turning point

I expect for God most miracles are easy-moving a mountain or healing a leper is not too difficult for Him. The more challenging miracle for Him to perform is changing someone’s heart.

In His wisdom, He gave us free agency and allowed us to be born into the conditions of mortality where we have weaknesses and are acted upon by powerful influences for good and evil. Though God invites us to come to Him and reaches out after us, it’s ultimately our choice to harden our hearts or allow His tender touch to soften them.

Moroni pleads with us, “Yea, come unto Christ and be perfected in him…” What a marvelous invitation and promise.

I believe the only force in the universe powerful enough to right all wrongs, to triumph over evil and heal broken hearts, is the Atonement of Jesus Christ. It is truly “by grace we are saved after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). But I suspect most of us don’t understand the “after all we can do” part very well. My colleagues and I have spent the last 30 years studying what it takes to create positive, lasting behavior change. This has provided us the opportunity to work with corporate leaders, union leaders, managers, workers, dads, moms, adults and children to enact behavior change in order to improve their lives and relationships. It is hard, challenging, puzzling, painful, exhilarating, wonderful work.

In our book, Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success, we studied 5,000 people attempting to make significant personal changes, ranging from drug addiction to dangerous health habits to overcoming hurtful behavior in relationships. Our measure of success was achieving the identified change and maintaining it for three years.

Through our research, we learned there are six powerful sources of influences working on us all the time that help us change or assure we don’t. From our study, we found that those who were successful in changing their behavior aligned all six sources of influence with the change they were working on-making them 10 times more likely to succeed than their counterparts using just one or two sources of influence. Our most important finding is you can change the sources of influence to work for you rather than against you.

To understand which sources help you succeed and which sources cause you to fail, consider these questions.

Source 1 – Personal Motivation. Do I want to change? Are my reasons for changing linked to my values and beliefs?

Source 2 – Personal Ability. Am I able to change? Do I have the knowledge, skills and experience to know how to change and what to do?

Source 3 – Social Motivation. Do others affect my motivation to change? Who are the positive influences? How can I add people to my life that will positively influence me to make the change? How can I distance myself from people who are a negative influence?

Source 4 – Social Ability. Do I need help from others to make this change? Are others helping me or hindering me? Are there people who can coach or mentor me? Give me assistance?

Source 5 – Structural Motivation. Is my environment and life structured in a way that motivates me to make the change? Am I being rewarded to fail? Am I being punished for succeeding?

Source 6 – Structural Ability. Is my environment and life structured in a way that enables me to make the change? Does my environment make it hard to do the bad things and easy to do the good things?

One example of success from our study is Michael. Michael had a loving family but was raised in a wild neighborhood. He was an alcoholic by age 15 and a drug addict by age 18. His addictions and the associated behaviors cost him a lot: his family relationships, the love of his life, his car and possessions and even his freedom. In his early twenties, he found himself in prison with a five-year sentence for selling drugs.

In our interview with Michael, we asked him how he became the responsible, drug-free, alcohol-free adult that sat with us. He described the night in prison when he dropped to his knees and pleaded to God to be saved from his empty life. He had a wonderful, spiritual experience that he described as having changed his heart. He no longer desired drugs, alcohol or the life he had lived. We categorized this powerful experience as Source 1, Personal Motivation. He wanted to change his life and had no desire to return to his former habits. He was deeply motivated to change.

I’m reminded of Alma the Younger’s stirring challenge, “And now behold, I ask of you…have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received His image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” (Alma 5:14)

I was touched by Michael’s experience, but I was also puzzled. Many people we interviewed in our study had spiritual experiences similar to Michael’s and yet failed to break free from their addictions. One addict I talked to said he had prayed “hundreds of times” and felt God’s grace. He believed he was saved in God’s kingdom, but for some reason he had not been freed him from his damning addictions.

We continued to interview Michael about his change experience.

In prison, he began meeting with a Bible study group who encouraged his change (Source 3: Social Motivation). They taught him to read the Bible and how to pray, and he learned the importance of this daily regimen (Source 2: Personal Ability).

When he was released from prison, with no specific plans, he was met by his mother who said, “You will be coming home with me.” He knew she loved him and had not given up on him. He lived with her for six months (Source 4: Social Ability).

She introduced him to a man who owned a business and offered Michael a job where he learned how to work hard and be responsible (Source 2: Personal Ability). His new boss was a sober, recovering alcoholic who brought Michael to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where Michael met others who were supporting each other in their efforts to change (Source 3 and 4: Social Motivation and Ability). Occasionally, they celebrated when someone met an important milestone. Michael desperately wanted to walk in front of that group and hear their cheers as he received the One Year Sobriety medallion. He vowed he would do it and set a date (Source 5: Structural Motivation). He earned his medallion.

One of the most significant days in Michael’s recovery came when he heard a surprise knock on his door. There stood Michael’s very best friend in the world-I’ll call him Rick. Rick grew up with Michael, became an addict with Michael and even saved Michael’s life during a crazy bender. He told Michael how hard it was to find him and how happy he was to see him.

Michael said the hardest thing he ever did in his life was to put his hand on Rick’s chest, stop him from entering his mom’s house, and say, “I love you Rick. I hope the very best for you, but I can never see you again. Goodbye.” And he closed the door. That was a poignant example of controlling the sources of influence that at times control you.

Michael never went into a bar, never went where people were drinking, and never let alcohol into his apartment (Source 6: Structural Ability). Michael was living in a structured environment, he was motivated to change, he sought God’s help daily, he was surrounded by friends who wanted his success, he had the desire and knowledge to maintain his sobriety and live a productive life. All six sources of influence were aligned to assure Michael made the changes in his life he so desperately desired, and sustained them for the rest of his life.

Alma knew the importance of the God-given change of heart; but he also understood it can be lost. In Alma 5:26-27 he says, “And now behold, I say unto you…if ye have experienced a change of heart…I would ask, can ye feel so now? Have ye walked keeping yourselves blameless before God?…” Apparently, having the change of heart is not sufficient, you must maintain it, sustain it. You must live, keeping yourself blameless before God. But how do you avoid losing this change of heart? Alma counsels those with a desire to follow God, “And now I say unto you, all you that are desirous to follow the voice of the good shepherd, come ye out from the wicked and be ye separate, and touch not their unclean things…”(Alma 5:57). In Alma 6:6 we learn, “Nevertheless, the children of God were commanded that they should gather themselves together oft, and join in fasting and mighty prayer…”

In my vernacular, Alma is giving them strategies to control the sources of influence that could deaden their change of heart and lead them back into sin. He is also strengthening the sources of influence that will help them walk blameless before God. Alma, speaking of his father and those who followed him, emphasizes the requirement in addition to the change of heart that is necessary. “And behold, he preached the word unto your fathers, and a mighty change was also wrought in their hearts, and they humbled themselves and put their trust in the true and living God. And behold they were faithful until the end, therefore they were saved.” (Alma 5:13)

Being born again of water (baptism) and of the spirit (the change of heart) is essential for salvation, but so is maintaining that change of heart and enduring to the end. We must put our trust in God and ask Him to show us how to control the things that influence us and we must learn how to create a life that makes it easier to deny ourselves of all ungodliness and walk blameless before God. We must adopt the routines, like daily scripture study, prayer and regular temple attendance, that help us to keep God always in remembrance and help us hold on to our change of heart.

Just as we would counsel a new convert to the church (Source 1) to study the words of the prophets and attend church meetings (Source 2), join in the fellowship of the members (Source 3 and 4), work for temple worthiness (Source 5), and avoid places that tempt us (Source 6), we must be wise in how we structure our own lives. We must seek to control the sources that influence our ability to overcome hurtful habits and deny ourselves of all ungodliness.

Returning to Moroni we read, “Yea, come unto Christ and be perfected in him.” Then let us not stop reading here, but continue, “and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is His grace sufficient for you, that by His grace ye may be perfect in Christ…”(Moroni 10:32).


McMillan is also the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance. VitalSmarts has helped more than 300 of the Fortune 500 realize significant results using a proven method for driving rapid, sustainable, and measurable change in behaviors.