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Transformation: Practice as Participation

Transformation Blog: Readings from Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus



Transformation: Practice as Participation

Brandon Cook

Indeed, spiritual practices transform us not because they have some magical power in and of themselves, but simply because they open us to God.  It’s not the practices, it’s God who transforms us.  As the scripture says, seeing God as He is transforms us.[1]  As Jesus makes clear, salvation itself is knowing God:  “And this is the way to have eternal life—to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, the one [He] sent to earth.”[2]

What does it mean to “know” God in the way Jesus means it?  Well, it’s quite different than knowing about him.  (Information never necessarily leads to transformation.)  It transcends knowing about and is more of a participative relationship in which we actually encounter and experience God.

This participative knowing is different, then, than theory or even doctrine.  Many Christians or churches love doctrine but have no real space for the God about whom the doctrine speaks!  Many churches worship the Trinity but actually substitute the Bible for the Holy Spirit and then make little space for Jesus or the Father either.  This is because “having all the answers” is comfortable (even if it’s hollow), while encountering God is generally de-stabilizing and quite uncomfortable.  (If you don’t believe me, just look up a hero of our faith and read their story of encountering God.)  The tradeoff, of course, is that only in encountering God is there true comfort and resurrection.

When Jesus talks about knowing, he’s talking about an experiential knowledge in which our whole being begins to participate, not just our minds.  Knowing in theory how to hit a baseball is very different than holding a bat and actually hitting the ball.  By participative knowledge, we’re talking about this experiential type of knowledge which transcends theory.  As important as our beliefs are, faith is never mere knowledge or mental assent.  I can tell you that my wife is an amazing singer and you can believe me, but when you actually experience her singing, the experience transcends the fact in your mind and becomes a living experience in your mind, soul, and body.  This is the move into participation.  It may sound strange to say, but I often experience my body physically trembling when I become aware of the Holy Spirit.  It is a physical and not just a mental experience.  And many people will tell you that they experience an intuitive sense of direction or peace/lack of peace from God “in their gut” long before their conscious minds make sense of what they’re experiencing. 

Relationships are always participative, and this is what Jesus means by “knowing.”  We are creatures who will often substitute certainty for relationship.  While we need a level of certainty, salvation is not about having all the answers to life’s endless questions, but rather about trusting The Answer even when there is ambiguity.  When we trust God in this way, we will come to know him, and this knowledge of Him—His beauty, goodness, mercy, kindness—in and of itself will transforms us.  We will naturally become the type of people who love God and love others.

My friend Bill Hull tells a simple story about how he found himself criticizing his wife, Jane, for having committed time to baby-sit, keeping her from coming home for a few hours.  After hanging up the phone, he started reflecting on the fact that he was doing to her something she had never done to him: he was making her feel bad for committing to love and serve other people, even though he was often away from her for that same purpose.  And he realized that it wasn’t just putting in more will-power that would transform him to be a better, kinder person and husband to Jane; he needed to humble himself, to come to the scripture, to spend time in prayer, that through God’s grace and an encounter with His goodness he might naturally become the kind of person who would be generous, kind, and gentle to his wife.

This is exactly the point of spiritual practices: we engage them that we might encounter Jesus and be transformed in the core of our being by him, so that we become whole by the grace of God and so that we are empowered to live for others.  They transform us by bringing us to see who God is.  Through them, we can take the initiative to become open to God and His work in us.  The water of God’s grace and mercy is a free-flowing water-fall which we have done nothing to merit or earn; but we do have to place ourselves under the waters. 

[1] See, for example, Isiah 40:5 and 1 John 3:2

[2] John 17:3