Rethinking Spiritual Transformation

For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at our life’s purpose. We’ve talked about the fact that it’s about God, not about us. We’ve looked at two important aspects of why we’re here, and they both have to do with relationships. We were created for friendship with God, and we were also created to live life with others.

Today, we’re going to look at another aspect of our purpose. God’s purpose for our lives is to change us completely from the inside out. It’s what we call spiritual growth or transformation. It’s radical. He’s not talking about making us better people. God’s goal is to make us completely new creatures, and to give us completely new hearts. We’re not talking incremental change. It’s more like a revolution of the soul. Listen to some of the language of the Bible on this topic:

But oh, my dear children! I feel as if I am going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. (Galatians 4:19)
For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son. (Romans 8:29)
Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. (Romans 12:2)

There are a lot of great words to describe this process. Some of the old ones include sanctification and spiritual growth. More recently, I’ve heard words like morph and spiritual transformation. God is restoring our souls from the inside out until Christ is fully developed within us.

Here’s where I run into a problem. If we’re completely honest with ourselves, we have to admit that this isn’t always happening in our lives. We talk about what God is doing in our lives, but – let’s be honest – it doesn’t always match up with what we observe in our lives. We feel like we’re growing sometimes, but a lot of the times we despair of ever getting better. We’re not sure we’ll ever achieve real wholeness.

Let’s take a bigger picture. Sometimes we just need to be honest about things in life and in the church. There’s more diet ice cream than ever before, but a lot of us still struggle with our weight. There’s more time-saving devices than ever before and most of us still have less time than ever. Companies are still trying to cut their way into profitability, and it’s still not working.

Let’s be honest about the church as well. We are in the spiritual transformation business. It’s why we exist. But without being judgmental, I think we can agree that we don’t have a consistent track record of seeing lives completely transformed from the inside out. Some change, but many don’t. Even worse, we’re not surprised when some don’t change. It’s disturbing, and it’s humbling.

Would you take your car to a mechanic who fixed some cars, but wasn’t able to do anything about the rest? It’s time to rethink our model of spiritual transformation.

The Old Model of Spiritual Transformation

In Matthew 5, Jesus spoke to the old way that we think about spiritual transformation. Jesus identified a group of people who practice the spiritual disciplines the most faithfully and still failed. This group read the Bible every day. They prayed a number of times every day. They knew God’s Word the most. They were the spiritual all-stars of their day. Here’s what Jesus said about spiritual transformation in light of this group, the Pharisees: “But I warn you-unless you obey God better than the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees do, you can’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven at all!” (Matthew 5:20)

I believe that this was one of those moments in which some in the audience just threw up their hands in despair. Jesus said the minimum entrance standards into the Kingdom are higher than what the religious all-stars of the day were able to accomplish. I would think, “What’s the use? How can I do better than them? It’s hopeless.”

Even worse, Jesus gave us a target for our spiritual transformation. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus said, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” How would you like me to get up and say, “I have a word from God today: Be perfect. Okay, we’re dismissed.” Not incredibly helpful.

Here’s what I believe Jesus was saying: the old model of spiritual transformation doesn’t work. Its goal is truncated. It doesn’t do enough and it doesn’t aim high enough. It’s just not going to work.

We’d better look at the old model of spiritual growth carefully, because if it doesn’t work, we shouldn’t waste our time with that model. When I was a kid, I went to Sunday school and learned a song that said, “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow, grow, grow.” This model states that spiritual transformation comes as we learn more about God and do certain things like pray and go to church. If this model worked, then the Pharisees would be our heroes. They did all the right things. They did all the right things, but they still didn’t grow. We’ve got to try something different.

Dallas Willard puts it this way:

We must flatly say that one of the greatest contemporary barriers to meaningful spiritual formation in Christlikeness is overconfidence in the spiritual efficacy of “regular church services,” of whatever kind they may be. Though they are vital, they are not enough. It is that simple. (Renovation of the Heart)

What Willard says about church services is true also of a lot of other things we’ve tried: reading the Bible, praying, and all the spiritual disciplines. They’re necessary, but not enough. We need something more.

A New Starting Point

It all starts with a new starting point. We’ve told people that they can grow if they give their lives to Jesus Christ, or accept him as their personal Savior. It should bother us that Jesus never used these words or made these demands. He did ask something else, and it’s the minimum standard – the starting point – for all who want to follow him:

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find true life. (Luke 9:23-34)

This isn’t the super-elite version of following Jesus. This is the baseline. You can’t begin to grow unless this is what’s happening in life. One of the reasons why we haven’t grown sometimes is that we think following Jesus is about a decision we made one day after church or at a crusade. Jesus says that following him isn’t a one-time commitment. It’s the direction of one’s life on a daily basis. Every day, we pick up our cross again. We choose to die to ourselves. This is where it all starts.

