’s all too easy to say, ‘I know I did wrong but…’ But I was going through a bad patch… But I didn’t realise the consequences… But I was young at the time… But my friends pressured me… Or any other of many reasons which, while possibly true, don’t justify the wrong we’ve done. The young man would not make any excuses for his betrayal of God and his family.

Step three towards change is a clear plan.

STEP FOUR  Action    I think step one in this list is very hard: getting realistic about the mistakes we’ve made or the mess our lives are in. Steps two and three, envisioning something better and planning for it, are far from easy yet not as difficult as step one. Step four is perhaps the hardest step of all to take towards change: actually beginning. It sounds effortless, and Jesus describes the young man’s start very simply, ‘So he got up and went to his father’ (verse 20).

In one sense, beginning is simple. There’s truth in the old saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Of course it does, and any walking journey is only a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. But that first step can be incredibly hard. Why? Because it’s putting our fine thoughts and words about change into action. There’s no cost or challenge about a dream. But when we do something to bring the dream into reality, there are hard and painful challenges. For the boy, it began with an arduous and very long trek home. And day after day he would be bombarded mentally with terrifying thoughts of his past failure and the likely rejection of him by his family that lay in his future. And how would he be able to stand before his father, make his confession of wrongdoing and ask for permission to become a servant. Taking action – starting out – meant all of that would happen.

In the fable of the littlepeople, it seems Hem could never make that move. If he really thought new cheese would magically reappear one day, he was an idiot. If he was simply fearful about setting out without knowing exactly where to go, I’m more sympathetic. Yet, that fear imprisons us where we are, and prevents us finding the new and better thing that lies ahead for our lives.[3] And that’s sad.

The young man in Jesus’ parable didn’t let fear stop him. He returned home, confessed to his father and asked to be treated as a servant. But before he’d got all his words out, his father was embracing and kissing him, overjoyed to have him back, then shouting for the best robe to put on him, for a feast to be prepared and a celebration organised. His father told everyone, ‘For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’ (verse 24).

The fourth step – action – ended with an outcome far more wonderful than had ever occurred to the young man. He was accepted, reinstated, and his return celebrated. He’d risked changing, and the result was utterly amazing.

Have the courage to make changes – perhaps using the four steps listed here – and I hope you find change makes an amazing difference to your life.

[1] The word ‘prodigal’ means wasteful, lavish, extravagant, as done by a spendthrift.

[2] Who Moved my Cheese? by Spencer Johnson was first published in 1998, originally by GP Putman’s Sons. In the UK it is published by Vermilion, part of the Random House Group.

[3] I wrote once before about letting go of what we have to find something even better – see