The Power to Change
By Marni Perschnick
We’re all motivated by fear and love, but only one is healthy long-term: uncontrolling love.
My name is Marni, and I’m a recovering legalistic Evangelical. I’m also a clinical social worker and have worked with clients addressing their mental health with psychotherapy since 2014. I’m a 1 on the Enneagram, so I’m a perfectionist, and having structure and rules, and checklists make my heart happy. I naturally applied these ideas to God and found a lot of comfort in literal perspectives of God, including God’s control over the world. “God’s will” was something I was constantly chasing, and this informed how I saw people for a long time.
I attended Christian Universities for my undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work. I prayed for my clients and prayed for God’s will for them. I observed great loss and suffering, and I looked at it all through the lens of it being part of God’s plan. There is a comfort in accepting that “God is in control” and that pain has a purpose. And it’s a quick answer to quote Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (NIV) and to not get into the deep, nitty-gritty of how suffering is painful and harmful.
When I was in grad school, I grappled with what I believed about humans and change. Could humans really change their lives, their behaviors, and their circumstances? And if I believed that, where was God’s will and power in that? I wondered what the purpose of prayer was. If God knew me and all of my desires and what I struggled with, and God was all-powerful and had a plan for my life, why did I need to pray? If everything were already planned out, and I couldn’t change it, why pray? These questions, and how God’s power interacted with people’s ability to change really challenged my belief structure (and remember, I like structure!).
I thought about how I drove by accidents and prayed for comfort, peace, and safety of those involved. And I also prayed a prayer of gratitude that God had kept me safe from the accident. I started to question if that was a good prayer to pray. Didn’t God love the people in the accident the same way that God loved me? Why would God protect me and not them? Had I been more faithful, disciplined, and worthy of that love? That didn’t feel right. God’s love is unconditional and given to all equally. And what about babies who had cancer when they had literally not had a chance to sin or be faithful yet?
I struggled with these questions and found a breakthrough when I thought about how my parents love me. I thankfully have very loving and supportive parents. I thought about how they would respond if I got into an accident. The scenario went like this—I was in a car accident. I was ok, just shaken up. But the other person had died. I imagined that my parents responded with love and “oh my goodness, we’re so glad you’re ok.” Then I switched the scenario, I was the one who died, and the other person was ok. I imagined my parents responded with grief and sadness. Perhaps God’s love was similar to this. Perhaps God weeps with those who weep and feels gratitude with those who narrowly miss tragedy. Perhaps God’s love is this, and that. God doesn’t love those who escape accidents more than those who die in accidents.
The client I sit with who experienced horrific abuse as a child and now suffers trauma as a 50-year-old adult, and the client who just got the “all clear” regarding a cancer diagnosis are both loved and accompanied by God through their experiences. God isn’t asserting power and control over the cancer diagnosis and leaving the abused victim in the dark. God is sitting with both clients and desiring for them to both move toward wholeness.
This brings me back to the question of can humans change? If God desires wholeness for all people, I believe that God has given us the ability to move toward that wholeness. And sometimes, we need help to access those abilities inside of us because our life experiences have covered them or led us to believe that they no longer exist. And this is where therapy can be a healing and sacred practice. I work from a person-centered approach to therapy. Both Carl Rogers and Fred Rogers influence my work. I believe that people can change because God gives us the ability to change. God loves us without controlling us by forcing us to align with God’s will or a plan already lined out. God’s love is a true love.
I’ve worked with clients who have a controlling partner. The “love” they experience from these controlling individuals doesn’t feel loving. It feels fearful, insecure, demeaning, and hurtful. While someone may assert control over another person and think they’re motivated by love or just trying to help someone, they are slowly whittling away the personhood of the individual they are controlling. My clients who have left controlling relationships have almost always had to recover their sense of self. They have been gaslit into believing they can’t be trusted, and they often struggle with knowing who they are. God made us who we are. God doesn’t want us to lose ourselves or our ability to trust ourselves out of devotion to God.
Because God doesn’t control us or force us into a predetermined plan for our lives, some power rests in our hands. We have the power to change ourselves, our behaviors, and our circumstances. I want to clarify that this power can be limited for specific groups of people by societal injustices and institutional discrimination. And it is the responsibility of those of us with more power to work to dismantle those barriers to wholeness in others.
When someone steps into my office, I no longer believe that they are powerless to the ever-powerful will of God—that their pain and suffering is just part of a bigger story that will glorify God in the end. I believe that their pain and suffering is awful. I believe that what they are going through has completely turned their life upside down. I believe that they are beyond what they perceive as their ability to change. And I see my job as showing them God’s love—weeping with them and celebrating with them. I aim to help them notice where their power does lie and what steps they can take to regain a sense of personhood. I aim to help them find their skills and resilience and help them find their wholeness.
Just as God’s love is uncontrolling, for therapy to be loving, I also need to be uncontrolling. Control doesn’t help someone grow; it only gains compliance through fear. I have found that in working with people, we’re all motivated by two things—fear and love. Both are effective, but only one is healthy long-term: love. I see my job as loving my clients by demonstrating compassion, empathy, and validation. When they can do this for themselves, they grow exponentially.
Therapy isn’t always successful, and people don’t always grow. People have to choose to change. Sometimes we stay in unhealthy patterns of behavior because they work. Humans tend to stick with what works for them. There has to be some kind of benefit to a behavior (even if the benefit is just the comfort of knowing the behavior) for it to be sustained. And so, to not be a controlling therapist and show God’s love to my clients, I also have to accept that sometimes they won’t choose to change or grow. Even if they choose to remain unhealthy, I choose to remain in uncontrolling love because I know this is the most loving thing I can do.
Marni Perschnick is a licensed clinical social worker and spiritual director in private practice (www.wellnesswithmarni.com). She also leads Forest Therapy walks in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Marni is in seminary to be an interfaith minister, and enjoys helping people connect with God in nature.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love