The first four stages of relevant, authentic spiritual formation and transformation are:
1. The Need – recognition of how needy we are of personal, inner change.
2. The Gap – realization as a revelation of the holiness of Christ, and therefore of the great gap between ourselves and Christ.
3. Only God can do it – realization that we cannot self-transform by our own striving and will power into Christlikeness.
4. Therefore, consistently get into the presence of God. Abide in Christ. You cannot consistently dwell in Christ and remain unchanged.
Now we take note of where spiritual transformation takes place. This is the matter of the locus of authentic spiritual formation. For the most part this is not an external “makeover,” but a heart-transformation. It will have external results, but this is essentially, as Dallas Willard has written, a matter of the “renovation of the heart.” One biblical verse that gives a window into this is Proverbs 20:5: “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out.” God moves in the deep waters of the human heart. This is the locus of all authentic, relevant spiritual formation and transformation. While our physical bodies waste away in this life, Paul says that our spirits are being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16) Spiritual renewal is, therefore, a “day by day” thing. We are either green and growing, or dead (“ripe and rotting”).
So what happens as we habitually live in God’s presence? What does the formation of our hearts look like? I have seen that one way God moves in the deep waters of our heart is to deconstruct negative aspects of the self. Especially the self-obsessive aspects of what Merton calls the “false self,” and what Paul Tournier called our “persona.” This becomes the realization of Jesus’ stark, ascetic either-or: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24) Out of a daily abiding in Christ emerges a daily denial of self. Of, I suggest, negative, false aspects of the self.
I know from this command of Jesus and from my own experience that every day the self will rise up and try to assert itself against the ways of God. When I have allowed God to search me and know my heart one thing He points out my emphasis on myself, sometimes to the point of idolatry. Obsession with one’s self is the enemy of all spiritual renewal and transformation. But God desires to defeat our self-obsessiveness so we can experience renewal and transformation. One way God does this is by calling us into times of solitude. This is why Henri Nouwen has called solitude “the furnace of spiritual transformation." If solitude is a "furnace," what gets burned away? The answer is: the negative aspects of the "self." Unless we daily practice self-denial, self-centered ideas will rise up against the ideas of God. Here are some of the negative aspects of the self I have discovered as I have allowed God much time to search me out.
On the surface this seems obvious. But the self-love issue goes very deep. Self-love, writes Thomas Merton, "is the source of all boredom and all restlessness and all unquiet and all misery and all unhappiness - ultimately, it is hell." How much easier is it to love the self before loving others and living sacrificially in relationship to them. One British politician's actions were once described as "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his friends for his life." I discover in my heart a deep-rooted propensity to love “me” as my first priority.
As a young Christian I was counseled to keep my priorities as follows:
a. Love God first
b. Love others second
c. Love self
I have found that when I live in this way the love I have for myself is healthy and godly. But ungodly self-love is a form of pride. C.S. Lewis called pride “the great sin – the complete anti-god mentality.” Put simply, it’s impossible to love God with all one’s being if one has such an elevated love of self. Francis Frangipane refers to pride as “the armor of darkness.” I like this definition of pride because it shows how this kind of self-love necessarily thwarts spiritual renewal and transformation. And, as Merton said, while all this seems counterintuitive to the proud lover of self, in reality it’s all boredom and misery.
The opposite of sinful self-love is self-hatred. Sometimes, I think, the two are the sides of the same coin. Self-hatred is as self-obsessively sinful as self-love; i.e., both are manifestations of self-obsessiveness. Unfortunately, I have much personal experience in hating the self. To get at the roots of self-hatred I have found hope in the Scriptures as mediated through many who have sought God long and hard about this issue. For example, Merton writes: "How are we going to recover the ability to love ourselves and to love one another? The reason why we hate one another and fear one another is that we secretly, or openly, hate and fear our own selves. And we hate ourselves because the depths of our being are a chaos of frustration and spiritual misery. Lonely and helpless, we cannot be at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we cannot be at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God."
This is a simple and profound solution to self-hatred: Be at peace with God, and you will be at peace with self. Love God, and you will love self. This will lead to a truly transforming experience where, instead of beating one’s self for faults and failures, we will rejoice in the greater purposes of God manifested in them. Dom Augustin Guillerand said, "God will know how to draw glory even from our faults. Not to be downcast after committing a fault is one of the marks of true sanctity."
I would like this kind of sanctified life. It speaks to me of a life of radical freedom that issues forth from a deep life of dwelling in the presence of God. This is but one reason why Jesus words in Luke 10:27 have been called “the great commandment.”
