|Faith Bible Seminary students, New York City|
Since 1977 I have been developing my theory of spiritual transformation, which is about How God Changes Lives. The inputs for my outline of spiritual transformation have been and are:
1. the countless hours, over the past thirty-plus years, that I have gone alone to a quiet place and prayed.
2. my ongoing saturation in the Christian scriptures, to include study and meditation on them.
3. the almost-2000 pastors, Christian leaders, seminary students, and lay people I have been privileged to spiritually mentor and coach through class lectures, dialogue, and the submission of their spiritual journals for me to respond to.
4. my past and ongoing study of the history of Christian spirituality.
I think my theory can be applied not only to the issue of spiritual transformation but also to the ideas of spiritual “renewal,” “restoration,” “renovation,” and “formation.” All of these concepts have to do with “change,” and in Christian spirituality change is good, stasis is bad. One is either growing or dead. Spiritually, to not be growing is to be dying. As my friend Jim Hunter has said, “We’re either green and growing or ripe and rotting.” Or, as Robert Quinn has written, it’s either “deep change” or “slow death.”
My approach to spiritual formation (I feel free to use “formation” and “:transformation” interchangeably) applies and works cross-culturally, cross-temporally (concerning both old and young; and past, present, and future), and with both men and women. This is because the locus of spiritual formation is “the heart.” Thus change and renewal happen at a deep, ontological level. Because the deeper we go inside persons the more we are all the same, the principles of Christian spiritual formation speak to everyone, everywhere. This is my experience over the years as I have been privileged to teach this material to Chinese in Singapore, New York City, and Vancouver, Indians in India, African Americans at Payne Theological Seminary, Palmer Theological Seminary, and Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, African pastors (Kenyan and Ugandan) in Kenya, and hundreds of Anglo pastors and Christian leaders from the U.S., in Canada, and beyond. In my seminary classes I think I have taught this material to pastors and seminary students from every continent and, it seems, representing most of this world’s countries. All of this interaction and input has served to help me refine my teachings to the following major points.
How does God change a human heart? Here is a Phenomenology of Spiritual Renewal and Transformation. (Viz., a description of what I see happening when lives are renewed and transformed in Chriat.)
1 – Recognize how needy you are.
Without this step growth will not occur. To recognize one’s own neediness is to be in a very good place, spiritually. Isaiah 6 serves us well here. Isaiah, who is arguably the most righteous person among the people of Israel, enters the temple and sees a vision of a holy God. The result is that Isaiah is “undone,” or “unraveled,” or “dis-integrated.” There is a huge gap between the holy-otherness of God and Isaiah with his dirty mouth.
To recognize, to internalize, the gap between self and God is crucial to one’s inner change.
2 – Understand the magnitude of the needed transformation.
The Jesus-idea is that God wants to morph us into Christlikeness. Paul, in Galatians 4:19, longs that “Christ be formed” in his Galatian brothers and sisters.
The issue here is not asking “what would Jesus do?” but rather doing what Jesus did, as a matter of the heart. For example, if I had the heart of a great soccer player I would do what a great soccer player does. Jesus, as he hung dying on a cross, did not have took look at a wristband and ask the question, “Now what would I do?” Rather, Jesus forgave his persecutors, and we must believe he did so not as a matter of ethical protocol but because this was, indeed, his very heart.
The word Romans 12:2 uses is, in Greek, metamorphe. Literally, this is about “a change of form.” What is needed here are not more ethical rules to follow, since one can obey laws without having a heart for them. This concerns what Dallas Willard has called “the renovation of the heart.” To be morphed into like-Christ-ness.
Because the magnitude of the transformation is so great, we realize we can’t do this by means of our own will power.
3- Understand that only God can effect the needed transformation.
Spiritual formation and transformation into like-Christness is not something we can do on our own. Indeed, if it were something we could do on our own, then we will have greatly diminished Christ. When it comes to this kind of change it is good to realize that we can’t “self-transform.” This is one thing we cannot do in our own wisdom and strength.
There is some good news here. This realization, if it is a heart-reality, frees us from “striving.” When it comes to personal transformation no striving is allowed. It simply won’t do any good to “try harder.” The goal of heart-morphing into Christlikeness is so beyond us that striving is useless. If we are to be transformed, only God can do it.
4 – Get into the presence of God.
Enter into the “spiritual gymnasium” and “exercise unto godliness.” But isn’t that a kind of “striving?” No, because the spiritual exercises or disciplines are simply ways of ushering us into God’s presence. Once we abide there, God himself changes us. We are then like lumps of clay on a potter’s wheel, with God himself the shaper of our hearts.
John 14-16 is important here, as Jesus gives his “final discourse” to his disciples. Be a branch, connected to Jesus the true Vine. The stuff and life and resources and joy and peace and power of “the Vine” begins to course through the arteries of “the branch.” Just as a branch could not be attached to a healthy apply tree and fail to produce apples, so you and I cannot consistently dwell in God’s presence & remain unchanged.
This raises the question of the locus, or “place” of spiritual transformation.
5 – The transformation is a matter of “the deep waters of the heart.”
Proverbs 20:5.says: “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.” God’s Spirit moves in the deep waters of the human heart. Here is where the morphing happens.
This spiritual formation is not an external, physical makeover. It is internal, deep, and concerns the human heart. And, it is helpful to note that the deeper we go inside people the more we are all the same. This truth explains why, among other things, the Jesus-message has gone global.
6 – The dismantling of the false self
A major part of spiritual formation is the dismantling of the false, or fallen self. Using recent language by N.T. Wright, God wants to rescue us from our subhumanity and form Christ in us, who was truly human (as well as “very God”).
In my own process of spiritual transformation, and in coaching others, here are examples of the false self’s dismantling. God want to remove from us:
This dismantling of the false self relates to what Jesus said about denying our self daily and taking up our cross. Jesus, the fully human One, was an other-centered Servant. As we enter into God’s presence he wants to morph our hearts into the sacrificial selflessness of Jesus.
7 – Ontological dualities
In the deep waters of the human heart we are all the same. This is why the good news of Jesus and his Kingdom speaks to all persons in all times and all places.
Spiritual transformation has a vectorial dimension in that it is a shifting or moving from one place to another. For example, all persons struggle with control and trust. God wants to shift our hearts from controlling to trusting. This movement is, precisely, the change; viz., one’s heart changes from a control-shaped heart to a trust-shaped heart.
I have discovered the following “ontological dualities” that lie at the base of the human heart. They are:
1. From Pride/Shame to Humility
2. From Control to Trust
3. From Rejection to Affirmation
4. From Evil to Good
5. From Fear to Faith
6. From Materialism to Simplicity
7. From Death to Life
As we continually abide in Christ there is a slow movement from the left ontological condition to the right side. I think that, using these deep dualities, one could thus measure spiritual transformation.
8 – A shifting of paradigms
I have spent time over the years developing this part of: what gets transformed as we dwell in God’s presence. Deep-structure paradigms get changed.
9 – Humility – the foundational attitude of authentic spiritual transformation
Finally, and in some ways back to the beginning, the foundational attitude needed so that one’s heart is “good soil” for the changes God desires to bring about is: humility. Pride, C.S. Lewis said, is "the complete anto-God state of mind." Francis Frangipane called pride "the armor of darkness." If these things are true, as I think they are, then of course the proud heart cannot expect to experience being formed into Christ.