The following blogpost was inspired by my reading of "The Divine Conspiracy" by Dallas Willard, "Forming" by David Takle, "The Good and Beautiful God" by James Bryan Smith, "Surrender to Love" by David Benner and "Joy Fueled" by Kent Smith and friends.
We would all likely agree that God's principal desire for us is to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18). Certainly, it was the desire of Jesus that we be trained to obey everything he told us (Matthew 28:20) and that our house be "built on the rock" by not only hearing his words but doing what he said (Matthew 7:24-25).
As C.S. Lewis said, "Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else".
While this seems an obvious goal, it is significant to realize that many of us reach a point in our lives where deep heart transformation is elusive. After changing many blatant and "outer" elements of our character, many of us feel hopeless to change the "deeper" character flaws besetting us. For example, we may outwardly say the words, "I forgive you", but we find forgiveness from the heart unattainable - even though this is exactly the the type of forgiveness that Jesus demanded (Matthew 18:35). Perhaps we avoid outwardly expressing our anger, but inwardly we feel much animosity towards certain people in certain situations. In contrast, Jesus tells us to remain "relational" with our adversaries and pursue reconciliation (Matthew 5:24-25). We may verbally say we trust God, while in our hearts we struggle consistently with significant worry and fear. This in contrast to Jesus's blunt declaration, "Don't worry about your life..." (Matthew 6:25).
For many of us, the statements in the above paragraph are enormously guilt-producing, confusing, and a tremendous burden. We try "one more time" to deny ourselves and obey. We confess, make resolutions and do our best to "muscle" our way to implementing the Sermon on the Mount. After repeated failure, we may begin to do some serious "hermeneutical gymnastics" to rationalize our lack of progress. We begin to believe that Jesus's declarations in the Sermon on the Mount are a description of life in heaven and are not realistic for us in our current state. Or perhaps we deduce that the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is simply to show us how sinful we are and drive us to the grace of God. Sadly, many live lives of quiet despair, somehow concluding that they are too "flawed and sinful" to receive God's grace. In short, we settle for fearful, defeated lives that are not filled with the joy God intended and that are not a demonstration of the fruit of the Spirit God wants on display for all to see.
All of the above raises the question: "How do we change?" First of all, it is important to face the fact that our current plan for transformation is sorely lacking. From my observation, simply attending church activities and listening to sermons has not worked in terms of consistently producing deeper changes - especially in more mature disciples who frequently hit a spiritual "wall." Academic biblical education and typical church involvement is helpful and encouraging, but past a certain point is not enough to produce profound transformation. At the end of the day, we must admit that the typical instructions to read your Bible, pray, go to church, learn doctrine, and get involved in church activities have not produced the "little Christs" that C.S. Lewis spoke of. As Dallas Willard says, "These activities have their place and will come along automatically as we are transformed, but they do not produce transformation." In addition, the strong admonishments we have all heard and probably also told others - that we aren't committed enough, have sin in our lives, or have lost our first love - have not helped. Couching the problem as a lack of willpower and determination has produced even greater confusion and despair. That is not to say that some people do not change deeply, nor is it to say that sin and lack of commitment are not true obstacles to change. It is simply an acknowledgment that perhaps the people who have changed are doing things outside of our typical "curriculum" that have produced these changes and are changing in spite of our plan and not because of it.
So, getting back to our original question: "How do we change?" I must confess that I feel a little strange attempting to answer this question. After all, I have spent many years as a minister using the ineffective methodology summarized in the previous paragraph in attempts to change myself and others. In addition, I feel like a novice in what I believe is a whole new world for me. However, I have experienced God in new ways and have seen enough excitement and change in myself and others to share "the good news". So, here we go. Here are two essential practices to put us on the path to transformation.
Experiencing the "Good and Beautiful" God. The deeply transformed Apostle Paul sheds light on what is most important in life to achieve transformation in his prayer in Ephesians 3:17b-19-"I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God's love, and to know the Messiah's love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." In this passage Paul equates knowing the love of God with being filled with the fullness of God. What I have learned is that experiencing God's love through meditation, contemplation, reflection, and other spiritual disciplines is the foundation from which everything else flows. We know that the greatest commandment is to love God. However, we often neglect the importance of coming to the belief that God is indeed lovable. Psychologists will tell you the belief that someone "knows you and is still glad to be with you" is transformational. You simply cannot bask in divine love and not be affected. However, many do not experience God's love despite knowing intellectually that God loves them. As A.W. Tozer said, "What comes to our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us." We need spiritual experiences where we hear God tell us, "You are my precious child"," I have forgiven all your sins", "You are my beloved son and I take great delight in you," and many other expressions of God's love for us. We tend to underestimate the quiet and solitude necessary for these affirmations to occur and correct our distorted impressions of what God thinks of us. Henri Nouwen said that in the spiritual life, the word "discipline" means "the effort to create some space in which God can act." I am very grateful to be able to gather with a group of friends where we are helping one another learn these practices. This leads me to the next most important practice in spiritual transformation.
Experiencing a "Good and Beautiful Community". We know that the second greatest commandment is to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:39). In addition, we know Jesus's instruction to his disciples the night before his death were to "love one another as I have loved you" (John 13:34). We spoke in the previous section about how essential it is to experience God's love. For many of us, learning to experience the love of an invisible God can be quite difficult. For me, the practice of the spiritual disciplines with a small group of friends has been life-giving. This has been the conduit through which God has helped me learn about His love through His people. Experiencing other people share their heart about God and about me has been very uplifting. People that see me as God sees me - that is what my community is mostly about. And "church" for us has become an "academy of life" where we are learning together how to connect with each other and God. In our gatherings, we generally begin by expressing something we are feeling that day and sharing what we are grateful for. We then pray about what was shared. Afterwards, we practice an ancient spiritual discipline called lectio divina where we discuss what God has revealed to us as we reflected on a particular Bible passage that we are going through as a group. While seemingly uneventful, these simple practices have produced closeness and provided us a much-needed awareness of God's presence. Slowly but steadily, our capacity to empathize with and love each other is growing. Discerning the presence of God in each individual has enriched our understanding of God's character and love. It reminds me of God's multifaceted wisdom being made known through the church in Ephesians 3:10.
God has been very gracious to me at each step of my journey and I am grateful for all the efforts to help me and all of God's people to understand His love. I am very excited to be learning to interpret everything that comes my way through the lens of God's love. I am also grateful to God for providing a community to emulate His love. For me, these two things have been transformational.