Are We Transformed Yet?
There is one paragraph I find in many, many books that cross my desk. Let me save writers and publishers the trouble of crafting and editing that paragraph, and offer boilerplate copy they can adapt:
When it comes to transformed lives, evangelicals are no different than the surrounding culture. [Insert stat about divorce rates or other stat here]. As [insert name here] says, "[Insert quote from well-known conservative culture critic here]." It's time we started living the faith we profess, walking the talk, [insert another cliché here]. If we aren't transformed, how will we ever transform the world? And the reason we're not transformed is because [insert theme of this book here].
Okay, I'll admit it: I've used this paragraph myself! And let's be fair: this sort of thing is said so often precisely because it is so true and so frustrating. And try as we Christians might, we still look like a bunch of sinners.
In these same books, other paragraphs tell stories of transformation. The arc of these stories usually includes six acts:
- Description of the main character(s) in their non-transformed state.
- Crisis point, where it all comes to a head.
- Main character uses transformation principle/idea promulgated in this book.
- Crisis averted, transformation begun.
- Mention that there are still challenges.
- End on an upbeat, optimistic note about how the church can be transformed!
Again, it's not the structure as such: There is a reason the classic "I once was lost but now am saved" narrative works. That's very often the way things unfold, praise God! The problem is not the structure of such stories. It's the way transformation becomes the subject of them.
Before I explain what I mean by that, let me be clear: A relationship with God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit will change us. A church grounded in God will be transformed, and it will likely transform its surrounding culture. If living in Christ makes no difference, we of all people are most to be pitied.
But my concern about transformation can be summed up in a simple question: Should our left hand know what our right hand is doing?
I think one of the most spiritually dangerous practices today is encouraging people—in small groups or in front of the church or even in print—to talk about how God has transformed them. They are told to explain how they used to have a bad temper or a problem with porn or were stingy or had one bad habit or another—and through prayer, effort, and grace, they have been changed. The formal glory all goes to God, of course, but the focus unfortunately is often on the self—on how I have been changed.
Those who share such testimonies cannot but be tempted, as was the Pharisee in Jesus' parable: "Lord, I thank thee that I am transformed, that I am not like this untransformed fellow next to me." And those who hear such testimonies find themselves praying, "Lord, why am I still struggling with this and that; why am I not like this transformed person?"
Granted, the point of the testimony is to encourage people, to remind them that God is great and that we can be transformed. In this respect, I am a great fan of testimonies—we publish them in Christianity Today whenever we find really good ones. But unless they are crafted and framed just so, they tend to have this deleterious effect: they encourage narcissism and anxiety. And they tend to prompt people to reach down to their bootstraps to pull themselves up.
What's interesting about the classic biblical testimony—Paul's conversion (Acts 9)—is that it spends little space on transformation as such and a lot of space on what happened: an encounter with the gracious and resurrected Lord. When Paul repeats his testimony (Acts 22 and 26), his speech assumes a transformation—from persecuting Christians to proclaiming the Christian gospel—but does not focus on it as such. He does not say, "Look at how I've been transformed by the grace of God!" He is simply explaining why he now preaches in the name of Christ. The narrative structure of his story is his transformation, but the real subject of his story is Jesus Christ.
In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
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