On Transforming Lives

One of the great discoveries of my spiritual life did not come until I was nearly 30 years old. Through all of my youth, like most people, I struggled deeply against the habits of sin that had been formed in my mind and body as I sought ways to rid myself of unseemly habits. My main point of attack during those early years was to use my willpower to try to overcome sin. Sometimes I would have success and other times not. But in my own mind it felt like I failed more than I succeeded. I wrestled with the question of how one actually comes to be a better person.

At times during that process I more or less gave up the fight. I just decided I was who I was, and if anything was going to change, then God would have to change it. This offered temporary relief from guilt and other disagreeable feelings, but it obviously didn’t change the overall reality of my situation.

I wouldn’t want to give the indication that this was a constant battle. At times, the thought process merely laid at the back of my mind, occasionally rising to the surface. But for the most part, a serious pursuit of holiness was not a top priority. I knew I was forgiven; I knew I really wasn’t THAT bad; so no need to strain myself too hard.

That worked…for a while.

But then, near the age of 30, something changed. What worked before wasn’t working any more. Old assumptions began to crumble; previous ways of holding myself up were failing. All the details of the crisis I entered are not important, but let’s just say that it was of sufficient intensity to cause me to rethink everything that before I had taken for granted.

My father had warned me that something like this might happen. He had told me, many years before that something often happens to a man between the ages of 30 and 35 that is hard to explain. No two people experience it in quite the same way, and yet there is plenty of testimony that confirms the experience. Even Dante seemed to recognize the same thing. His epic poem The Inferno opens with these revealing words: “Midway through life’s journey (say, 30 to 35) I found myself in a dark wood…and I lost my way.”

That was me. Suddenly at midlife, I found myself in a dark forest, and I had lost my way.

But just as Dante had his guides who brought him from pits of hell into the bliss of paradise, so also did I find my own faithful guides who began to illume a path out of the abyss I had found within myself. Spiritual transformation now took on a new intensity for me. It wasn’t enough just to let things remain as they were. Things had to change. I had to change.

But how? The old efforts of will power had proven so powerless.

This is where the writings of Dallas Willard entered into my life. Interestingly enough, I had been reading Dallas since I was in college. But Dallas’ writings are not easy reading, nor are the depths of his wisdom often understood upon first approach. This is true of all great literature, whether speaking of Dallas, C. S. Lewis, Augustine, or especially the Bible itself. The greats are ones that you return to time and time again.

So I returned to this old trusted guide, and I found his wisdom reliable for my moment of need.

What Dallas taught me was not something new. In fact, it was something quite old. But it was old enough that it had been forgotten by the modern church. Because our focus has for so long been upon conversion, we had forgotten the long pursuit of discipleship to Jesus that follows conversion. Salvation is not just about a change in legal status before God. It is about literally being freed from our sins in order that we participate in the divine nature. It short, the Christian life is about holiness!

But how do we attain holiness? That was the problem I faced. I had tried by my own will power, but clearly will power was not enough.

This is where the teachings of Dallas brought great insight into my life. The way to become holy is not by directly trying to become holy. The way to overcome sin was not by directly trying to overcome your sin. The way to holiness was through indirect action.

The indirect action that Dallas brought back to the church’s consciousness is the power of spiritual disciplines. God has ordained certain actions, that when we undertake them, we are brought in a special way into the presence of God. And when God comes to meet us in these practices, his grace does the transforming work inside us that we cannot do by our own direct effort. The end result is, our heart is changed by this encounter with God, and then we naturally do the good things that God wants us to do, because it is precisely those things which God has placed in our heart.

What are the practices that bring us before the presence of God? Well, there is no set list. Because every person is unique, some experimentation is required. But there are a few general ones that are known to be helpful to people in any situation. These are practices like silence, prayer, Bible study, giving, service, sacrifice, fasting, and others.

Having failed at my own direct efforts to produce deep change in my life, I decided to dedicate myself to these things. I knew, of course, just as Dallas warned, that doing these practices themselves do not make you righteous. There is no cause for pride because you take up spiritual disciplines. But I also trusted his wisdom that many people have found by taking up these practices that God’s grace met them through this process, and produced profound change in their life.

For years now I have been practicing many of these disciplines. I have a daily routine of prayer, silence, and study. I have periods of scripture memorization, fasting, and special giving. Looking back now over a period of years, I am amazed at things that have happened in my own heart and mind that are significantly different from the way things used to be. Sins that used to entice me have very little appeal to me anymore. Love for the things that are right and good has increasingly grown in my heart. None of these changes came very fast, and there is still struggle with sin that takes place, but I have noticed a real change of heart. The power of God’s life is increasing in my inward man. I have been allowed to overcome things that I never could have overcome by direct effort alone.

It would be hard for me to express to you the joy I have found in all of this. My life is immensely better having learned how to cooperate with the grace of God. Now it has become a passion of mine to share this knowledge with others, a knowledge that was hidden from me for so many years.

The leadership of the RiverWalk Church of Christ has made transforming lives the central aspect of our new mission statement. This is because we believe transformation is at the heart of what we are called to be involved in as a church. The church itself cannot produce this transformation, but we believe we can help move people towards the means of grace that God has ordained to encounter his transformative presence.

Do you desire to see a change in your life? Are there old sins that have plagued you for years that you have never been able to overcome? Do you long for a life where joy bubbles up from deep in your soul? These are the things that God wants for us. He wants us to participate in his divine nature and he has promised that his own divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness.

But even though we cannot produce this change in ourselves, we are not to remain passive in the process. God has called us to action. But we must be informed about what kind of action is helpful and which is not. This is what we wish to explore through our new mission statement. We hope that you will be excited to join with us as we learn how God can transform each of our lives.

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