Self-pity is one of the more punishing kinds of self-obsession. It is obvious why self-pity cannot coexist with spiritual renewal and transformation. In one of my seminary classes I was talking about holding “pity parties” when a pastor named Samuel from Ghana asked, “What do you mean by “pity party?”” I said, “Samuel, the next time I hold one for myself I’ll invite you so you can see.” Unfortunately, I could write a book and call it How To Host Your Next Pity Party.
More than once the words have come into my mind, "Poor me! They are not treating me right - and after all I've done for them!" Personal deprivation and even mistreatment lead to the emotion of anger. In this regard Henri Nouwen asks, what else is anger but the response to the sense of being deprived? Much of my own anger comes from the fact that my self feels deprived. When one chooses to express this anger by hosting a pity party the self-obsession has begun. One then becomes like Tolstoy’s character Ivan Ilyich, of whom it was said that “no one pitied Ivan the way he wished to be pitied.” Consider this description of Ilyich’s pitiful disease:
“What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and the only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result… The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to grasp his position… [W]hat most tormented Ivan Ilych was that no one pitied him as he wished to be pitied. At certain moments after prolonged suffering he wished most of all (though he would have been ashamed to confess it) for someone to pity him as a sick child is pitied. He longed to be petted and comforted.”
When you hold a “pity party” and invite yourself and others to it, the focus is on you. It’s all about how you have been hurt, how you have been mistreated, and how you have been wronged. The ruling emotion of pity is bitterness. But one can’t be at the same time bitter and fulfilling the Great Commandment to love God with all your heart. Self-pity seems to be the opposite of renewal and transformation of the heart. Therefore self-pity needs to be denied, because it keeps us from being fulfilled in Jesus.
Being a fake or a phony requires a self-willful act of transformation into a false presence before others. One erects a false persona and hides behind it. Here is a façade of renewal and transformation that may or may not fool others. In this regard God has told me, "John, you do not need to pretend to be what you are not.” God told me this because, sadly, I have postured and performed before others. For example, I have raised the banner of my meager accomplishments before others and hid behind them. In this matter we are not to be “cosmetic” Christians.
Self-hiding is untruth. One definition of the Greek word for “truth" is "unhiddenness." Truth is that which is out in the open and can thus be seen. To walk in truth requires an appropriate transparency. This is important because, spiritually, God is a God of truth, works in truth, and rejoices in truth.
What people need from Christian leaders is not another performance, but a sense of God’s real presence. God’s presence can only be mediated through authentic Christian leaders. Christian leaders are to be role models of authenticity. We can even reveal failures and flaws and confess sins before others since what others need is not us, but God Himself.
To be haunted and consumed by what others think of us is self-obsessive. Any Christian leader will receive criticism. Not all of it will be kind. There have been times when I’ve gone to prayer and my mind has wandered to someone else thinks of me. It is then that, like Adam and Eve in the garden after the Fall, I almost reflexively begin to defend myself. I argue, in my mind, against my imaginary accuser. I mentally present myself as superior and construct a wall of justification and defense. My own experience is that this sort of self-justification never feels renewing and transforming. And what arrogance to assume these people are thinking about me. The truth is that we would worry less about what other people think of us if we would realize how little they do.
Thomas Merton writes that God wants to free us from defending our own selves. He says: "A humble man can do great things with an uncommon perfection because he is no longer concerned about incidentals, like his own interests and his own reputation, and therefore he no longer needs to waste his efforts in defending them. For a humble man is not afraid of failure. In fact, he is not afraid of anything, even of himself, since perfect humility implies perfect confidence in the power of God, before Whom no other power has any meaning and for Whom there is no such thing as an obstacle."
Self-justification is the enemy of spiritual transformation precisely because transformation requires more than an occasional admittance of personal guilt and failure. A “perfect person” could never experience renewal and transformation.
Biblically, any righteousness we have is to be found in Christ. “Righteousness” is “imputed” or “credited” to us on the basis of what Christ has done on the cross. Therefore it seems ludicrous to posture oneself, pharisaically, as morally and spiritually superior to others. As foolish as this is I confess to having done it and to having felt the sting of the Holy Spirit’s conviction of my sin. In the past I have, sadly, mocked certain Christian leaders on the basis of their ministry style and personal appearance. God has broken me of this, and pointed out that He has not appointed me the judge of all that is right and wrong when it comes to other Christian leaders. Yet the deep thing that wants to do this is still to some degree within me. At least God has pointed it out to me and my prayer is that God would remove it entirely from my heart.
