How does spiritual change happen?

One of the bigger questions for any form of Christian ministry (preaching, teaching, youth ministry, children’s ministry, bible studies, church life in general, theological education etc) is this:

How does spiritual change happen?

My feeling (hey this is a blog post, not an academically researched article I can have feelings) is that there are all sorts of assumptions floating around this question and they are frequently found wanting. I wonder if you agree.

[And in case I get labelled as saying truth or doctrine does not matter, please note that is not what I’m saying. I happen to believe truth matters a lot – I love teaching theology after all. I am questioning how we ‘learn’ truth for spiritual transformation.]

Assumptions like:

“If people affirm Christian beliefs, that affirmation will result in a transformed life.”

In this case the person is happy to say, ‘Yes, I believe that’ when the Nicene Creed (or similar) is read. They may have no great intellectual objections to Christian faith and the existence of God, the incarnation, cross, resurrection and so on. They may happily attend church events and services for years. But apparent ‘mental assent’ to doctrines on its own is another lousy indicator of spiritual maturity, or even of spiritual life.

“If we can show the coherence, truthfulness, and reliability of the Christian Scriptures and Christian theology, people will see the truth and make the logical next step of faith and trust in God.”

Maybe and hopefully so, but this assumption dare I say is the favourite one of teachers, PhD students and the like. Simply explaining and ‘naming truth’ in a lecture, sermon or thesis does not on its own automatically guarantee spiritual transformation.

A close cousin of that last assumption is “If we teach it well, people will ‘get it’.

How many preachers & teachers would love this to be the case! For this model elevates their importance: in a hierarchy of learning they are at the top of the pyramid. Maybe long ago this was the case when ‘the minister’ (note the singular there – as if there was only one who ministered!) was one of the most educated and learned people in a community, but that ain’t true any more.

[And I wonder if the multidimensional ways that people actually learn in a globally interconnected world has de-centered the role of preachers and pastors to such a radical degree that many are profoundly disoriented – but that’s a post for another day.]

But if we pause to think about what spiritual transformation actually involves we would be much slower to jump to the assumption that ‘if we teach it well, they will get it’.

All of these assumptions, I suggest, are based on an epistemology that spiritual transformation comes via acquiring or assenting to knowledge. Knowledge is something that can be mastered and acquired. It is mediated by the expert (the pastor, the PhD student, the lecturer). It is passed downwards from expert to ‘lay’ person who receives it.

This has been called ‘mythical objectivism’ – the myth that objective truth is knowable, neat, tidy and can be acquired in a neutrally detached way by the knower.

There are at least three problems with this sort of assumption.

1. It doesn’t work  very well.

Studies have shown this sort of objective rationally detached learning to be a myth. The big problem is an overly simplistic assumption about HOW learning is ‘translated’ from the mind of the listener to their day to day lives. ‘Magically’, the learner, having acquired ‘knowledge’, then somehow assimilates that knowledge into her thoughts, feelings, actions, daily routines, decisions, and life with God.

But learning doesn’t happen this way. At the very least, for a message to be learned deeply and integrated into everyday life, it has to be worked out something like this:

Listen to the message ___ Understand it ___ Believe it ___ Remember it ___ Commit to it  ___ Act on it daily

Mythical objectivism begins with the listening and hopes the rest will somehow follow.

2. It distorts how we teach and expect learning to happen

The onus, in this model, is all on the teacher to teach well and the rest will follow. I’m all for excellent teaching, but this model is horribly hierarchical and narrow.

3. It is individualistic or non-relational

This is the point I really want to talk about. Even that learning process listed above still fails to integrate that learning works in relationship with others. Learning is a multi-way process between people. Christian learning is learning in relationship with other Christians within a community of faith. But even more than this – Christian learning flows out of relationship with the living God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Here  are some big sweeping assertions (BSAs) – remember it’s a blog post after all.

BSA 1: Much of western theology has been shaped by mythical objectivism. It has been far more concerned with defining right doctrine than focusing on how that doctrine acts to transform lives.

BSA 2: The (unbiblical) disjuncture between faith and works / justification and sanctification in much Protestant theology is an example. Soteriology has tended to trump the Christian life in a way that is out of line with the Bible’s more integrated understanding.

BSA 3: The (unbiblical) marginalisation of the Holy Spirit in much Protestant theology is another example

Some of these thoughts come from reading a fascinating book of a PhD thesis by Volker Rabens called The Holy Spirit and Ethics in Paul

Much Protestant theology has had a static and passive view of spiritual transformation. The Spirit is given to or infused in the believer at conversion. And after that, there is fuzziness on how exactly spiritual transformation takes place.

