Conversatio Divina

Part 6 of 20

Can Change Really Happen?

Dave Johnson

The Dangerous Hope Behind the Question We’re Afraid to Answer

01.  Introduction by Mindy Caliguire

Over the years, i’ve discovered something. Maybe you have too. It’s relatively easy (and somewhat enticing) to talk about spiritual formation—the hope of becoming more attuned to God’s work in and around us, the hope of shedding bad habits and self-serving attitudes like so many pounds after the holidays, the hope of experiencing even just a smidge of God’s ever-present, never-failing, nonstop love for us. Yes, it’s easy to talk about it. Just like it’s easy to talk about diets and exercise regimens, new year’s resolutions, and the like. The hope of becoming something new—something better—is usually the silent driver behind marketing and advertising. Better abs, better hair, better tires, better life, better wife (yes, that’s what my husband asks for). It’s pretty easy to get us imagining our “better selves.” It’s easy to talk about spiritual formation, but it’s so much harder—so much more confusing, requiring so much more hope—actually to hold myself open to change.

When we’re talking about the possibilities, especially if it relates to what other people should be doing—how they should be trans forming—we can talk all day long.

But hope is the most dangerous thing in the world. I know that sounds counter-intuitive, but here’s what I mean. I believe most people eventually give up hope. Somewhere along the way they resign themselves to “life as they know it.” Hoping for a better life, a better relationship, a better job, a better retirement, a better church, a better relation ship with God has all fallen flat. The striving has stopped; the surviving has begun. Like a drowning victim exhausted from effort, they give up. They stop trying. They stop hoping. It’s just too painful. It never works. If their soul-injuries happened early enough in life, they stopped hoping long before they reached adulthood. They’ve learned better. They may be dutiful soldiers, hard workers, devoted spouses and parents and employees, but inside they do not hope. Their souls ache with the haunt ing words offered to an incognito Jesus on the road to Emmaus: “But we had hoped…”

And into this reality comes another opportunity to hope. To hope, yet again, that God might be at work, that his heart, his ways, his intentions can be trusted. That his arm is not too short to save, nor his ear too far from our cries. We are invited, once again, to hope. But when we awaken hope, we had better be able to make good on the deal. Because hope is the most dangerous thing in the world. Do not awaken it falsely; it destroys. It unwinds rather than binds up, it wounds rather than heals, it corrodes rather than strengthens. False hope can kill.

Which leaves us—leaves me—looking for authentic hope. What is possible? What can I hope for? Who can I hope in? What are the false alternatives I must not put my hope in?

In Dave Johnson, I have been blessed to find a friend who shares authentic hope. He reminds me hope is real; he reminds me there are no simple formulas or gimmicks. He laughs loudly and often, he listens deeply and well. He leads a large organization with the heart of a shepherd. He loves the Word of God; he is frank about his shortcomings. He holds forth hope for others, and, along with him, they are being transformed.

Recently, we had the opportunity to serve together at a conference aimed at helping folks who led small groups see the powerful potential for spiritual formation that exists through their service. Dave’s session became our launching point, the vision and hope, for the possibility of real change. This article is adapted from his session—and will serve to remind all of us that change is not only possible, but essential to our awakening authentic, dangerous, hope in the midst of the crooked and perverse generation in which we find ourselves. —Mindy Caliguire

Is transformation even possible? Will people really change? Sometimes I find myself asking these questions.  Maybe you do, too.

Underneath these questions is a sense at times (at least for me) that people can’t change, or they don’t, or they won’t. And under neath that, if you ponder long enough, some sense of discouragement or maybe even despair can develop. Why? I suspect the cynicism lurks because from time to time the evidence suggests, maybe more than we’d like to admit, that people don’t change. Yes, they accept Jesus as their personal Savior, but as far as real life transformation goes, it seems to be hit or miss. Mostly miss.

Ron Sider in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience suggests that most evangelical Christians are no different than the culture in four pretty significant arenas of life:

  • in our money, how we spend and give it.
  • in our sexual ethic.
  • in our divorce rates.
  • in our racism.

The operative words here, obviously, are that we are no different. And this speaks to the painful fact that there seems to be no real change.

02.  Why Bother?

I grew up in church.

My dad was a pastor. He had two churches in his life, and in his first one there was a guy named Ray. And even though I was a little kid at the time, I will never forget Ray.

Ray was an elder, at least for  a while. Ray sat in the third row—I see it as a kind of movie in my mind—right on the end, and he took copious notes in his well-worn Bible, which was heavily underlined and marked. You need to know, Ray knew the Bible better than God. But here’s the deal about Ray, and I realized this even when I was twelve: Ray was a mean guy.