I hate it when others are self-righteous towards me. I need to hate it more that I can be self-righteous towards others. The correct spiritual posture for allowing renewal and transformation is humility and the look into the mirror.
Here is the spiritually unfortunate idea that I don't need help from anyone and can help myself, thank you. Here is the Christian leader who, like a Clint Eastwood western, rides into town to help others but doesn’t need any assistance himself. Here is, I think, one of the most spiritually dangerous ideas we can model for others. This is because the ideal shifts from trusting in the Lord to trusting in self.
For example, Scripture tells us that unless God builds the house we labor in vain. Richard Foster refers to this mentality as “will worship.” Are you impressed with the accomplishments of human will power? I believe that if what we mostly see in God’s church are the results of great human will power and awesome human creativity persons will eventually get the message that the church can be built by persons without God.
Historian Michael Grant writes that, to Martin Luther, it seemed that God and Satan are "locked in a struggle to mount the same horse: the human will." Self-will deludes us into believing we can renew and transform ourselves. Thus it is preventive of real spiritual renewal and transformation.
I believe that self-centeredness can be distinguished from self-love and pride. A self-centered person makes choices in light of their effect on the self. For example, my son Josh and I went to the river park to feed the seagulls and saw a gull that had no beak. Our other-centered hearts went out to this disabled creature. We tried to throw bread to it. We felt sorry for it. But 20 gulls were also there. Every time we threw a crumb, the gulls made straight for it, pushing and shoving, and gobbling it down. Gulls are monomaniacs" who think of only one thing which is: their self. The gull with no beak got no bread.
Thomas Merton wrote, "To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell." Not a lot of godly renewal and transformation happens on the doorstep of hell. Simply put, to experience what God wants for us in these areas our world needs to revolve around Him, and not ourselves.
One quality of those Christian leaders who have influenced me is the ability to easily laugh at themselves. Those who have mentored me either personally or from afar have not taken themselves with ultimate seriousness. The people we minister to need to take God seriously, not us. Otherwise, when we die, what will they be left with? For me it’s instructive to note that an hour after our funeral service people will be talking about the fried chicken and potato salad.
Henri Nouwen expresses it this way: "The fact that I get so easily upset because of a disappointment, so easily angered because of a slight criticism, and so easily depressed because of a slight rejection, shows that Your love does not yet fill me. What does a small - or even a great - failure mean, when I know that You are with me in all my sorrows and turmoil?"
And Nouwen further adds: "I am constantly surprised at how hard it is for me to deal with the little rejections that people inflict on each other day by day... When I swallow these rejections, I get quickly depressed and lonely; then I am in danger of being resentful and even vengeful. But it is such an institutional problem that I can hardly imagine that I can ever be without it. ...Maybe all these small rejections are reminders that I am a traveler on the way to a sacred place where God holds me in the palm of his hand. Maybe I do have to become a little more indifferent towards all these ups and downs, ins and outs, of personal relationships and learn to rest more deeply in him who knows and loves me more than I know and love myself."
2 Corinthians 4:16 says, "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day." Thomas Merton said, "I think the chief reason why we have so little joy is that we take ourselves too seriously. Joy can only be real if it is based on truth, and since the fall of Adam all man's life is shot through with falsehood and illusion. That is why… Bernard [of Clairvaux] is right in leading us back to joy by the love of truth. His starting-point is the truth of our own insignificance in comparison with God. To penetrate the truth of how utterly unimportant we are is the only thing that can set us free to enjoy true happiness."
A spiritual secret to not “losing heart” and day by day inward renewal is to acknowledge how “utterly unimportant we are.” But are we not very important to God? Of course! But the more serious we are about living daily in the presence of God the less we’ll need to take our own self so seriously. I have found this to be freedom.
A few other false aspects of the self God wants to free us from include:
10. Self-attention (vs. "Secret" service)
Some Christians have a real need to be liked, praised, or respected, and that's one of the motivations for why they serve. We need "a spirituality... which helps us to distinguish service from our need to be liked, praised, or respected."
- Henri Nouwen, The Living Reminder, p. 30.
11. Self-inflation (vs. Glorification of God)
"The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust. God is all our joy and in him our dust can become splendor."
- Merton, The Sign of Jonas, in TYTM, p. 27.
12. Self-ignorance (vs. "Search me O God, and know my heart")
"He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give to others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas."
- Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 164.