In contrast, Rabens (who did his doctorate under Prof Max Turner in London School of Theology) argues that spiritual transformation in Paul is much more dynamic and relational.

Transformation happens

“primarily through a deeper knowledge of, and an intimate relationship with, God, Jesus Christ and the community of faith that people are transformed and empowered by the Spirit for religious-ethical life.” (Rabens, 2010, p.21)

It is not the relationships themselves which transform, but it is the Father, Jesus, and the community which “give shape to these Spirit created relationships”

Being a Christian is to be brought by the Spirit into a new status and new spheres of relationships. It is the Spirit who transforms the believer as a result of a deeper encounter of God, Christ and fellow believers. This is well captured in 2 Corinthians 3:18

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

It is also the Spirit who empowers for spiritual transformation (Rom. 8:12-17).

This deeply relational model is a long way from the assumptions we started with  that tend to see ‘me’, ‘my knowledge’ and good teaching as the keys to spiritual transformation and which, to be blunt, marginalises the Spirit and the Christian life.

It also is true to who we are as people, created in the image of God and made for relationship with him and with each other.

None of this negates the importance of good doctrine or teaching. But it does put relationships at the heart of all spiritual transformation rather than ‘detached objective knowledge’. Relationship with the triune God; relationships with brothers and sisters in community.

A closing question: think of an experience that has been deeply transformative in your life … what happened? How did it work?

Comments, as ever, welcome.


A race well run (and still going ..)

Last Sunday morning at our wee church we had a farewell visit from Trevor Morrow and his wife Carys. Trevor is retiring after 32 years of ministry in our ‘mother church’, Lucan Presbyterian.

If you are from Ireland you won’t need me to introduce Trevor, so I won’t, save to say he’s one of the best known church leaders on the island.

Trevor spoke on 1 Corinthians 3:5 ff

‘What is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants …. I planted the seed but God made it grow”.

His theme was the joy and privilege of being a servant in ministry. Each are called to do their part but all is from God and all glory is due to him alone.

Paul says in verse 10 that whatever success he had as a missionary-pastor was ‘by the grace God has given me’. So neither will I do a hagiography. Trevor is a friend, is incredibly well thought of by many many people, and is a very gifted preacher so it would be easy to do so  – but it wouldn’t fit with the whole point of the sermon!

But there are two things I would like to say:

What is so encouraging about Trevor & Carys is not “surviving” 32 years of leadership in one place.

It is not just that there was fruitfulness in ministry though that is a very good and important thing.

It is certainly not that he was elected Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland though that is an honour I’m sure.

It isn’t even that he is right about women in ministry

For me it is this:

1. I remember Trevor leading a communion service a couple of days before he was to go in for a life-threatening operation on a brain tumour.  His head was shaved in preparation. And he led it as normal, with joy and hope in the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord. He didn’t say this, but it was clear that that joy and hope was just the same when facing death in a couple of days as when all was well in the world.

2. I’ve probably said this before, but the more I go on the less bothered I am about hype and the promise of the next ‘big idea’ that will be a key to ‘success’ in Christian ministry.

At the centre of the Torah (Deut 6:5) is the command to love the Lord with heart, soul and strength. Jesus says love for God and neighbour (who may be your enemy) fulfils the entire Law. For Paul (and for John), love is the hub around which all of the Christian life revolves.

Take Paul: his experience of the love and grace of God shapes his entire life. The love of God demonstrated in Jesus becomes the model for his ministry – a ministry of service for others.

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:7-8)

Paul’s new communities of believers from multiple cultures and across Jew / Gentile boundaries are united within a new identity – the family of God. They first and foremost brothers and sisters in the Lord. And they are to love each other as family.

They can do so through the Spirit who is given to all. The Spirit’s primary work is love. The Christian life is essentially a corporate one.  ‘Spirituality’ is worked out in concrete day to day life with others. ‘Love builds up’. Being ‘spiritual’ is to love.

Love is future-focused – only love is eternal for it will never pass away, while faith and hope will (1 Cor 13:13)  Love fulfils the Law (Rom 8:4) and pleases God.

All this is to say why I put ‘surviving’ in quote marks above.

Christian ministry is not some joyless burden just to be borne til it can be dumped with a sigh of relief. Nor is to be marked by a trail of broken relationships and division. For it is a call to love and relationship with God and with others in the household of God.

A truly ‘spiritual’ and authentic ministry has, as its fruit, relationships of deep love.

So for me the most impressive thing on Trevor and Carys’ leaving is that there are many tears and a sense of grief, as well as thankfulness for they are deeply loved.

