Conversatio Divina

Part 6 of 16

What Are You Seeking?

Learning to Change The Jesus Way

James Bryan Smith

Would you like to have abiding peace?

Would you like to have a heart that is filled with love?

Would you like to have the kind of faith that sees everything even your failures and losses in light of God’s governance for good?

Would you like to have the kind of hope that endures even in discouraging circumstances?

01.  Introduction

A lot of people want to change and would answer yes to these questions, but many of them do not believe it is possible. After years of trying and failing, they lead a Christian life of quiet desperation, longing for change and yet certain it will never happen. So they sit in their pews each week, sighing silently, resigned to their fate.

I used to think that way. I tried and tried and tried to change. I prayed and prayed, pleading with God, begging God to change me. All to no avail. I wanted to become the kind of person Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount—a person who loved his enemies and never worried about anything. But when I looked into my own heart, I discovered that I not only did not love my enemies, I didn’t even love some of my friends, and I worried about everything.

Change came when, through two gifted mentors, I learned that transformation happens through training my soul. Richard Foster’s understanding of how the spiritual disciplines work and Dallas Willard’s understanding of how we interact with the kingdom of God are unsurpassed. The passion of my life has been to find the answer to this question: How do we become like Christ?

I have come to believe that the problem is not that we do not want to change, nor is the problem that we are not trying to change. The problem is that we are not training. We have never been taught a reliable pattern of transformation.

02.  Peace and Joy in an Airport

Craig is one of the people who took part in the experiment in developing a curriculum for Christlikeness. After being involved in an apprentice group, Craig began to notice some real changes in his life; in the way he behaved toward his family, friends and coworkers. He is a zoo architect, which requires him to travel a lot. One day he and his business colleague were flying back to the United States from Germany, when they got stuck in the Atlanta airport and were told their flight home would be delayed several hours. Those several hours passed, and a few hours more, and then finally they were told the flight had been cancelled. The delay meant that there were no options to get home that night, and they would have to spend the night in Atlanta.

The anger level in the concourse was reaching a fever pitch. All of the passengers were forced into a long line to rebook their flights. Craig and his business partner stood in line and watched as each person spoke harshly to the young woman who was trying to help them. When it was Craig’s turn, he looked at the young woman, smiled, and said, “I promise I am not going to be mean to you.” Her countenance softened, and she said softly, “Thank you.” Their exchange was pleasant, and he got their flights booked for the next day. As they walked down the concourse, Craig was smiling despite the disappointment. His business partner had been watching him. He said, “Craig, I have known you for a long time. A year ago you would have been enraged by what we went through today, and you would have lit into that woman at the counter.”

Craig said, “You know what, you are right. But I have changed. I know who I am, and I know where I am. I am a person in whom Christ dwells, and I live in the kingdom of a God who loves me and is caring for me. I am frustrated, but I am still at peace. We will get home tomorrow. There is nothing for us to do. Anger doesn’t help anything. I figure we might as well enjoy this unexpected turn of events.”

His friend just shook his head in amazement. “I am not sure what you have been eating or drinking, but you have really changed.”

It was what Craig had been doing and thinking for the last year that brought about the change. Craig had followed his desire to become a different kind of person by signing up for the apprentice group and training for transformation. Craig was not alone. His desire to do the work, and the changes he experienced as a result, occurred only because of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Not by his own willpower.

03.  False Narrative: We Change by Our Willpower

When people decide to change something, they muster their “willpower” and set about trying to change some behavior. This nearly always fails. Approximately 95 percent of New Year’s resolutions are broken by the end of January. Most people assume, when they fail to keep their resolution, that they did not have enough willpower. They think of themselves as weak persons and feel badly about their failure.

That is unfortunate. The reason they failed was not a lack of willpower. In fact, the will actually has no power. The will is the human capacity to choose. Shall I wear a red shirt or a blue one? we ask ourselves. Ultimately we choose the blue one, and our will is the hinge on which the decision is made. But the will does not actually do anything. If I could look inside you to find your will, I would never find it. It is not next to your gallbladder! It is not an organ or a muscle that can grow or atrophy.

The will is more like a beast of burden that simply responds to the impulses of others. A horse does not choose where to go, but goes in whatever direction the rider tells it to go. The will works like that. Instead of one rider, it has several. The three primary influencers on the will are the mind, the body and the social context. First, what we think in our minds will in turn create emotions, which leads to decisions or actions. Second, the body is a complex inner working of impulses that influence the will. Most of our bodily system runs without our help, but when the body has a need (food, water) it expresses itself to the mind through feelings (hunger, thirst) and alerts the mind to send a message to the will: Get food now. Finally, the will is also influenced by our social context. We are highly influenced by the people around us. We call this “peer pressure.”

The will is neither strong nor weak. Like a horse, it has only one task: to do what the rider (the mind, influenced by the body and the social realm) tells it to do. Therefore, change—or lack thereof—is not an issue of the will at all. Change happens when these other influencers are modified. The good news is that we have control over those other influencers. When new ideas, new practices and new social settings are adopted, change happens.

04.  We Change by Indirection

Jesus understood how people change. That is why he taught in stories. He used narrative to explain his understanding of God and the world: “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” “A man had two sons . . .” If we adopt Jesus’ narratives about God, we will know God properly and right actions will follow. And the opposite is true. We change not by mustering up willpower but by changing the way we think, which will also involve changing our actions and our social environment. We change indirectly. We do what we can in order to enable us to do what we can’t do directly. We change by the process of indirection.

