I recycle because I have a friend who recycles.
I mean, I have a friend who recycles. She carries a bag with her when she goes on walks simply so she can pick up trash. When she comes to visit, she brings me all the recyclables she can’t recycle in her own town, because my town has a broader recycling program. “Maybe I’ll inspire someone else,” she says. And by someone, she occasionally means me.
Any activist will tell you that the hardest thing to initiate is a change in someone’s behavior. Changing the way someone thinks is hard enough. Swaying another’s opinion to agree with you – now that’s a challenge! But these changes are still a marathon away from actually changing their behavior. This was certainly true for me. I agreed 100% with everything my friend told me. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” she’d quote. “Absolutely!” I’d agree.
Now I should clarify. I would occasionally pick up trash and pack it out of my favorite hiking haunts. Or I might pick up something blown from my apartment’s dumpster and return it. I would recycle when it was convenient, but my apartment complex didn’t have recycling pick-up. I knew there was a recycling center in town, but… I chose not to figure out how to use it.
So what was it that actually manifested a change in my behavior? Well, for one, my friend’s persistence. But more importantly, she didn’t drive me to it. She led me to it.
This same friend recently sent me an article with a short video about the impacts of plastics in our oceans. It made me glad that I recycle. It made me glad that I was being part of the solution and not part of the problem. But before I started recycling, the article probably would have garnered a different reaction. I still would have agreed with the message – Wow, what a mess we are making of our environment! But rather than drive me to action, it probably would have just made me feel guilty. I would have exiled the thought to the island of guilty thoughts that I am not going to act on, and I would have continued on as usual.
Too often when we are trying to change someone’s behavior – or even when we are trying to change our own – we try to drive the change like a cowboy driving a herd of cattle. We crack the whip of reason, we coerce, we plead. But instead of a stampede toward the corral, the result is usually more like a baulking bull. The topic of change can become a matter of stubborn principle. “Well, I’m not going to do it,” we say. Even when we want to change, we find ourselves pushing back rather than embracing a new behavior.
The Bible gives us a different analogy of change. Jesus didn’t ride herd with a whip. He simply entered the pen through the gate. “I am the good Shepherd,” Jesus told his followers. “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep… He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:2-3,14).
Jesus wasn’t driving the change; Jesus was leading the change. And this is precisely what my friend did to change my recycling habits. One time when she was visiting, she threw me and her recycling in the car and drove to the recycling center. She never said: “I’m going to show you how to recycle so that you will start doing it.” We simply went and recycled together. And after I had done it once, there was no reason for me not to continue.
Sometimes in life, change is elicited simply because we have someone come alongside us and show us how. Even when it is something we could easily figure out on our own, we sometimes need that physical presence to help initiate the change. This is true for the activities of our life, and it is true for our walk of faith. Positive change comes not from being driven toward it from behind, but from being led by someone walking with us.
I wonder how many of us can say, “I am a Christian because I have a friend who is a Christian.” And more importantly, how many of us have friends who can say about us, “I am a Christian, because I have a friend who is a Christian.”
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out (John 10:3b).