(This is the second in a series of posts about why spiritual transformation is impeded, blocked, and short-circuited in our lives. You can read Part 1 here.) When I was 21, a neighbor dared me to play golf. I hit one good shot, despite being skeptical of the whole premise of the game, and was hooked.
My first set of clubs was a starter set, and I used them for a while but as I continued to struggle with hitting the ball straight enough, long enough, consistent enough, etc. I wondered if buying a new set of clubs would help.
So I did.
It made an improvement, sure, but the problems that were there in the past persisted into the present. Maybe these weren't the right new clubs.
It is at this point I have to tell you that I didn't practice. I'd jump up, grab my clubs, and head out to the course. It's a mystery as to why I haven't improved after some 15 years of playing.
Here is where, in the transformation discussion, we get to obstacle number 2:
We're allergic to effort.
Christian theology, in many traditions and denominations, is based on the fact that grace and salvation cannot be earned. We root that in the verse where Paul says,
"It is by grace you have been saved, and not by works, so that no one should boast." (Ephesians 2:8)
Salvation, meaning typically being forgiven of your sins, set at peace with God and going to heaven when you die, is not something you earn. Grace is the free and unmerited gift of God.
Let me be clear - forgiveness, peace with God, and life after death are all wonderful things.
An upgrade of divine and eternal proportions.
Then things get messy. The same Paul says, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." (Philippians 2:12) Peter, the disciple without tact who becomes the rock of the church says, "Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 3:18) Paul later says, "Put to death therefore..." (Colossians 3:5)
I don't know about you, but that sounds like something we should do. These teachings sound like they fall in lockstep with our salvation. As you know and as I've said many times on this blog, there is much more to salvation than post-death accommodations.
The problem comes in the fact that many Christians today have become so suspect of works that even the ones that are legitimately good and life giving are looked at with a cocked head and a squinted eye.
"I...I'm not so sure about that."
Dallas Willard clarifies in several places when He says, "Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort."
Transformation into Christlikeness must be something we undertake to do. Yes, we do it in participation with God and we are inspired and fueled by His grace - grace that is both the free gift of acceptance but also a source of power - but there is a part we have to play.
Richard Foster calls this our "interparticipatory relationship with God." I'm not even sure that's a word but it sounds right.
In my teaching and leading, I find that people begin to avoid the language of spiritual transformation because we talk about disciplines of the spiritual life - holy habits that open us up to Peter's "grow in the grace and knowledge" teaching.
That sounds like works. Works are bad.
Then let me return to my golf metaphor - I am bound to continue to spend dollar after dollar on new clubs, assuming that the reason transformation is not taking place in my life is either because
a) I don't have the right "equipment" (insert "church" or "bible study" or "worship style") or
b) I am fundamentally "a horrible golfer" and there's nothing I can do about that (insert "totally depraved" or "not perfect, just forgiven" here)
There is a third way. It's the way of Jesus. The vision of being with Him, learning to be like Him in all areas of my life by jumping into practices and habits that stretch me into a place where I need more and more of God's grace.
It is not my works, no, truly it is OUR work - God, myself, and my community - that brings transformation.
If transformation into Christlikeness is not happening for you, perhaps you need to examine your effort allergies. How have you responded to Jesus' call to follow Him and become like Him? Have you "hit the range" and practiced this transformed life with Him?