Unpacking Spiritual Transformation

Joannah Sadler Part 2 of 2

Over the years the editors of Conversations purposely reminded readers about the crucial, yet sometimes elusive nature of transformation. In this article, Father Gregory explores themes of transformation into Christlikeness, and uses the wisdom of desert fathers and mothers seen through the vision of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.

“Transformation is a long and arduous process, requiring a genuine encounter with God, a change in our modes of thinking, and an active response to the grace and calling of God”.

We’ll use that template to explore this article and hopefully come away with a better understanding of God’s dynamic presence in our lives, which has the power to change us.

Encountering God is the first step in transformation. Father Gregory points to one of the most dramatic descriptions of an encounter with God in Isaiah’s vision of God. This type of experience he says, is often preceded by years of preparation on behalf of the seeker, and is rare. Yet, “every encounter with God is purely a result of grace” (68). Spiritual disciplines may open us to the presence of God, but Rogers says, “God cannot be forced to be present. He is not like a cosmic vending machine, dispensing blessings, including the blessing of His presence, at our whim. He is a Person who relates to us as persons, according to the grace He gives to each of us” (68). What a powerful statement! God relating to each of us, individually, uniquely— on his time, and through His grace.

True encounters with God bring change. Throughout the Biblical narrative change is the response to the grace of God’s presence. Whether it was a change of name (Abraham, Sara, Jacob, Paul…) or a change of location (out of Eden, desert, promised land, wilderness, and the ultimate change of address—heaven!) However, we have not only stories about changes of name and location, but stories about how encountering God also brings changes of heart, thought, behavior, and relationship.

“It is not enough to speak of heavenly things; an authentic encounter with God must lead to the transformation of the heart. Isaiah’s response to his vision is instructive: “Woe is me! For I am lost, I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). When he experienced God’s perfect holiness, his eyes were open and he saw his sinful nature more clearly. We have a word for this behavioral/heart response, repentance. As Father Gregory says, “Repentance is crucial for transformation. Without it, no change or development can take place. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which signifies a change of mind (nous). Repentance is more than simply a sense of remorse for one’s misdeeds; it is a recognition that something fundamental must change in our nature. It is a reorientation of heart from self- centered action toward God and his holiness.” Repentance isn’t a one-time occurrence. It is a daily habit in the life of a believer longing to be more loving, more honest, more patient, more forgiving—more like Christ.

Finally, responding to God’s grace and presence in our lives, through an awareness of his holiness, and our sinfulness, by moving into the calling for which he has for us is another step in our spiritual transformation. “Authentic transformation will fit a person to fulfill the calling to which he has been called by God. Isaiah, having been forgiven and healed, hears the voice of God: “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” He responds, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8). Responding to the love of God, and to vision of His glory, Isaiah is ready to act. He is transformed not to remain in heaven, unattached to the world, but to fulfill God’s purpose in it” (70).

Use the questions and exercises below as a personal or group discussion tool for this article.

  1. Take some time to practice an ancient way of reading Scripture.(Lectio) Reading. Slowly read the account of Isaiah’s experience of God (Isaiah 6:1–7) and get a sense of what it is saying. Read it a second time and listen for any words that strike you.(Meditatio) Reflecting. Read the passage again slowly. As you pause on the words or phrases that stick out to you, take some time to consider what the word, passage, or phrase means (in the context of Scripture) and how God might be using it to speak to anything in particular in your life.(Oratio) Responding. Read the passage again, slowly. Consider now how God has spoken to *you* in this passage and respond back to him.

    (Contemplio) Remaining. Now, take time to simply remain in the presence of God.

  2. In the opening section of the article Father Rogers shares the story of an orthodox Christian mystic Simeon the New Theologian, who responded to God’s presence early in his spiritual journey by spending the remainder of his life becoming worthy of what he had already received. The good news is that our effort doesn’t change God’s presence in our lives, it is a gift of his grace. Reflect on a time when you got caught up in effort or a works—based Gospel, as opposed to a grace-based receiving of Gospel.
  3. The notion that God is a cosmic vending machine is a popular, but faulty view of God. Spend some time today in solitude; go on a walk, sit in your backyard. Practice receiving his presence— a free gift of his grace. As you do so resist the urge to fill the time with your words or prayers which might redirect your heart to other things. Instead, be with him and allow yourself to settle into a quiet, rested space.
  4. This article focused on how spiritual transformation happens when we encounter God. “Authentic transformation begins in communion with God; therefore, it begins in the mystery of prayer. God may be known in a vision, in the whirlwind, or in the still, small voice heard in the heart. He may be found in worship, in the contemplation of His creation, with a host of others, or alone in the anchorites cell. But He must be found for authentic transformation to begin” (68). Consider some of the ways you’ve found God this past year. Write them down in a journal, or in a margin of your Bible. There will be times when you struggle to feel his presence; reflecting on how he’s met you in the past can bring comfort and hope to a seeking heart.
  5. Father Gregory said that too often we seek to justify ourselves by comparing ourselves to others. Recall a time when comparison kept you from repentance. How did that avoidance of repentance create a barrier to his presence? Talk with God about that and receive his forgiveness and mercy today .
Listen to all parts in this A Guide to Spiritual Transformation: The Vision of Isaiah and the Experience of the Desert series