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.

 

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2 thoughts on “How does spiritual change happen?

  1. It would take too long to write the experience, but I can summarize it in the following words. The more I looked at Jesus the more that I realised what is like to be truly human. The more I know Him and I know myself the more I can work with God towards transformation. The Christian life is not only about finding Jesus, meeting Jesus, it is also to let Him know me and show me the areas of my life that needs transformation, I can do that without any fear because He loves me deeply. I can say :search me oh God, without any anxiety because God is for me. The biggest journey in our lives as Christians is the one that goes from the head to the heart. One thing is to say God loves me another one to live as a loved person. The Scriptures were given to us to know them and to be transformed by them, so we can become fully ourselves as it was intended in creation. And of course, being part of a community, of having those in our lives, who in love encourage us and correct us. And going back to the experience you asked, my deepest change came when I meditated on a verse from Scripture for 6 months, the penny dropped and I understood the love of God.

  2. thanks Ana for your reflections and for the story of transformational change. Your words capture for me the new spheres of relationships brought about by the Spirit that Rabens talks about with God in Christ and through community. And how the Word is not an end in itself, nor faith – but both are ways into those transforming relationships.

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