The essence of the orthodox message is that everyone is fundamentally flawed, so they have to change. It is a call to personal transformation, to be something or someone different from who you already are. This basic tenet inevitably raises fundamental questions in the minds of those who embrace the idea that salvation, i.e. life transformation, is predicated on what I believe and do about that belief. If I don’t change or can’t seem to change what is the problem? What does that indicate about me and my eternal destiny?
Men have been trying to live up to the expectations of the church for nearly 2000 years and basically failing in that attempt. It is a repeat of the story of the nation of
I suspect most everyone would admit that the message of Jesus is intended to be life changing. The real question is what provides the power which enables one to achieve real change. Here the church’s response gets pretty confounded. Some say that the Holy Spirit operates on the sincere, willing heart and gives the necessary “oomph” to get the individual who would not otherwise be able to change to, in fact, be transformed in thought and deed. Others claim that God has pre-ordained certain ones to be transformed by the message of Jesus, and the remainder is pre-ordained to reject that same message. In both these scenarios the chosen ones supposedly experience a kind of miraculous intervention which brings about the change Jesus proclaimed.
Alternatively, others put great emphasis on the sincerity and commitment of the individual. If one is sincerely seeking God and truly committed to re-directing one’s life in accordance with the church’s interpretation of what is pious and holy, then the natural result of that commitment and the associated effort will cause a life style transformation. Under this paradigm, Jesus came to communicate a methodology for achieving righteousness. This methodology involves knowledge, belief, and a firm resolve to live in a prescribed pious manner from this point forward. The change that takes place is not miraculous per se, but more a measure of the commitment and the effort which the believer exhibits. The knowledge gained about the work and mission of Jesus supposedly motivates one to expend the extraordinary effort necessary to change and do what the church defines as righteous. God may participate in some sense in aiding in transformation but the “believer” remains primarily responsible for his or her own changed life. If change doesn’t happen, we certainly can’t blame God. Something has to be wrong with the “believer”.
Every professed believer then faces the ultimate question. Has my life been changed? If not, why not?
If I adhere to the idea that the Holy Spirit must help me change, that has an element of comfort in that I am not left to change strictly within the limits of my own strength and will, but I am still left wondering what I must do to enlist this assistance of the Holy Spirit
Why haven’t I received that help already? What’s wrong with me?
If I believe in pre-destination, then the lack of a transformed life would clearly indicate that I have not been chosen. Not very comforting, but at least somewhat straightforward. It’s tough luck but not really my fault. I just have to live with it.
If, on the other hand, I believe that transformation is a function of my personal commitment and effort to change myself, then transformation is the ultimate sign of the effectiveness of my faith and salvation experience. Under this scenario the lack of observed transformation is deeply troubling to the struggling seeker. I claim to be a believer. I probably thought I was one or earnestly wanted to be one, but somehow my salvation process broke down. What could be the problem? Did I have a mental reservation when I committed to Jesus? Was there a doubt in my mind, one that negated my proclamation of faith? Was my repentance insincere or lacking in the necessary resolve? Was my entire salvation experience properly motivated or was I simply copying others and doing what I thought they wanted me to do without a real personal commitment?
All of these proposed methods of transformation but especially the latter, which I call “self help” or “bootstrap” salvation, lead no where comforting. Confusion, doubt, self recrimination, and deep spiritual anxiety are the only possible outcomes of these various forms of theological thinking. Could any of these concepts of transformation be the real message of Jesus? Not if they don’t bring about transformation.
Now any number of people will claim that they have been transformed by one of these three theological concepts of how transformation happens. The next question would logically be this: Was the transformation of the type and magnitude that we would expect given what Jesus taught. What was the result of the change? Did I experience overwhelming joy or was there an element of fear for myself or for others? Did I enjoy a new peace or was I drawn into countless conflicts which left me frustrated, angry, and anxious for the future. Was I enabled to function on the basis of the Golden Rule and the guiding principle of love or did I find that the requirements of personal piety and evangelism made me the judge and keeper of the entire world. Do I feel safe and secure in my ultimate destiny as a result of my change or has a confused message of my responsibility for my own salvation left me in a continual state of self doubt. I sincerely question whether many “believers” could honestly answer affirmatively to all these questions.
If that is the case, what should we conclude? Are we mistaken about the purpose of Jesus’ message? Was it never intended to transform lives dramatically? Did Jesus fail in some way in His intended transformative purpose? Was His plan thwarted by the Jews of His day when they rejected Him? Has the Devil somehow derailed the plan of salvation, making it ineffective? Could it be that the church has never understood and proclaimed the real Gospel and therefore what we have taken to be the message of Jesus is not really the message at all? In other words, perhaps none of the above proposed ways in which personal transformation happens is correct. Maybe what they represent is merely a slight revamp of the Old Covenant prescription: Do right and then you’ll be right. Is there another alternative, a way which comes out of the message of Jesus and provides a power which guarantees that lives will always be changed and marvelously, unimaginably so?
Some one has said that no one’s expectations of you matters except your own and it matters immensely. That is probably not entirely true, because the expectations others project on us powerfully influence our expectations of ourselves. One can easily make a theological connection to this line of reasoning. What do we expect of ourselves based on the theological teachings of the church? Not much and certainly nothing good. After all supposedly only a few, probably a very few, will be saved, right? The church points to God’s strict opinion of us as being super critical. God apparently requires much but expects little of us. If God’s opinion of us is low, what opinion of ourselves do we inherit and what impact does that expectation have on our lives? In traditional theology the realization of our pathetic state and God’s sacrifice should motivate us to react appropriately and be changed. The problem is that we soon learn that God doesn’t really expect much transformation to take place. He has already predicted a largely failed plan of salvation. Apparently, He has done the best He could, but because He knows man to be the pathetic creature he is God can’t expect much success. The foregone conclusion that few will be saved certainly blunts the urge to take the church’s message to the masses and doesn’t exactly encourage the masses to be receptive either.
Let’s consider an alternative scenario for life transformation by the message of Jesus, one which capitalizes on the power of what we expect of ourselves, an alternative which stresses a different personal identity than the traditional one of a lowly, loathsome, God forsaken me. Suppose the message and example of Christ proclaims that everyone, without exception, is an object of God’s unconditional Love? What if Jesus came to exemplify that Love through the most powerful example God could devise. What if Jesus demonstrated through His interaction with the Jewish world of His day the absolute futility and inherent self righteousness of seeking God through legalism and personal piety? What if Jesus brought to mankind the realization that our acts of judgment of ourselves and others are the basic problem of humanity, harking back to the Garden prohibition? In this scenario the essence of what the Bible calls sin becomes the false assumption that we are separated by God by God’s choice instead of by our own ignorance and propensity to judge, which is a basic denial of our collective identity and worth as God’s children.
If my expectations of myself are what really maters, if my personal expectation are the true transformative power in my life, then what I conceive of myself and of God’s benevolence and commitment to all mankind are the critical elements in making not only a changed me but a changed world.
No one can reasonably claim that the message of the church has really changed the world in anything like the ways described by Jesus. The lack of that change has confounded believers and stoked the criticism of non-believers throughout the centuries. A message that fails in effect is a failed and therefore false message. God does not deal in failure because Love never fails.
Transformation is either the work of God or the responsibility of man. Which is it? Transformation is either the proof that what God requires has been met as the church would have us believe or it is the evidence that what the church teaches actually works thereby verifying or denying the validity of the church’s message. Needless to say, the church would have us all believe that the former is the truth, because the alternative threatens the very existence of the church.