Partnering with God in Our Own Transformation
Philippians 2:12-13 – Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
(The following is a modified version of an essay used in an academic setting. While it has been edited a bit, it still may possess an academic feel. Apologies for that… Enjoy!)
How do we partner with God in our own transformation? To understand how we cooperate with God in his desire to transform us we must look at the relation of a sailboat to the wind. A sailboat at sea has no power of itself to move. The boat is lifeless, tossed around at the discretion of the sea. The force that could generate its movement the boat has no control over: the wind. But, with hoisted sail on a sturdy mast, the boat can harness the life-giving energy that the wind provides to be propelled forward. This is essentially our role in our transformation, to release the sail and be moved by the wind. Transformation comes from the Spirit of God but involves our will, our ‘putting out the sail,’ so to speak. We “work out our own salvation,” but before we think it is based solely on our direct effort, we must realize that it is God who enables our work and our will to matter. With this in mind, this essay looks to name the ‘why’ of transformation and the ‘Who’ of transformation, to understand how we cooperate with God in transformation.
There is a catechism that says that man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. Dallas Willard agrees, noting that the aim of our spiritual life is “the effective and full enjoyment of active love of God,” (Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines). God has made mankind to enjoy union with him in partnership in the governance of Creation. That is mankind’s beginning on the first page of Scripture (Genesis 1:26-29), and it is mankind’s end (Revelation 22:3-5) on the last. In between is a work of restoration of God’s creation, still in progress, through the restoration of man (see Romans 8:19-23). Currently, between Genesis 1 and Revelation 22, we are freed from the bondage of the Fall (Genesis 3), but not its far-reaching effects. We are not yet persons able to fully enjoy God. In order to fully enjoy Him and become capable of “reigning with him forever” (Revelation 22:5), we must become the type of people who are willing and able to follow God’s order of things for the flourishing of creation.
The Holy Spirit gives us the power to walk in obedience to the Father as Jesus did while forming our character. But His restorative work is largely a process we must commit to, much like a caterpillar’s submission to a chrysalis. The caterpillar is a butterfly on the DNA level, but it must allow itself to be buried as one creature to arise into something new for its true identity to become reality. The same is true of us: written deep in our DNA through Adam is “son of God” (Luke 3:38), created to reign, which gets activated within us by the receipt of the Holy Spirit. This is important because, “without an understanding of our nature and purpose, we cannot have a proper understanding of redemption,” (Willard, Spirit). Our ‘chrysalis’ is triune: adopting the narratives of Jesus (his teaching), exercising the practices of Jesus (his way of living), and living embedded in the community of Jesus (the Church). Devoid of the Spirit, these means will not result in the restoration that God desires. The Trinity is unmistakably at work in our transformation – the will of the Father lived out in the life of the Son enabled by the Spirit – that requires our participation, our getting in position to receive transformation via these means. Given our created nature and purpose in God’s image, possessing a will and imagination of our own, we must commit to being formed to will what he wills. We must indeed become the type of people who want and do the right things – as was God’s intent (Willard, Spirit). He desires that we become the type of persons who are empowered to do what we want to do (as we’re formed to want what He wants), which is the mark of our readiness to “reign for ever and ever,” (Willard, The Divine Conspiracy).
So, how do we cooperate with God in his desire for us ‘to want and to do the right things?’ Most simply, we cooperate with God by submitting our will to his will, living in complete obedience in the way of Jesus. This is what Paul was referring to in the Philippians passage above: that we are formed to possess the very character of Jesus as evident in his perfect obedience (read Phil. 2:1-13). But we don’t just happen upon Christlike character at conversion. Therefore, we employ the spiritual disciplines laid out in the Scriptures and practiced throughout Church history into our lives. These disciplines are activities undergone to “bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and his Kingdom, (Willard, Spirit).” They are practices within our power to help us do what we cannot now do by direct effort (Willard, Divine). Secular psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, even names disciplines as “techniques in suffering,” (Peck, The Road Less Traveled). Engaging in Christ-centered disciplines in community is the way we cooperate with God to transform our character and our will. These practices, requiring our effort, are not opposed to God’s grace but are a means to it (Willard, Divine). Right narratives, disciplines, and community can help our will to conform to God’s will in love, coming to want what God wants (Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology). Willard would say that growing into Christlikeness means becoming permeated with love that empowers us to do right actions with right intentions (Willard, Divine). This love brings joy in union with God, which must be our focus of attention when engaging in the disciplines (Chan, Spiritual).
Understanding our created nature and purpose, we can cooperate with God in our transformation by placing ourselves in the chrysalis of the teachings, practices, and community of Jesus of Nazareth. A rule of life – a way to order our lives around these three facets of discipleship – will help form our will and character with a healthy dose of practices that we naturally enjoy, as well as those that challenge us. We may say that a rule of life is the mast upon which our sail is raised into the wind of God as we journey through the storms and waves of life. It is something within our power that we use to cooperate with God’s desire to transform us into persons permeated by love. Growing in the character and power of Christ, we can become responsible rulers in the church for the sake of the world (Willard, Spirit). “It is God who is at work in you, enabling you to work and to will for his good pleasure,” and to be transformed for the renewal of all things.