Christianized Self-Improvement or Genuine Transformation?


Last week we touched on the difference between “deliverance” and “transformation.” Deliverances are those profound graces that God gives to us at a deep time of need to overcome sin, provide victory over darkness and bring forward progress in our walk with Christ. These miracles and epiphanies show to us that God does indeed exist, that Christ does indeed reign, and that the Holy Spirit does indeed empower. However, they are not the mainstay of the Christian life. Neither are they the final destination point for a Christ follower. God delivers us as part of the ongoing work of transformation; a work that requires the grace and power of God, as well as our own cooperation and effort. The endgame of transformation is not just momentary freedom, but Christ-likeness and becoming who we were meant to be in Christ.

In the same way, transformation is different than “self-improvement.” In an earlier blog, I discussed how the word “transformation” is so overused in our world’s culture that it is cheapened to mean anything from a “make-over” to losing a few pounds. However, I find this is also true in our church culture where we easily mistake transformation to mean something that is only a cosmetic spiritual improvement.

So many sermons we hear and books we read in our Christian circles boast of “transformation,” but they are, in actuality, just Christianized self-helps. For example, we discover how to be a better Christian parent in four easy steps, or become an expert on spirituality by following a particular Bible study method, or overcome our anger by following a simple management pattern. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with self-help improvement methods or ideas, but let’s not mistake it for transformation.

The Greek word for transformation is metamorphe, where we get the English word, “metamorphosis.” The remarkable inside-out change that caterpillar goes through in becoming a butterfly, is the classic example of transformation. This process is not a side venture or a “hobby” for the caterpillar; rather it involves a total life surrender. Mr. Caterpillar does not devote just a few minutes a day spinning the chrysalis, while the rest of the time he continues his normal “caterpillaring.” No, metamorphosis requires a total devotion to the task – as if his very life was at stake (and it is).

Likewise, our transformation requires such abandon and sacrifice. This cost and commitment was not lost to those living in Jesus’ time. In fact, whenever Jesus offered the invitation to transformation to people, most of them walked away sadly (think of the Rich Young Ruler or the “many disciples” who left Jesus in John 6:60-66). Jesus described the way of transformation as the “narrow road” that only a few find (Matt 7:13-14), and that it involves denying self, taking up one’s cross and following Him no matter what (Luke 9:23).

David Benner, in his amazing book entitled, “Surrender to Love,” writes this:

In spite of how central the cross is to the Christian story, Christians are always tempted to minimize its importance in their own journey. We want a spirituality of success ad ascent, not a spirituality of failure and descent. We want a spirituality of improvement, not a spirituality of transformation. But the way of the cross is the way of descent, abandon and death. This is the foolishness of the gospel. (p. 91)

Those who view the Christian life as a “self-improvement course” also tend to believe that they are doing pretty well in their spiritual lives. They aren’t perfect, but they are not bad. With a few improvements in a few areas, they would be in pretty good shape. However, those who view the Christian life as “transformation” know that their lives are in total ruin without God’s merciful and constant intervention.

It’s extremely difficult for those who think they are doing pretty well spiritually to deny self and take up the cross and follow Jesus with reckless abandon. But for those who know that their lives are “crap” without Christ (pardon the crudeness, but I’m just translating Paul literally from Phil 3:8), to surrender all to Jesus is a necessity. Like Mr. Caterpillar, our lives depend on it.

With a little help from Benner’s book, I want us to go deeper on the topic of transformation as it relates to honesty, brokenness, experiencing God’s unconditional love, and surrender. Hopefully, it will open our eyes to the power of transformation in Whole Life Worship, and how it is so much more than spiritual “self-improvement.”

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