Authentic Transformation: Key Questions

David G. Benner Part 4 of 15

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Transformation is one of the words the Bible uses to describe the Christian spiritual journey. Although the concepts of salvation and sanctification point in roughly the same direction, salvation is too often reduced to the avoidance of hell, and sanctification to the avoidance of sin. The notion of transformation draws our attention to the much more radical intended effects of Christ-following. And given the human tendency to turn Christianity into a set of rules and lose sight of its subversive intent, such a reminder should always be welcome.

The concept of transformation reminds us that there is a purpose to Christian faith. It is a journey, not merely a commitment. Christ-following has a destination. It is a pilgrimage from being in the image of God to becoming the likeness of God. It is a journey that involves being remade from the inside out.

Articles in this first section seek to provide help in understanding this transformational journey. Most of us are familiar with the grand theological concepts that describe it. But what we need is something more practical. What we need is a spiritual theology that is ­psychologically informed and that will both guide and facilitate the process of becoming new creatures in Christ.

This article attempts to set

the stage for what will follow in upcoming issues by identifying some of the key questions that need to be addressed to develop a truly transformational theology. Developing such a theology will be no easy task. Even agreeing on the questions to be answered is a sizable challenge. But before going further with this, it might be valuable to consider first the context within which transformation occurs—the life experience of people. Consider the story of Merissa as we attempt to anchor our understanding of spiritual transformation in real life.

The Story of Merissa

Merissas Change of Heart

In her early thirties, Merissa has a graduate degree in graphic arts and works in the design department of a major newspaper.

She was raised in a Christian home and is a member of a church within a mainline denomination in the city where she lives with her husband.

Merissa attends church once or twice a month. She describes her faith as very important to her as it provides the framework for her values. She has a strong social conscience and is active in a number of humanitarian concerns.

Until recently, spirituality was not of much interest to her. She viewed a focus on inner experience as an escape from responsibilities in the external world where, she was fond of saying,“Real problems demand real commitments and tough choices.” Spirituality had always seemed to provide a potential escape from such responsible living.

Things began to change for her when she became pregnant. For reasons she did not understand, she became more interested in her faith, not just as a framework for values, but as a means to a deeper relationship with God. In response to this, she began attending church more regularly and reading books on Christian spirituality. Knowing you as a friend who is a serious Christian, she asks you for advice about how to proceed with the journey that seems to be developing.1

Reflecting on a Journey

One of the issues that strikes me in response to this fragment of Merissa’s story is the role of the Spirit in Christian spirituality. Merissa’s spiritual awakening seemed to appear spontaneously. It came as something of a shock to her. She wasn’t seeking a deeper knowing of God. God was doing all the seeking.

Some depictions of the journey of faith seem to imply that there is only one way to encounter God. The common starting point might, for example, be assumed to be an awareness of sin and a need for forgiveness. But expecting everyone to meet God in the same way fails to take account of the infinite creativity of God in encountering us where we are and in ways that will help us hear the still, small voice within.

Sin and a need for forgiveness were not a central part of Merissa’s awareness at this point, though they had been earlier in her journey. What was central to her experience was a sudden strong desire to know God. This can be the result of nothing other than the call of the Spirit. If the spiritual journey is always a response of spirit to Spirit, the unique form of each person’s spiritual awakening should never be a surprise. In fact, it is just what we should expect. To treat one route for the journey as normative is to dishonor the Spirit.

The route that we are most likely to treat as normative is the one we ourselves have followed. If I had encountered Merissa at an early stage of my Christ-following, I would have quickly urged her to commit herself to faithful church involvement, Bible study, and prayer. I suspect I might not have had the maturity to trust what the Spirit had already been teaching her, or even to show enough interest in this to inquire about it. Nor do I think I would have encouraged her to listen to her deepest longings, trusting that these were the way in which the Spirit was calling her forward. Not trusting the Spirit sufficiently, I might have thought I needed to take over the role of leading the journey.

I can’t easily imagine when it would be bad advice to suggest Bible study and prayer. The question is how I understand my role as her spiritual friend, versus the Spirit’s role as the true spiritual director. Beyond this, the question is whether I recognize the difference between her path and mine.

Finally, the question is also whether or not I am able to move from giving what is in general good advice to discerning the movement of the Spirit and aligning myself with what God is already doing in the other person’s life.

