A few months ago, Conversatio Divina began a project to revive some helpful spiritual formation content you might remember. But if you’re new to us, we’d like to introduce you to The Conversations Journal. Originally published by Richmont Graduate University and founded by editors Gary W. Moon, David G. Benner and Larry Crabb in 2001, Conversations was published semi-annually covering themes of spiritual formation.
We are going to reach into the archives and bring an old issue of Conversations back to life. We’ll attempt to do so every couple of months until all 28 issues live on Conversatio.org. I’ll highlight a few of the articles that appear in a particular issue, and zero in on one featured article and provide questions and suggest practices for individuals or groups who want to experience a “class” with the words of the writer.
This current course is built around issue 8.1: How We Change. In a year when the pace of change is impossible to keep up with, I still have weeks that could be straight out of the movie Groundhog Day. It got me wondering how change really does happen, and why spiritual growth— becoming more like Jesus— often feels like an elusive and futile process. Join me as we revisit this issue on transformation.
Sometimes looking at the past is a helpful exercise for the present. This true in therapy rooms, and history books. It’s also true in our spiritual formation. Understanding where we came from, and how far we’ve come, helps us see that growth really is happening.
Real change is often subtle. Looking back can also help bring clarity to places where we currently feel stalled or stuck. Reflecting on our journey with Jesus— our transformation into his likeness, is something all Believers are called toward. Are we becoming more like Jesus as a result of our life spent with him? Why does transformation seem to evade us? Why do Christ-followers struggle to be any different than those that aren’t following him? Is change really possible?
These are the questions the editors of Conversations considered as we set out to gather content for an issue on transformation. Non-transformation, or as Gary W. Moon calls it in his introduction to the issue, is the “elephant in the sanctuary.” He writes, “what if part of the problem with experiencing authentic transformation among modern Christians is the tendency to reduce the real meaning and process of atonement to absurdity? Instead of accepting the process of dying daily to any will but the will of God, we may often substitute the one-time profession of a sugar-coated magic phrase that equals transformation…instead of stepping away from our self-sufficiency and into a transforming friendship with the members of the Trinity.” (P.4)
Recently I revisited issue 8.1 of Conversations on the topic of transformation, and it gave me the same reassuring feeling I get when I’ve spent time with an old friend: I’m not alone. The writers in that issue brought such a helpful perspective on the key theme of our faith; becoming like Jesus. They reminded me that change feels impossible at times, and discouragement and self-critique are common barriers to growth.
Also like a good friend, the writers brought me back to the Gospel and reminded me that I’m not under the power of sin and death anymore, and that change is happening in me because of the work of Christ, not because of my self-effort.
I was also encouraged by writers like Larry Crabb and Keith Meyer about the importance of the Bible in my becoming like Christ. In one of my all-time favorite articles by Jan Johnson, she walks the reader through what 12-Step approaches have to say about transformation (and how honesty and authenticity serve as the foundation for successful results.) It’s been ten years since this issue was published, but Dave Kinnaman’s interview discussing how the lack of transformation in the church causes a younger generation to view Christians, is still compelling.
In the defining article of the issue, Gary Moon interviewed Dallas Willard to discuss transformation, in “Getting the Elephant Out of the Sanctuary: Atonement and Transformation.” The two took a deeper look at three theories of atonement, and also discussed the practices and rhythms Dallas lived by to be more like Jesus. We’ve excerpted this article below, and provided a few exercises for you to engage in your journey to be more like him (Jesus, not Dallas!)
In a year that feels stalled, and wrought with social and political tension, I’ve doubted my own personal spiritual growth. I’ve had ample opportunities to act like Jesus in the trenches of virtual schooling and potty training, but I tend to reflect more on the times when I’ve failed to look like him. The invitation that this issue, “How We Change” has given me, is to extend grace to myself for the small, subtle changes that God is making in me and through me, that even I cannot see.