Peyton Manning practiced indirection. He was the winning quarterback of Super Bowl XLI. It was a rainy night, and the ball was slippery. Rex Grossman, the quarterback for the losing team, fumbled several times. But Peyton Manning never fumbled. A few weeks after the Super Bowl a reporter discovered that every few weeks during the year Manning has his center (the one who snaps him the ball), Jeff Saturday, snap him water-soaked footballs. He practices handling wet footballs so he will be ready in case it rains—even though his team plays half of their games in a dome. Manning did what he could do (practice handling wet footballs over and over) to enable him to do what he could not without this preparation (play great in the rain).

We cannot change simply by saying, “I want to change.” We have to examine what we think (our narratives) and how we practice (the spiritual disciplines) and who we are interacting with (our social context). If we change those things—and we can—then change will come naturally to us. This is why Jesus said his “yoke” was easy. If we think the things he thought, do the things he did and spend time with likeminded people, we will become like him, and it will not be difficult. If someone had asked Peyton Manning after the Super Bowl, “So, was it hard handling that wet football?” he would have likely said, “No! I practice that all of the time when no one is watching.” That is the perfect illustration of indirection.Rick Reilly “Snapping Wet Footballs,” “Life of Reilly” column, Sports Illustrated, February 12, 2007, 78.

I believe there is a reliable method of changing our hearts. It is not complicated, nor is it difficult. It does not rely on willpower. We begin with the triangle of transformation.“working the angles”: I am borrowing this phrase from Eugene Peterson and his book by that title. In the book, Peterson deals with three essential practices of pastoral work, whereas I am describing three essential practices in spiritual formation. In addition, the concept of a triangle of transformation I have borrowed and modified from Dallas Willard. Dallas’s triangle consists of: The Spiritual Disciplines, Ordinary Events of Life, and the Action of the Holy Spirit. My triangle is different, but contains some of the same elements. It involves four basic elements: (1) changing the stories in our minds, (2) engaging in new practices (3) in reflection and dialogue with others who are in the same path, (4) all under the leading of the Holy Spirit (fig.1).


05.  Transformation: The Fruit of the Spirit

What Craig demonstrated in the Atlanta airport was none other than the fruit of the Spirit. Paul offers us a list of virtues that come into our lives as a result of the work of the Spirit: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23, NRSVUEAll Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition, copyright © 1989, 2021 The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). We cannot grit our teeth and become patient. We cannot muster our willpower and become kind. We cannot stress and strain our way to generosity. This “fruit” is the work of the Holy Spirit. Like the fruit on a tree, it is developed naturally from the inside to the outside.

When the Spirit has changed our narratives sufficiently, we begin to think differently. As a result we begin to believe in and trust a good and loving God who is strong and powerful. We begin to see how Jesus lived a perfect life that we cannot live and offered that life to the Father on our behalf, setting us free from having to earn God’s love and favor. And as we engage in soul-training exercises—especially in the context of community—our confidence that God is at work in and among us increases. This creates an inward change that manifests itself in outward behavior.

Now, when faced with an airport delay, we can take a deep breath and remember who we are. Like Craig, we can endure these trials with love, joy, peace, patience and kindness.

06.  Come and See

I love the story of how Jesus met two of his very first disciples. They had been disciples of John the Baptist, but John encouraged them to follow Jesus. When Jesus discovers they are shadowing him, he stops and asks a very telling question. “He said to them, ‘What are you looking for?’ They said to him, ‘Rabbi’ (which translated means Teacher), ‘where are you staying?’ He said to them, ‘Come and see.’ They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day” (John 1:38–39).

Jesus simply asks what they are seeking. This is such an important question, one we should ask ourselves over and over. What is it that you really want? What we truly desire, what we are most passionate about, will determine how we organize our lives.

Notice the strange and illogical answer—“Rabbi, where are you staying?”— the disciples give to Jesus’ simple question, “What are you looking for?” Jesus, however, knows their hearts. They are following him because they are passionate about living a good and beautiful life, and they are hoping Jesus will lead them to it. Jesus answers with a simple yet profound answer: “Come and see.” He answers both questions—the one about where he is residing, and the one about what they are most seeking. He knows that if they follow him they will find what they truly want in life.

Jesus has called you to be one of his disciples.

I know this because you are reading this. The Holy Spirit has led you thus far through your desire for a deeper life, a more authentic faith and a more certain hope in the God Jesus knows. Jesus has invited you to become one of his apprentices, or disciples. This is not because of your strength or skills, but because he knows that if you learn how to think as he thinks and to do the kinds of things that he did, you can live an amazing life, a life like his. Perhaps you will not move mountains or walk on water, but I have confidence that you can begin to learn how to be patient and kind, how to forgive those who have hurt you, and how to bless and pray for your enemies. That is just as miraculous as walking on water.

May you fall in love with the God Jesus knows.


Taken from James Bryan Smith’s, The Good and Beautiful God. Copyright by James Bryan Smith. of (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009) 19–24, 32–32. Used by permission.

James Bryan Smith is the author of The Apprentice Series from InterVarsity Press. This article is taken from the first book in that series: The Good and Beautiful God. Visit for more information. Jim is a theology professor at Friends University and a RENOVARÉ board member.