Perhaps Merissa should be pointed toward a biblical understanding of the nature and character of God. But if so, which aspects of his character are most important at this point? Does she need to understand God’s righteousness so she can appreciate her sinfulness and need for forgiveness? Or does she first need to understand God’s face of love so she can tolerate facing her own brokenness? Is there a standard answer for everyone, or should you seek the direction of the Spirit in this in order to align yourself with his spiritual agenda for her? Raising questions, not giving answers, is my goal at this point. Future articles in subsequent issues will hopefully take further steps toward the development of answers.

The implications of spiritual theology are immense and tremendously practical. Quite different journeys evolve when the first step is an encounter with love, as opposed to an encounter with justice. The guidance we offer spiritual seekers will also be quite different if we assume one path and invariable stages of the spiritual journey for all. And quite important implications follow from taking seriously one’s personal longings as opposed to assuming that subjective desires and inner experience are irrelevant or potentially even distracting in following the Spirit.

But, let’s return to the story of Merissa, picking up her story a few years later.

Seeking Deeper Knowing

When you next encounter Merissa, she tells you she is now active in her church and regular in Bible reading and prayer. It seems she is moving along well on the spiritual journey.

She tells you, however, that while she knows a good deal more about God, she is not sure she knows God personally in any really meaningful way. She says that she knows her sins are forgiven, and she believes God hears her when she prays. But she expresses ­dissatisfaction with easy talk about a personal relationship with God. She tells you that even more than when she last saw you, this is the core of her deepest longing.

Merissa says that she is beginning to feel cheated. When she tells friends within the church about her longings, they say they understand. But she isn’t sure they do. They all seem content with what they have found. She isn’t. She is still a spiritual seeker, longing for a deep, personal knowing of God. She wants to know if it is true that Jesus can become her closest friend and most meaningful relationship. If this is possible, what should she be doing to help it happen?

Finally, Merissa shares with you her wondering if the interior emphasis of Christian spirituality is misplaced. In the light of her frustrations in experiencing the personal, experiential encounter with God she had been promised, she increasingly questions if a more social vision of transformation might not have been closer to what God intends as the way of working out a relationship with him. She asks you what you think about all these matters.

Further Reflection

Merissa feels stuck on the journey and wonders what she is doing wrong. How are we to understand this sense of being stuck?

Some might view her expectation of a more experiential encounter with God to be the

problem. In fact, that is precisely what her pastor recently told her—“You already have a personal relationship with God; just believe that and don’t worry so much about your feelings”. Others might feel that if she is stuck on the journey it must reflect the presence of sin. I would be inclined to feel that her longing for a deeper relationship is a gift from God and that she should wait before him for its fulfillment.

The classical map of the Christian journey developed by Origen of Alexandria emphasizes three overall stages that follow spiritual awakening—purgation (renouncing sin and following Jesus by purifying attachments), illumination (increasing movement from the darkness of sin to the light of Divine Presence), and union (total openness to God and the experience of oneness with the Divine). If these stages are not interpreted in an overly mechanical fashion, they are often helpful in approaching answers to questions such as those raised by Merissa’s story. They also help us begin to move beyond the limitations of our own experience.

For example, such an approach suggests—and I agree—that Merissa’s expectations of a personal, experiential encounter with God are entirely appropriate. The knowing of God that Jesus promises is the essence of eternal life (John 17:3) and cannot be reduced to knowing about God—that is, holding certain beliefs about him.

It also suggests that spiritual progress through these stages is always far from linear and that real growth often emerges out of moments of the most intense frustration and failure. The writings of St. John of the Cross, for example, emphasize both the inevitability of dark nights of the soul—that is, a darkening of our usual ways of encountering God—and the potential they contain for new levels of spiritual growth. This stands in contrast to the more triumphalistic maps of the journey that suggest a sequence of spiritual successes that can be anticipated as long as one follows the prescribed formula.

Another question that arises out of Merissa’s experience relates to the Trinitarian implications of a deeper personal relationship with God. How does one develop a relationship with Jesus, or with the Father? Are both necessary? Should one pray to both? And where does knowing the Spirit fit, and how does this happen? Merissa reports that she feels she knows about God the Father and Jesus but knows in her experience more of the Spirit intuitively sensing the Spirit’s presence with her throughout the day. Is she on the right track, or is it important to ground this in a knowing of the Father and the Son?