I’m suggesting that one of the reasons we don’t grow is because we haven’t arrived at the place of giving up our lives for Christ so we can find true life. You can do all the Bible reading and praying you want, and you can attend two or three church services a week, and it won’t do any good until we start at this point of giving our lives over to him.

Three Shifts

It’s humbling for me to admit that I don’t know how we grow. I know it starts with complete surrender, but beyond that, I can’t explain the process of spiritual growth. I guess that’s okay, because I can’t tell you how my kids grow either, but they still seem to. I’m probably better at explaining how to provide a climate that fosters growth. It’s a divine work, one that we can’t explain. We do, however, play a role in the process.

I’d like to suggest that we make three shifts in our thinking about how to grow. First, I want to suggest that we move from learning to knowing. So much of our growth strategy is built around knowing the right knowledge about God and about Jesus. It’s built on the assumption that knowledge leads to growth. I’d like to challenge that assumption. Knowledge is important, but it’s not enough. Learning the Bible is important, because it is the living and powerful Word of God. But it’s not enough to just learn it. Satan knows it so well he could probably beat all of us at a Bible trivia contest. Learning isn’t enough.

I’m going to pick on Ed for a minute. I could start a 10-week series on Ed next week. We could talk about his life’s story, about all the events that have taken place in his life. We could systematize his teachings. We could do a sermon on the attributes of Ed. I could even ask his wife to come and guest lecture on what it’s like to know Ed. But none of that learning about Ed would compare to ten minutes of actually talking to Ed, getting to know him. It’s one thing to learn about Ed. It’s another thing to know him and experience him.

We can approach the Bible as a source of learning about God, or we can ask God to help us to meet him through his Word. Erwin McManus suggests that we view the Bible not as an encyclopedia of God but as a portal to his presence. It’s much better to know God than to learn about him.

I’d also like to suggest that we shift our growth efforts from the classroom to the living room. Jesus taught this way! He gave the odd lecture, but most of his teaching took place as he and his followers lived together. They would discuss current events, and Jesus would bring spiritual insight into those events. They would ask questions, and Jesus would use these questions as teaching opportunities. Jesus only had three years to transform his disciples into people who could turn the world upside down, and this was his strategy. His focus wasn’t the classroom but everyday life.

I suppose that a lot of us have grown through sermons and Bible lessons. But I know that I’ve grown most not as I’ve sat and absorbed what someone else is teaching. I’ve grown the most when I’ve driven around in a friend’s old Honda Civic discussing the Bible and asking questions. This isn’t a new idea, either. Paul told Titus in Titus 2 to teach the men in everyday life, and to arrange for the older women to share their lives and insights with the younger women. We are built to be relational, and we grow best as we grow together. It’s not supposed to be a solitary pursuit or about learning in the classroom. It’s about growing as we live life together.

One more shift: I would suggest that we move from studying to apprenticing. A student goes to school. An apprentice learns on the job from the master. He or she watches what the expert does, and tries to do the same.

We are disciples, and a disciple is the same as an apprentice. How do we know how to grow? By watching to see what Jesus did. It’s more than What Would Jesus Do? because nobody is capable of doing what Jesus did. It’s looking at his life to see what allowed Jesus to do the things that he did. The disciples saw Jesus pray, so they asked him to teach them how to pray. It’s about observing how Jesus handled situations, how he withdrew to receive direction from the Father, how he paused in certain circumstances before answering. Jesus said, “Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

We’ve put the emphasis in the wrong place for so long. It’s not about what you’re doing. It’s about who you’re becoming. It’s not even about obedience – that’s only the byproduct. It’s about God transforming us into completely new people, with new hearts and new desires.

I don’t know how you grow. It sure won’t be through just listening to more sermons. It’s not through techniques. I am bothered that we are supposed to be a center of spiritual transformation, but many of the methods we’ve been trying just don’t work.

I don’t know how to make you grow, but I think I may know a few things that will make this a good environment for growth. If you’re sick of not growing, it begins with the starting point of living everyday as a dying person who follows Jesus. It’s not a one-time thing. It continues as we experience God rather than just learn about him, and as we live and grow with each other.

Let’s pray that God would grow us this way. Let’s pray that Richview would be a church that provides a good environment for growth.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada