Over coffee at the ubiquitous Starbucks, my friend shared the story of his departure from his Christian faith. He did not leave his faith over a whim or because of some intellectual crisis he couldn’t resolve with his dearly held beliefs. He left because his work as a journalist led him into Christian circles where he met some of the most influential Christian leaders and teachers. He left his Christian faith because as he traversed these circles, he saw very little evidence of true, Christian transformation of character, values, and lifestyle. What he witnessed was a group of men and women who resembled the world more than they did Jesus. The dissonance between what was espoused in word and what was clearly missing in deed caused him to doubt the transformative power of the gospel. If Christianity made little difference in the lives of these Christian leaders—to whom so many look for guidance and example—what difference could it make in his life?
Many of us, at one time or another, have wrestled with a similar conflict. We may not walk away from belief or religion as my friend did, but we have been stung by disillusionment when our favourite leader, mentor, or friend turns out to have feet made of clay. Moreover, when we hold a mirror up to our own lives, we often see very spotty reflections of transformation. If we aren’t already discouraged at the lack of transformation in others, we certainly will be discouraged when we take a good, hard look at our own lives.
Why is transformation so hard? And why do we seemingly see so little of it in our lives, no matter conviction or creed? We still lose our tempers, we get irritated at co-workers, we covet, we lust, and we are faithful idolaters. For Christians, this is especially problematic because transformation is so clearly written into the good news of the gospel: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Yet, an honest comparison of Christians and non-Christians leads us to wonder exactly what this transformation really looks like.
Perhaps the elusive nature of transformation is illustrated in a conversation Jesus had with his own followers. Jesus asked his disciples: “And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Luke 6:41) Jesus suggests that a relentless focus on the foibles of others hinders the one who fails to see her need for transformation. To use the metaphor of Jesus, the constant straining at specks keeps one from seeing one’s own Redwood-sized log.
If the hope of transformation, in part lies with careful self-examination, it may also be found as we examine the nature of transformation itself. The writers of the Bible anchor hope for transformation in a God who employs less than stellar characters in the work of redemption. Transformation in biblical narratives enjoins God’s faithfulness to imperfect human beings. Noah got drunk; Abraham lied twice about Sarah being his sister; Gideon became an idolater; Samson failed to honour his vows; David committed adultery; Paul and Barnabus argued over John Mark and went their separate ways; the disciples of Jesus all left him in his moment of need and fled. The psalmist alerts us to the fact that God is not ignorant about humanity’s humble condition: God knows what we are made of; God is mindful that we are but dust. Yet in spite of this dusty substance, God is at work in and through flawed individuals. God can, and does, use us despite our fits and starts in following.
Perhaps there is something further to be gleaned about the nature of transformation from the story of Jacob. Favoured by his mother, he schemed and connived his way into receiving his brother’s birthright and his father’s blessing. He treated his wife Leah with great contempt and ended up taking a great deal of his family’s dysfunction into his own family; he, too, favoured the children of his wife Rachel. But Jacob had a profound encounter with God one night in the lonely ford of Jabbok (see Genesis 32:22). It was this wrestling match with the living God that proved truly transformational. Jacob received a new name, “Israel,” as well as a dislocated hip. He named this place of transformation “Peniel,” which means, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved” (Genesis 32:30). His life had been preserved, but he would forever bear the mark of that transformational encounter in a new name and identity—and in his permanent limp.
Perhaps, our own journeys of transformation reflect a similar experience. For those who follow the God of reconciliation, the hope of the living gospel, God indeed changes our names and gives us new identities in the hope of becoming all that God intends for us. But God undertakes this work in a way that leaves our humanity in tact. The hope of transformation doesn’t undo our human limp. Instead, transformation is a gift of grace—a recognition of how far one must still journey to become more than we are, while we entrust our limp to the faithfulness of God to walk alongside all the way.
Originally posted on RZIM.org website, section: Slice of Infinity.