Ray was a really crabby guy, and everyone in the church knew. Sadly, among all the things people knew

about Ray, the other thing they all knew was that Ray would never change. Indeed, they quit expecting him to change. Yeah, Ray’s going to heaven when he dies because he knows all the right stuff (in fact, he knows it even better than God). But Ray’s not going to change.

And that’s where cynicism raises its head. Can real people, people like Ray, change?

In spite of what I saw in Ray at age twelve, my answer is, absolutely, “Yes.”

People can change, and they do change. But many, many, people in our churches don’t. In fact, Ron Sider suggests most don’t.

This forces us to ask, “If most people don’t change, why bother with all of this effort? Why bother leading a small group? Why bother having conferences or writing articles or books about transformation?”

To answer that question, I would direct your attention to the book of Philippians, where near the end of the second chapter in verse 12, the Apostle Paul gives a good reason—as good a reason as I’ve ever heard. Actually, there are two reasons!

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life. (NIV, emphasis added)

Why bother? First, we’re not playing at church. This isn’t something we’re doing to amuse ourselves on Sun day. This is a God thing. God is at work. We are not playing spiritual patty-cake. This matters, and it matters to God. He knows all about the Rays of the world and how many of them will never change, but that doesn’t change the fact that God is at work.

And the second reason we bother is this: because people who are actually experiencing and exhibiting authentic life change in the context of a crooked and perverse generation—and some really are—are that crooked and perverse generation’s only hope. Did you follow that? Only hope.

03.  Not Playing Church

So here’s how Paul said it: Beloved, just as you have always obeyed in my presence and even more now in my absence, here’s what I want you to do—despite the Rays and all the people who will never change—work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Let me clarify that. Working out does not mean you work for your salvation because you’ve been saved by grace. But perhaps we should be a little bit afraid of not working it out.

Why? Here’s verse 13: Because it’s God who is at work in you to will and to work.

What does that mean? It means God is doing this.

God is not playing in church, and neither should we. Church can’t be just a hobby, like golf. Hebrews 10:31 says it is a frightful thing to fall into the hands of a living God. It’s not one bit scary if he is not the living God. If he’s just a Santa Claus joke at Christmas or a cuddly little Easter Bunny story at Easter, then don’t give any of this working it out transformation stuff another thought. Don’t give it any more energy than it takes to sit in your chair right now. Don’t ever lose sleep over stuff like this. Don’t ever pace the floor in the middle of the night. Don’t ever care, don’t ever give, don’t ever serve, and don’t ever agonize in prayer, ever.

04.  But If It’s True

But if it’s true that the God who spoke this world into existence by the word of his power—if it’s true this God lives in you and me by his Spirit—then it is time to open our eyes and ears and quicken our spirits: awake, aware, and alert!

There is a kind of fear that strikes people down. This fear weakens you; it paralyzes you. It doesn’t bring life or transformation. But I submit there is another kind of fear, a fear that does not weaken you. Instead, it awakens you; it quickens you. This fear arrives when it dawns on you that you are involved in something where the stakes are high and the outcome matters. And you awaken to the fact that this game really does count—it’s not the preseason.

It’s time to work out into your daily living so people can actually see the life of God that came to you by his amazing grace. That’s the kind of urgency and energy produced by the right kind of fear. Husbands, love your wives with fear and trembling. Why? Because this game counts. The stakes are high. It’s not the preseason.

The second reason that talking about, thinking about, and working out transformation matters at all is that in a crooked and perverse generation—when people are actually doing this “living it out” thing—transformed people appear as lights. People who are changing, who are loving, and who are giving provide some hope in the world. Others start to think that maybe this God thing a lot of people are talking about might actually be real. Maybe, just maybe, it’s actually true.

05.  Three Keys: Authenticity, Courage, and Grace

So then, if we believe in living truth and the work ing out of our salvation, we must ask, “How? How do we become the kind of people who are working out into our living the life of God we have?”

One answer would be to get in a small group. In fact, that would be a great answer because I believe formation takes place in the context of relationship. Another answer would be to get involved in the spiritual disciplines. Definitely enter into those things so you can become present to God more and more.

But here’s the deal about those two answers: are you aware that it’s entirely possible to be part of a small group and even take part in the spiritual disciplines, and still not be touched, still not be transformed into the kind of person in whom you can smell the fragrance of Christ? What are the keys to transformation then, if relation ships and spiritual disciplines aren’t enough? Well, I have three. And, the more I live with these, the more necessary and non-negotiable they seem to be.

The first is this: If we really care about formation, we have to be—we really have to be—authentic. The second thing is this: we have to be—we just have to be—courageous. And the third one is this: we have to have—there just has to be—grace. Because if there isn’t grace, an environment of grace, in our churches and our small groups, people will never find the courage to really be authentic.

If there isn’t grace, then I will never, you will never, people will never change.