And this is how it should be. Or am I being naïve?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

St Paul and the Wolf of Wall Street

wolf_of_wall_streetI went to see The Wolf of Wall Street [TWOWS}last week in York in the tiniest cinema I’ve ever been in – it had 28 seats I think. Small screen, big performances especially by DiCaprio (and Scorsese behind the lens).

You could see it as a dark satire on the madness of turbo-capitalism. Maybe it is, I think not. The cameo appearance of Jordan Belfort at the end of the film said much.  But this isn’t a review, it’s a reflection on a word that I left the screening with.


I ain’t giving anything away to say its a tale about the pursuit of money, simple as that. What makes the story is the intensity of that ruthless desire that drives Belfort to extravagant ‘success’ and wild excess.

That over-desire spreads to become out of control passion for sex, drugs, material things and power which eventually engulf him.

Paul has a lot to say about passions and desires. So did moral teachers of the ancient world. So did Augustine, but we’ll give him a pass in this post.

In the Greco-Roman world, it was passions that were obstacles to the moral life. Passions here are things like desire, pleasure, love, grief. There was optimism that humans can do good if educated and if instructed to be in harmony with a proper view of existence. This was because the passions were linked to false beliefs. If you can be trained to think right, you can achieve self control.

The Stoics had their own twist on this. Since the passions had destructive force, their goal was the not so much the control of passions but their elimination. And this can be done through reason, a cure for the diseased soul. Reason is the path to virtue.

In the Jewish world things worked differently. The Law was the path to blessing. Teachers were therefore crucial. The Law had to be learned, applied and lived. There was no hint that the Law could not be kept.  There was joy in obedience. Keeping the Law was the way to overcome evil desires and sinful behaviour. The commands of the Law are the path to life and restraint of selfishness and injustice.

What’s fascinating is how Paul stands in continuity with his world but develops a whole new theology of how to live a moral life and overcome over-desires and destructive passions in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

He agrees with Aristotle that lack of control of desire undermines moral life. As a Jew he knows that the Law is good and holy. But he takes neither of their paths in terms of overcoming destructive desires.

Unlike Judaism and the Greco-Roman moralists, Paul has a uniquely negative anthropology. All have sinned. The Law cannot be kept and reason is not the path to virtue however well educated you are.

So to Galatians on ‘passions and desires’, e.g., Galatians 5:16  the ‘desire of the flesh’ 5:16 and 5:24 the ‘flesh with its passions and desires’. These passions and desires are barriers to the Christian life.

Paul in several places says such passions and desires are characteristic of the pagan Gentile world. This is the sort of life that his converts have been saved from. These desires results in ‘works of the flesh’  in Galatians 5:19-21 – a list that describes the Wolf of Wall St pretty well.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

For Paul a life like this is one of slavery, trapped under the power of sinful desire.

So how are these passions and desires to be overcome? [And let’s be honest – part of the challenge is that they are attractive. I wonder if one reason the movie will do well is the way it gives opportunity for a vicarious glimpse of a life without limits, without morality, without restraint – and who doesn’t wonder what that would be like?].

The answer is the gift of the Spirit to those who have faith in Christ. It is the Spirit who gives new life and who empowers the believer to life a moral life. It is the Spirit who sets the Christian free from the flesh and its desires. And it is life in the Spirit which fulfils the Law – it cannot be kept any other way.

Paul doesn’t speak about virtue – what he does talk about is a new life in the Spirit that results in the fruit of the Spirit being visibly demonstrated – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control and the like. All characteristics pretty well totally absent in Scorsese’s movie.

In other words, the only way to overcome destructive desire is to ‘walk in the Spirit’ and be led by the Spirit (5:16, 18). This will crucify the flesh – with its evil desires (5:24). Such a life will lead to doing good to all, especially the household of faith (6:10). Paul is remarkably confident that the new community of the Spirit will be marked by the Spirit’s fruit.

In other words, Paul has a very negative diagnosis of how, whether Jew or Gentile, we are under the power of destructive and sinful desires and passions. But he is supremely confident that the gospel will result in ‘new creation’, a new moral life, a renewed mind, a transformed community of self-giving love.

What TWOWS brings home with visceral force is the power of sin, driven by destructive passions and desires. For Paul, these belong to the age of the flesh. The call of the Christian life is to choose to live in the new age of the Spirit. The works of the flesh destroy lives and relationships – and Jordan Belfort left a quite a spectacular trail of destruction.

Bottom line – to live a moral life we all need (divine) help. Salvation is another word for it. Or as Paul puts it in Galatians 1:4, Jesus Christ gave himself for us to ‘rescue us from the present evil age’.

For on our own we are all like Jordan Belfort in one way or another. He just had opportunity and determination to pursue his desires in a way that few have.

Comments, as ever, welcome