And which of the spiritual disciplines are most important in cultivating such a relationship? Merissa has been diligent in studying her Bible and learning about God. But how does one come to know God, as opposed to knowing about him? How would you encourage her to pray? She has told you that prayer is, for her, primarily a matter of petition and intercession. What difference might it make if she were to learn about prayer as listening? Might meditation be of help to her, and if so, what form should this take?

Merissa’s question about the social nature of the transformational journey is also an important one. Unfortunately, in her frustration she is beginning to think of the outworking of Christian spirituality as either social or personal. She came to faith from a background of strong social consciousness, setting this aside for what she was told was the priority of inner transformation. But do they need to be separated in this way? She is now beginning to wonder if she is correct in expecting to meet God only in personal, internal places or if he also wants to meet her as she works out her spirituality in Kingdom activities of social justice. She points out how neglected this is in discussions of Christian spirituality. Her point seems well taken.

But let us return one more time to Merissa’s story, catching up with her a number of years later.

Desire for Union

Merissa immediately strikes you as different when you meet her this time. In contrast to the strong, self-assertive presence that she presented when you saw her previously, she seems more gentle and less driven. You ask her where the journey has taken her.

She tells you that not long after you last saw her, she began spiritual direction at a retreat centre in her city. As part of this she underwent the 30-day Ignatian spiritual retreat, something that she said truly changed her life. Here, she said, she fell in love with Jesus. Through this experience she was also introduced to other forms of prayer. She speaks of how blessed she has been by bringing her imagination to prayer, particularly as she has learned to engage with a passage of Scripture by means of her senses. And she speaks of her growth in contemplative prayer as she has learned to supplement worded prayer with unworded meditation.

Merissa also tells you that she has again become active in social justice ministries and has found this to be a perfect complement to the contemplative prayer life she has developed. She is working with a number of others from her church with the homeless and says that whereas her motivation for doing this sort of thing was once guilt it is now compassion. The difference seems deeply meaningful to her and her love is obvious as she talks about the people she works with who have become such an important part of her life.

Now she expresses her spiritual longing in terms of a desire to surrender more fully to God. She also speaks of wanting to experience more union with him. She tells you that she has moments where she feels the reality of the presence of God to be more certain than those things suggested by her senses. She longs for this to be her experience more and more of the time.

Closing Reflection

Merissa’s progress on the spiritual journey appears to have been significant. But evaluating progress raises some important questions.

While it is almost impossible not to periodically look back over our shoulder to see where we have come from, many spiritual writers suggest that we should resist this natural tendency. They note, for example, that in assessing my progress, I take my eyes off God and focus on myself. This feeds self pre-occupation. But worse, if I find something that could be interpreted as progress, it also holds the potential for spiritual pride.

Even beyond this, the question is—as noted in the review of Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs (this issue)—whether progress is to be found in ascent or descent. We typically like to picture the journey as one of ascent toward God. But the biblical imagery is much more often one of descent: God meeting us not in our progress but in our failure. If the journey really is, as I have come to conclude—a ­journey of descent, evaluating progress might be looking in the wrong direction and setting us up for frustration.

But the Bible does seem to suggest some measures of spiritual growth—the fruit of the Spirit, increasing Christ-likeness, and increasing love of God and others being prominent among these. How are we to use criteria such as these?

My own feeling is that they provide more of a description of the goal than useful markers of progress on the way to it. I typically become quite discouraged when I focus too much on those goals—because doing so reveals my lack of progress. Because of this I tend to agree with Thomas Merton, who argues that we should leave all such evaluation to God. Others, however, have argued that these criteria contain an implicit curriculum of transformation and that we should orient ourselves toward them. Perhaps this is not incompatible with the warning to avoid the dangers of measuring progress. But further discussion about these matters will be of great help.

Another issue raised by this last encounter with Merissa relates to her discovery of new forms of prayer. Her report was that these have helped her encounter God in deeper places within herself. However, the question this raises is how we are to understand growth in prayer. Should prayer take the same form for a person at different stages of the journey? If not, are there available maps to help us understand the growth and development of one’s experience in prayer?

Some Christian traditions emphasize only one form of prayer and suggest that growth in prayer is expressed through increasing faithfulness in the practice of this form. Others suggest a pattern of growth through several ways of encountering God, often involving a movement from prayer of the head to prayer of the heart, and from verbal prayer to contemplative prayer.

