In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Uncle Screwtape reproaches the apprentice demon, Wormwood, for permitting his “patient” to become a Christian. Nevertheless, he says:
“There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.”
Did you catch that? That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Even though we have professed our faith, repented, and have turned to follow Jesus, our habits are still our habits.
I think part of how we’ve gotten here is “false advertising”. Some of us were told or had the impression that when we said the prayer to follow Jesus, and our sins (fruits) were forgiven, that that would get rid of them.
Are we forgiven? Yes!
Are we born again? Yes!
Do we have the Holy Spirit? Yes!
Do we have new habits? No!
So how do we change those? How do we see our habits transform so that we are actually a different kind of person? Is it even possible?
In theological terms, how does spiritual formation and sanctification work? How do we “put off the old and put on the new” and how do we “work out our salvation?"
Whether you have thought about it or not, you dohave a belief about how we grow. You either have one you’ve developed or one that has been given to you.
Let’s look at a few theories:
This theory is the belief that when you say the prayer, or when you make the decision to follow Jesus, you are transformed instantaneously instead of building character slowly. Like we discussed above, even though we receive forgiveness when we profess faith, that does not mean our habits are transformed.
I am not a theologian, but one of my ideas of how this theory has taken shape is how we present the concept of “Born Again” in John 3 and “New Creation” in 2 Corinthians 5. We present these concepts in a “Magic/Zap Theory” sort of way in that when you make a decision to follow Jesus, you instantly are made “new”.
So while the process of regeneration and sanctification begins, and the Holy Spirit now indwells us, and there is a level of “newness”, instant transformation is not reality. My thought is that when Jesus talks about “Born Again” and Paul talks about us being a “New Creation”, we should think about it in regard to a baby. We are new, but we are very dependent and there is a long process ahead of us to learn how to crawl, walk, eat, talk, etc. In essence, we can’t “skip the middle”. We have to learn to sit up, then crawl, and then walk.
“Just try harder” theory:
The idea with this is that when it comes to sin and habits, we just need to “stop it”. When that doesn’t work, we just double-down and “try harder”. This theory correctly recognizes that we have a role and that putting effort forth is important, but there are a couple problems:
It overemphasizes our role without considering our partnership with God.
It puts the effort into removing the fruit rather than going after the root.
I actually think this theory has some merit to it, it just needs to be altered a bit. I want to address problem #2 here, and will address problem #1 in the “Sherpa Theory” below.
We discussed this a little bit last week, but our natural tendency is to focus on the fruit rather than the roots that are producing the fruit (read about Roots & Fruits here). If this is the theory you implement in your life, try putting the effort into awareness of the roots rather than “stopping” or “cutting off” the fruit. Once you have some awareness of those roots, find a spiritual discipline that allows the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to help pull out that root. Once that root is gone, guess what. The fruit will be gone also. The only problem is that there are likely more roots to be discovered once you are done with that one. Like it or not, we will be pulling roots out for our entire lives.
“I’m just a Sinner” theory:
I discussed this at length in this post a weeks ago. In essence, the theological paradigm and mantra that “I’m just a sinner” prevents us from pursuing transformation, which prevents us from ever experiencing it. The starting point for this theory is a non-starter, because what's the point if we are "just sinners". It’s all about God’s role in forgiveness, covering us with his blood, and continually going back to the cross. Since our identity that comes with this theory is a “sinner”, there isn’t vision to become something else. We end up living into our identity and have no vision for “sinning less” or being transformed into something different.
In 2004, right when we first started dating, my wife Jamie went on a trek to Machu Picchu with two of her good friends. The country of Peru had recently invoked restrictions and permit requirements in order to preserve the monument, so they were required to hire a guide and sherpas for the Inca Trail. The way she described it sounded amazing to me. These men would carry multiple packs for the hikers and the equipment for cooking and building camp each day. Each morning, when the hiking group would head off on the trail, the sherpas would break down camp, load up everything on their backs, and then literally run past them on the trail to go set up camp and dinner for when they arrived. That’s right, they would run ahead with everything on their backs. (The only downside to the sherpas was that one of Jamie’s friends' packs really started to stink as it was the one closest to the sherpa's back. They didn't wear shoes... or deodorant.)
Now what does this have to do with sanctification, growth, and transformation? It’s not a perfect metaphor, but here are a few thoughts.
First off, the girls had a vision of where they wanted to end up. They had a goal that they wanted to summit Machu Picchu and see it at sunrise before the train full of tourists got there. With that goal in mind, they knew they had to start hiking (effort) and they knew they would need the help of sherpas.
This is very similar to our spiritual formation journey. We know we want to be like Jesus, and that, as his apprentices, he is training us to live like he lived. But if we don’t make the decision to follow and then actually follow/start hiking, we will never become like him. We have to know where we are headed and then start hiking.
Secondly, this is a true partnership. If the girls were not hiking, the sherpas would not be needed. Our sherpas, or the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are not going to run ahead of us and set up camp if we are not hiking. We first need to get on the trail and God will meet us on the journey. (effort)
Third, it’s going to be hard. Jamie got altitude sickness and the sherpas made her chew on coca leaves and drink a special tea. This whole discipleship, apprentice, counting the cost, narrow road, following Jesus thing is not easy. Jamie needed friends to encourage her along the trail (known-ness), and she also needed the help and expertise of the sherpas. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are going to be with us on this journey. Some of the days are going to be brutal, hiking switchback after switchback. But the tent and the dinner will be there, and seeing the sun rise over Machu Picchu is going to be worth it.
So whether you align with one of the theories above, or a mixture of them, or a different theory, the reality is that you have one! Are you aware of it? This starting point and belief of how transformation happens is extremely important because it determines your actions and behavior.
I would recommend hiring the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as your sherpas and then start hiking. I promise you it will be an incredible, difficult, fulfilling, and transformational journey together!
Questions for discussion: post your comments below or on Facebook
In your life thus far, which theory have you most closely aligned with?
Which theory do you hear taught or preached most often?
With the “Sherpa Theory”, what do you like and not like about it?