Getting the Elephant out of the Sanctuary: Atonement and Transformation
Interview with Gary W. Moon and Dallas Willard
Did you know that Dallas Willard didn’t have a daily “quiet time”? In fact, he spent his entire day keeping company with Jesus. Given that the only time Jesus defined eternal life is found in John 17.3, being in a knowing relationship with the Trinity, you could say that Dallas spent his day in Salvation—being in a transforming friendship with the Trinity.
In this interview, Gary and Dallas discuss the various theories of atonement, Dallas tells Gary how he believes transformation is possible, and shares some of the practical ways he attempts to live each day “with God.”
Dallas Willard devoted his life to Christ, specifically “providing a consistent, authentic, and profound voice calling nonbelievers to Christ, and Christians to an authentic transformation in Christ.” (P12) This issue focuses on change, and how a commonly held belief among modern Christians is to look upon salvation as a moment that began our religious life instead of, as Dallas put it, “the daily life we receive from God.” He unpacks this beautifully when he defines salvation as deliverance from sin and guilt. But what stands out to me, and that Dallas says is crucial to our transformation, is how we understand our salvation occurring over our lifetime, and the vital role the members of the Trinity play in our [continued] salvation. The Gospel gives us new mercies for each day, and our friendship with the members of the Trinity allows us to receive them.
Dallas reminds us here that spiritual growth is an eternal project. On page 17 he says, “You need to understand all aspects of you as a human being [thinking, feeling, choosing, relating, etc] and how redemption comes into them by your discipleship to Christ and growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” He says much more about whole-person transformation in his book, Renovation of the Heart (NavPress, 2002)
Gary also asked Dallas about the rhythms he kept to work out his salvation on a daily basis. Routinely, when he woke in the mornings he would meditate on the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm. He also made gratitude a regular practice, and invited the Lord to be with him throughout the day. In his words, “My main objective is to keep the Lord at my right hand, or to use another biblical image, always before me. So, my objective is to go through my day with God.” Dallas was such a wise and humble teacher, and his influence on the topic of Kingdom living will continue to impact generations of Christ-followers.
In each issue of our newsletters which focus on the Conversations Journal we hope to provide thoughtful content, along with questions to consider that will help you form connections between what you read, and how God might be speaking to you though it. Perhaps this can foster meaningful conversations with those in your community group, your spouse or a friend. Authentic change happens in community.
- Have you considered salvation to be a life-long process, or a one-time conversion experience? What helped inform your view and what ways did this article challenge or affirm that?
- Reflect on a time when you needed to make changes in your life (whether in thought, behavior, relationship, or volition) How did your relationship with God impact your ability to make those changes? Was the change lasting?
- In his opening paragraphs Gary Moon shares that he knows few people who actually look like Jesus, and one of them was Dallas Willard. Who in your life has experienced transformation that causes them to resemble Christ? Spend some time in prayer thanking God for his mercy in bringing this friendship into your life. Consider sharing with your friend how you’ve experienced the image of God in them.
- What does it mean to you to be an active participant in a ‘transforming friendship with the Trinity’?
- Dallas shared a few of his daily habits that help him keep company with Jesus. The first two relied on his reflection of passages of Scripture that he’d memorized. The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Calhoun, IVP 2005) defines memorization as “the process of continually remembering words, truths, and images God uses to shape us. Memorization provides us with a store of learning, which can be accessed anywhere anytime.” Consider starting your days this week by meditating on Psalm 23 and/or the Lord’s Prayer. Notice how beginning your day by inviting God to be a part of it stirs your heart in new and different ways.
- When you find yourself captivated by a Scripture, write it on a card that you can tape to a mirror, a window or even the shower wall. Every day read this verse, rehearsing it in your mind and heart. On a daily basis remind yourself of the Scripture until you know it by heart. Only then are you ready to move on to another portion of Scripture.
- If you were put in solitary confinement, what sort of things would you have learned by heart to nourish your soul?