Why is transformation so difficult? And why do we seemingly see so little of it in our lives, no matter conviction or creed?
Over coffee at the ubiquitous Starbucks, my friend shared the story of his departure from his Christian faith. He did not leave his faith over a whim or because of some intellectual crisis he couldn’t resolve with his dearly held beliefs. He left because his work as a journalist led him into Christian circles where he met some of the most influential Christian leaders and teachers. He left his Christian faith because as he traversed these circles, he saw very little evidence of what he had believed was true, Christian transformation. What he experienced was a group of men and women who resembled the world more than they did Jesus, and whose lives showed little resemblance of his character. The dissonance between what was espoused in word and what was clearly missing in deed caused him to doubt the transformative power of the gospel. If Christianity made little difference in the lives of these Christian leaders— to whom so many look for guidance and example—what difference could it make in his life?
All of us, at one time or another, have wrestled with a similar conflict. We may not walk away from belief or religion as my friend did, but we have been stung by disillusionment when our favorite leader, mentor, or friend turns out to have feet made of clay. Moreover, when we hold a mirror up to our own lives, we often see very spotty reflections of transformation. If we aren’t already discouraged at the lack of transformation in others, we certainly will be discouraged when we take a good, hard look at our own lives.
2 Corinthians 5:17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
Why is transformation so difficult? And why do we seemingly see so little of it in our lives, no matter conviction or creed? We still lose our tempers, we get irritated at co-workers, we covet, we lust,and we are faithful idolaters. For Christians, this is especially problematic because transformation is so clearly written into the good news of the gospel: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Yet, as my friend experienced, an honest comparison of Christians and non-Christians sometimes leads us to wonder about the possibility of real and lasting transformation.
Perhaps the elusive nature of transformation is illustrated in a conversation Jesus had with his own followers. Jesus asked his disciples: “And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Luke 6:41) Jesus suggests that a relentless focus on the foibles of others hinders the one who fails to see her need for transformation. So often, our critical gaze is relentlessly on others. We identify the failures of others before we honestly examine our own hearts; we vociferously pull the speck out of the eye of another, while we maintain a Redwood-sized log of our own. Jesus is clear on this point: “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye”(verse 42). Even in this stern warning, the hope of transformation grows substantially when we remain diligently self-critical, rather than persisting in an “out there” focus.
AN ARTIST’S CRAFTDiligence may seem like drudgery and antithetical to hope. After all, consider an artist: one might imagine that creativity is an unbounded force, flowing freely and continually. An artist’s canvas is never blank, the page never empty, the clay never unformed. The artist never experiences boredom or tedium with regards to her craft, but instead experiences the effortless flow of creative energy each and every day. There is little need for discipline, repetition, or structure in the artist’s world—or so we assume.
And yet, even an artist will tell you that creativity is something that must be practiced—exercised, as it were, just like any muscle. In fact, creativity achieves its greatest potential when bounded by discipline, and a tireless commitment to practice, routine, and structure. Rather than being opposed to creativity, discipline provides the conduit through which creative engagement grows and develops freely.
Such misguided assumptions about an artist’s process often parallel assumptions about growth and creativity in the spiritual life. Perhaps we expect unbounded growth or instant results. Perhaps we expect the constant flow of good feelings surging through us. If we do not experience these things, or if we don’t perpetually experience something novel from the rhythm of worship, prayer, or study, then we believe that something isn’t right. As a result, we often chase after the wind of emotional experience or spiritual high, constantly seeking the “next thing” that will move us or make us feel good. Ritual, discipline, commitment, and structure seem impediments to growth, rather than the soil in which spiritual growth is nourished and fed. We mistakenly believe that spiritual transformation is like osmosis, a process over which we have little control or responsibility.
Yet just as artists expect that practice, routine, and repetition are necessary disciplines of the creative life, so too should those who seek to grow in faith. For spiritual practice sharpens insight and enhances spiritual creativity. Routine and discipline are the nutrients necessary for the spiritual life to flourish and grow.
A GIFT OF GRACEThe Christian can also nurture the hope of transformation in the stories of the less than stellar characters that cooperate in God’s great work of redemption in the Bible. Transformation in biblical terms entails God’s faithfulness, not human perfection. Noah got drunk; Abraham lied twice about Sarah being his sister, rather than his wife; Gideon became an idolater; Samson failed to honor his vows; David committed adultery; Paul and Barnabas argued over John Mark and went their separate ways; the disciples of Jesus all left him in the Garden of Gethsemane and fled. The psalmist alerts us to the fact that God is not ignorant about humanity’s humble condition: “For God knows what we are made of; God is mindful that we are but dust” (Psalm 103:14). Yet in spite of this dusty substance, God is at work in and through flawed individuals. Through Noah’s obedience, humanity was preserved. Gideon defeated the Midianites who were terrorizing Israel, and all the families of the earth would be blessed because of Abraham. As these biblical stories illustrate, God can and does use us despite our fits and starts in following.
Perhaps there is something further to be gleaned about the nature of transformation from the biblical story of Jacob. Favored by his mother, he schemed and connived his way into receiving his brother’s birthright and his father’s blessing. He treated his wife Leah with great contempt and ended up taking a great deal of his family’s dysfunction into his own family; he, too, favored the children of his wife Rachel. But Jacob had a profound encounter with God one night in the lonely ford of Jabbok.1 It was this wrestling match with the living God that proved truly transformational. Jacob received a new name, “Israel,” as well as a dislocated hip. He named this place of transformation Peniel, which means, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” His life had been preserved, but he would forever bear the mark of that transformational encounter in a new name and identity—and in his permanent limp.
Genesis 32:29-30Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Could it be that our own journeys of transformation reflect a similar experience? For those who follow the God of reconciliation, the hope of the living gospel, God indeed changes our names and gives us new identities in the hope of becoming all that God intends for us. But God undertakes this work in a way that doesn’t erase our humanity. After all, God is mindful that we are but dust. Yet, God takes this dusty substance and shapes it into something beautiful.
Though we often bear the limp of our humanity, transformation remains a gift of grace. Philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard explains that the renovation of the human heart “is at once new and very old, both very promising and full of danger, illuminative of our lacks and failures and bursting with grace, an expression of the eternal quest of God for man and of man’s ineradicable need for God.”2 Indeed, Willard continues, “Christlikeness of the inner being is not a human attainment. It is finally, a gift of grace.”3
The God who created us will not abandon us to ourselves but promises to walk alongside us. God gives continual grace for transformation all for the hope of God’s glory.
See Genesis 32:22-32. Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (NavPress: Colorado Springs, CO., 2002), 22. Ibid., 23.