How Does Transformation Happen?
The goal of life following Jesus is to be transformed into his image—that is, to become like him. Paul makes this abundantly clear. He tells us that as we see God, we are changed “into his glorious image.” Elsewhere, he says that what matters is “becoming a new creation.” And though we are re-born when we receive Jesus, the process of transformation through the Spirit of Jesus is ongoing. We receive Jesus and are saved by him, and we continue to “work out” our salvation as we follow him.
But how does it happen? How does transformation make us new from within?
How, for example, does someone move away from chronic impatience, anger, or rage into a habitual posture of peace? How does someone step out of lust or pornography and into freedom in their thought and sex life? How does someone go from thinking that spirituality is “all about me” to a bigger story of wholeness in God and participating with God in loving others?
Where I grew up, in Alabama, you could go to a Chik-Fil-A on most mornings and find groups of men gathered around Bibles, talking about scripture. I was part of several such groups myself. The assumption was that if we read scripture and talked about it, we would be transformed.
I love scripture and I’m all for reading and talking about it together. But will this transform us? Maybe yes, maybe no. Some people read scripture just to get more information in their heads, but it doesn’t cause their hearts to become more open before God or anyone else. In fact, we can actually talk about scripture as a way of avoiding transformation. And there are many people who use scripture to justify choices that have nothing to do with the Spirit of Jesus. To put it bluntly, there are many untransformed people who know the scripture quite well but are still jerks.
Sometimes, it turns out, our assumptions about how transformation happens are false. It’s a huge assumption in our society, for example, that Information = Transformation. We believe that if we ready enough books or attend enough conferences or listen to enough sermons, we’ll be transformed. But is this true? Information is great, but it’s clear that, in and of itself, it doesn’t necessarily transform us. In fact, it can make us arrogant! As Paul says, “knowledge puffs up.” Jesus made it clear that the appearance of outward transformation or a head full of knowledge without transformation of the heart is of little interest to him and, in fact, can lead us into hell.
When we study Jesus’ ministry, we see that his methodology for disciple-making was just as potent as his message, and it had little to do with memorizing doctrine or even sitting around reading scripture. Jesus made it clear that transformation happens as we engage tangible spiritual practices that make us aware of and ultimately open to God in entirely new ways. Spiritual practices are things we practice, like Jesus did, in order to bring us into a transforming encounter with the nearness and goodness of God, that we might be empowered to love, know, and serve others as Jesus did. And spiritual practices can become life habits which ultimately, can become our normal way of being before God and in the world.
An image comes to mind: my 6-year-old self in the backyard. My dad throwing baseballs in front of my bat. Me, swinging…and whiffing, a lot of the time. At first, anyway. But then, a crack! Contact. The ball goes flying, hard even, into a practice net. Homerun, no doubt. Two-bases, at the very least. My dad nods and says, under his breath, “Practice, practice, practice.” And over time, I make more and more contact until my practice swing becomes an ingrained habit. Ultimately, I can step into the batter’s box without having to think about my posture or how to grip the bat. I can just focus on keeping my eyes on the ball and making solid contact.
Spiritual practices are similar; they allow us to engage life from a habitual posture, one of openness before God that is full of spiritual power. Through solitude and silence and rest, through scripture reading and listening prayer, through choosing forgiveness and giving thanks in all things, through arranging my life to know and love others, and through so many other disciplines, we practice becoming open to God and His work in and through us.
 2 Corinthians 3:18; cf. also 1 John 3:2
 Galatians 6:15
 Cf. Romans 10:9-10 and Philippians 2:12
 I Corinthians 8:1
 See, for example, Matthew 23:26