Agents of Change

By Larry Payne

Our religious beliefs can make a difference in our power to act.

Have you ever felt stuck in a situation you could not change? It’s frustrating and even frightening to lose what psychologists call “agency.” Good theology and mental health practices will aid in regaining the power to change.

Some of the most disturbing stories of evil in modern culture are stories of imprisonment. The world was shocked in 2018 when a Canadian woman, Edith Blaise, and an Italian man, Luca Tachetto, were captured by Islamic terrorists. They were driving across west Africa to visit a friend when their lives changed forever. The terrorists stopped them and imprisoned them in a remote desert camp. In her book, The Weight of Sand, Edith recounted the terrible desert conditions, the isolation, and the fear that gripped her. Cut off from her boyfriend and the civilization she knew, she had no power to change what was happening to her.

I can’t imagine how helpless Edith felt. However, I’ve talked with clients who felt helplessly trapped in their emotional state. They had tried to change but couldn’t. Psychologically, their power to change, called agency, was diminished to the point of giving up. Like Edith in the remote African desert, they were held as an emotional hostage by the past. Only by gaining real agency can clients move toward wellness.

When psychologists talk with clients about agency, the idea is simple. Agency is the client’s belief that they can think or act otherwise, in a manner different than what has been done in the past. Consider a toddler for example, who may want to climb onto a couch but can’t pull himself up that high. Acting with agentic capacity, however, he pulls a short stool near the couch and uses it as a step to triumphantly climb and sit on the couch. He had agency to think and act to bring change.

Edith and Luca, prisoners in the desert, had little capacity for agentic actions. Their captors held all the power for food and water, shelter in the desert, reward and punishment, socialization, and movement. At times, the loneliness and despair were overwhelming.

It doesn’t take a terrorist camp in the desert of Africa to rob us of the capacity for change. A woman may feel helpless to escape an abusive marriage. Having few employment skills and trapped by patriarchal beliefs, she feels she must submit with no way out. Or a man fighting addiction may think there is no hope of real change, hating what is happening yet seemingly locked into a daily cycle of desperation. Agency is compromised and negative moods descend like dark clouds each day.

One of the most interesting stories in the Bible concerns a woman with a chronic illness. According to the narrator, she had suffered some ailment that brought chronic bleeding, persisting for 12 years. As Jesus walked through a village in Galilee, the woman heard about his healing power. Desperate, she pushed through the crowd and grabbed his robe. Jesus felt her tug. When confronted, she admitted her bold action in seeking healing and the incredible cessation of her chronic condition! Jesus said gently, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

The story of miraculous healing may sound strange to 21st-century Westerners, who want to know the mechanics of this healing. Perhaps it was the placebo effect or a flow of energy beyond our current medical explanations. More important for our focus today is the agency with which this woman acted. She had sought healing many times and took action again as Jesus came to her village. Far from being helpless, she believed she could act and did with boldness. Jesus affirmed her agency.

Our religious beliefs can make a difference in our power to act. Some theologians have taught that God predetermines and controls all events of the universe. They reject the idea of people having the freedom and essential capacity to choose the actions of their lives. In essence, this doctrine eliminates agency. We are not able to ultimately change anything, though it may appear on the surface we are doing so. Thankfully, a better view of God and the universe can be found. Progressive theologians teach that all creatures have agency because the very nature of divine love is noncoercive, pervading and persuading all conscious entities to make choices within their capacities. Thomas Oord has written, “God necessarily gives the gifts of agency and self-organization to entities capable of them because doing so is part of divine love…. If God were to coerce others by withdrawing, overriding, or failing to provide freedom, agency, or self-organization, God would need to renounce the divine nature of self-giving, others-empowering love.” With this insight, we can say that agency is at the center of God’s relationship to us. Agency is a God-given capacity and the Divine desires it to be fully functional in our daily life.

If we feel trapped and unable to act, how can we move toward reclaiming agency for well-being? Psychologists Daniel William and Heide Levitt offer three essential steps.

We must address our emotions. How we feel about ourselves and our circumstances is only an opinion, not a fact. Feelings change all the time. Yes, they are powerful, but we can actually choose what we will do with the way we feel. The kidnap victims, Luca and Edith, felt terror and helplessness when the criminals surrounded their car, ordering them at gunpoint to get out. As the days went by, however, they gained perspective. They began to reason about the situation and focused their emotions on hope, giving them energy to act. We reclaim agency when we use our emotions without allowing them to control us.

We also gain agency when we choose to build skills and information. We make mental preparation for action, applying agency to the situation. The abused woman decides she can’t risk her health being destroyed and discreetly calls a hotline to get help. The addict admits losing his job is a real threat and he chooses to attend the AA meeting this week. These small steps of self-determination are the demonstrations of agency that build momentum for change. Luca started learning Arabic, the language of his captors. They were willing to talk to him and he took advantage of that to develop a skill. He also learned about Islam because he saw the terrorists treated fellow Muslims in a different way than infidels. Edith found a new power when she obtained a pen and paper. She began to write poetry, hiding the works under her clothes. It freed her mind from the oppressive loneliness and fear of death.

A final element in agency is the determination to push through obstacles. Change is not easy for anyone. The situations may be very difficult, or our fears may hold us back. If we continue to push forward however, exploring, experimenting, and trying again, our agentic power will increase.

Jesus recognized this agency as a blossoming faith in the woman who touched him. He commended her for the boldness that reached out to him as a collaboration with God for her wellbeing. We find the same with Luca and Edith. They did not surrender to their captors. Instead, they outwitted them. They made faux conversions to the faith that allowed them to be together. Then, in the middle of the night and a ferocious sandstorm, they ran from the camp. Before dawn they had covered six miles of desert terrain and flagged down a truck driver on the highway. He took them to a city where the police gave shelter. Within a matter of hours, they were delivered. They had spent 450 days in the desert prison but escaped to live free again.

Agency is the capacity to think and act differently. It is a foundation of mental health and well-being. Agency is a part of God’s uncontrolling love for our lives. On your journey, unleash that power for the best you can achieve.

Larry Payne has served during a 45-year career as a pastor, hospital chaplain, and professional counselor. He holds a D.Min. in pastoral theology and a Masters in professional counseling. He works as an LPC with His podcast, Tracks for the Journey, explores theology, counseling, and history ( Running, genealogy, and chores keep him busy at the Bright Star Farm in Texas.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love