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How People Change

Book Review

Circumstances do not determine our responses and attitudes, our hearts do.

Oct 20, 2020

How People Change by Timothy Lane and Paul David Tripp has been considered an essential biblical counseling “textbook” for many years, and for good reason. In this book, Lane and Tripp outline the process of sanctification in language that is clear, easily understandable, and personally applicable. Early on, they paint the big picture by stating simply, that “making us holy is God’s unwavering agenda…God is not working for our comfort and ease; he is working on our growth” (p. 6). And how that growth occurs is what drives the rest of the book.

While the book is rich in many ways, the central theme Lane and Tripp use is the metaphor from Jeremiah 17:5-10, which gives us a memorable and useful picture of change. They parse the metaphor into four main areas: heat (vv. 6, 8), thorns (vv. 5-6), cross (v. 7), and fruit (v. 8). Lane and Tripp liken “Heat” to our circumstances, whether the things we are experiencing seem good or bad. “The Bible says that we are always living under the scorching Heat of trouble or the cool Rain of blessing. In either case, we are always responding to what is happening to us” (p. 102). How we respond to our circumstances reveals what is in our heart. More often than not, “we tend to respond sinfully to whatever difficulty we encounter” (p. 119), which then shows us specific ways in which we need to grow in faith and trust God more deeply.

“Thorns” is the next image which represents the sinful responses mentioned above, that include trying to escape our circumstances, catastrophizing them, becoming hypersensitive, returning evil for evil, or becoming self-righteous (pp. 130-132). Lane and Tripp point out that when we encounter problems, we must first face our own sin, or “we will never get to the real problem…[which] is a worship disorder” (p. 141). By helping us see the ways in which we tend toward idolatry, they help us see the ways in which God uses circumstances to change us into the image of His Son.

How a person can change is the focus of the next image, which is “The Cross.” It is only by understanding and applying gospel truth that we can transform from responding sinfully to responding in ways that glorify God. When “we base our lives on the fact that because Jesus lives in us, we can do what is right in desire, thought, word, and action, no matter what specific blessings or sufferings we face” (p. 159). The two chapters that expound on this concept are, like the rest of the book, both insightful and practical. They help us see “the sin beneath the sin” (p. 173), followed by repentance and change which is made possible through the power of Christ who dwells within us.

Finally, we see the image of “The Fruit,” which is the result of real heart change where we glorify God is the midst of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. This change does not come about from “a stoic obedience to God’s commands, but from a heart that has been captured and captivated by the Giver of those commands” (p. 179).

Having first read How People Change more than 10 years ago, it was refreshing and helpful to read it again. The figures presented in Chapter 6, which are used to illustrate the Jeremiah 17 metaphor, are often referred to as “The Three Trees Diagram” (thorny bush, the cross, fruitful tree). The diagram is a vivid picture of the sanctification process and helps counselees to quickly grasp the idea of heart transformation: the main idea that circumstances do not determine our responses and attitudes, our hearts do. And the good news is that God is constantly using our circumstances to conform us into the image of His Son.