06.  How Things Really Are

A courageously authentic, grace-filled life begins with honesty before God. At Open Door, we teach our people to pray, and unfortunately most people think they don’t pray very well. However, the first thing we tell them is, “However you pray, whenever you pray, you need to come to God the way you are. Not as you ought to be, not as you wish you could be, but just as you are.” Just as I am, I come. With all my fear and all my failure and all my doubt and all my shame. So come to God the way you are authentically—you have to do that.

In Galatians 6, Paul was dealing with a group of people who were investing enormous amounts of energy into what he refers to as a “good show in the flesh.” In other words, how things looked on the outside was what mattered the most to them. I remember discovering that text many years ago, and I realized it was precisely the spiritual environment I had grown up in.

The unspoken motto for how we did our life together was that what matters most is how things appear. The problem with that, among many problems, is that if you are in a system of any kind—a family, a small group, or a church—in which how things look is what matters most, then I promise you that how things really are will never get dealt with.

And if how things really are on the inside never gets dealt with, you will never, ever change. It all just stays.,This stuff, this fear, and this sin—it all just stays in here, in the dark, instead of coming into the light where God can heal it, forgive it, and transform it. And before you know it, having people think you’re happy becomes more important than actually being happy. Having people think your marriage is great becomes more important than actually having a good marriage.

07.  Blessed are the Bummed

It’s fascinating to me that in Matthew 5, the first words Jesus speaks relative to life in the Kingdom of God are these: Blessed first of all, Jesus says, are the poor in spirit. Second, blessed are those who mourn. Isn’t that weird?

It sounds as if God is saying, Blessed are the bummed or happy are the sad, which made no sense to me. But it’s interesting that the Greek word for “mourn” here is the word penthos. I remember when I first studied this, I learned there are nine Greek words for the concept of mourning, so the one selected here requires discernment. Specifically, penthos speaks to this kind of mourning: it describes someone who is externally expressing something that is internally real.

So, now at Open Door we routinely say, “Blessed are those who start getting out herewhat is going on in here.’” Whether it’s pain, fear, sin, or shame, “Blessed are those who quit pretending; they get the comfort.” In fact, in the Greek text it is emphatic—they are the only ones who get comforted. Because if you don’t get out what’s going on inside, you get to keep what’s going on inside. And what’s going on inside will never, ever change.

So you have to be authentic. You just have to. It’s non-negotiable.

08.  Uncommon Courage

You also have to be courageous. Because if you really start to bring into the light what most of us desperately try to keep hidden in the dark, it will feel like the scariest thing you ever do. In his work with sexual addicts, Patrick Carnes says that when people begin to break the secrets they’ve held for years, they physically go through a kind of dying.Patrick J. Carnes, Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction. Center City, Minn.: Hazelden, 2001. p. 27.

Indeed, to live authentically in the light of what is true about you and true about me—about my motives, fears, sin, shame, weaknesses—is the most courageous thing we will ever do. We know all about the Rays who hide what’s going on inside, but are there people who actually live out authentic courage?

Time would fail me if I were to tell the tales of all the people—people I really do know—who on a daily basis exhibit this courage, saying in a variety of ways, “I refuse to live in the dark any more. I’m going to live in the light of what is true about me. And I’m going to bring these things out so God can heal them, forgive them, and transform them.” And, I’m just telling you, people who live like that are being changed.

So can you change? Yes, but first you have to be authentic, and then you have to be courageous, which leads to the third non-negotiable. There just has to be grace.

09.  Only Grace

Grace is the only thing I know that has ever given me the courage to bring out into the light the things I would tend to hide in the dark. What would it be like if you knew—really knew—there would be grace and healing for that thing you can’t talk about—that thing you haven’t told anyone? How much hope would that give you? How much more courage would that give you to be authentic?

These three things begin with us. We have to be authentic. We just have to be. It’s not going to happen in our groups and in our churches if we are not first authentic and courageous. And to do that, we have to be full of grace.

10.  Real People And Real Formation Brings Real Hope

So here’s the word: Work it out into your living, where people can see the life of God you have. And do it with a spirit of authenticity, courage, and grace. Indeed, be a little bit afraid of not doing this.

Why? Because the stakes are high. The outcome matters. This game matters; it’s not the preseason. Because it’s God who is at work in you, and in the midst of this crooked and perverse generation, whether you know it or not, you appear as lights.

This whole thing about the Kingdom of God—about transformation, life, and hope—becomes real. You provide authentic, courageous, grace-filled hope that it maybe, really is true.


Dave Johnson has been the senior pastor at church of the open door in the Minneapolis, MN, area since 1980—and they still like him! He is the author of two books—and people still read them (well, at least the first one – “the subtle power of spiritual abuse” was actually pretty good, the second not so much). He & his wife Bonnie have four adult children and six grandchildren—they still like him too.