Road maps of the Christian spiritual journey need to address this question of growth in prayer because prayer is right at the very heart of Christian spirituality.

A related question is that of prayer and personality types. If I happen to be a highly rational, analytical type of person, should my prayer be based on verbal, propositional and rational discourse, or should I seek to develop ways of encountering God in prayer that supplement this and perhaps thereby facilitate my transformation? Similarly, if by disposition I tend toward unworded contemplation, should I be content with this, or should I also seek to expand my ways of encountering God in this most intimate form of communication?

My own answers to these questions have changed significantly as I have learned to meet God in new ways. But a spiritual theology cannot be built around personal experience and preferences. These merely suggest the questions.

Conclusion

Even this brief engagement with one person’s story of transformation suggests many more important questions than I have identified. And Merissa’s story is not normative, nor does it contain all the important issues that need to be addressed in developing a comprehensive understanding of the process of Christian transformation.

In the most general terms, perhaps what we need to address are two broad categories of questions: what needs to be transformed (i.e., what’s wrong that needs fixing) and, what is the process of this transformation (what is involved in getting it fixed).

The first of these questions starts with knowing both our present reality and the nature of the human predicament. General talk about sin is not good enough.

If we are to align ourselves with God’s work of doing battle with our sinfulness, we need to understand our sin tendencies with much more specificity. Perhaps we need to consider typologies and tools that can assist us in this process. And perhaps we need to take culture much more seriously as we seek to understand how we experience ourselves, others, and the world both in sin and in the midst of God’s transformational work.

But we cannot afford to focus on the first set of questions to the exclusion of the second. What would real transformation look like? Should we expect to look more like one another or more unique as we move through this process? What is the role of spiritual warfare and discernment in becoming new creatures in Christ? What, if any, is the social dimension of transformation? What is the role of disciplines on the journey, and how do we practice them in ways that facilitate willing surrender as opposed to willful self-control? And what is the role of spiritual direction or friendship in this process?

One aspect of the journey that has been of great interest to me recently relates to what might be described as the active versus the passive nature of our contribution to the process of transformation. Some visions of Christian spirituality emphasize wrestling and striving, while others emphasize waiting before God. Thomas Keating, for example, describes the process of what he calls “Divine therapy” that occurs as we meet God in silence through the practice of centering prayer—a form of Christian meditation. My own experience—and that of numerous others—suggest that we may put too much emphasis on the active things we must do in the work of transformation and not enough on merely waiting in silence before God. The question is, what is the balance between waiting and doing?

While there will be differences in the answers to these questions depending on one’s denominational and theological tradition, those differences, I am convinced, are less pronounced that we often suspect. But rather than leading us to talk only with those of our own tribe, more than ever we need to allow those differences to propel us to dialogue with people in other streams of the Christian faith as we wrestle with questions.

In doing so, I would encourage us to be patient, humble, and respectful of one another. Anyone who believes that she or he has all the answers to these questions won’t find anything but irritating openness to dialogue in this journal. For this is a forum for dialogue among people who are open to learning from one another—and in particular, open to learning from those in traditions other than their own.

Agreement may not always be possible, and even answers to the best questions may be elusive. Good questions should often be lived, not quickly or even completely answered, and we need to be patient as we work together toward answers.

But I expect that in doing so, we will develop a dialogue that will not simply be informative, but itself transformational. For in meeting one another deeply as we seek together to be open to Christ, we meet Christ.

And so, let the dialogue begin!

Footnotes
  1. My focus in this story will be on Merissa, not you, her friend. That means that I won’t attempt to suggest how you might answer her questions. Nor will I identify things that you might suggest she consider. This is not an account of spiritual direction. If it were, the spiritual director would likely be more present and active than this hypothetical friend. However, it is crucial to remember that the true spiritual director is the Holy Spirit, and the human director merely an assistant. This means that the wisest course for human spiritual directors is often to simply observe and support the direction of the Spirit, much as her friend does in this account.
About the Author: Dr. David G. Benner is an author, lecturer, and retreat director. For the past 30 years his work has focused on the development and practice of a spiritually sensitive depth psychology and the nurture of a psychologically grounded Christian spirituality. He currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Spirituality at Psychological Studies Institute (Atlanta, Georgia) and as the founding Director of the Institute for Psychospiritual Health.
Listen to all parts in this Conversations: A Forum for Authentic Transformation series