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Progress vs. Transformation

Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and God-pleasing and complete.-Romans 12:2

People talk about progress: about making progress, about our society progressing, about how we need to be committed to advancing and progressing towards whatever ideal we have defined for ourselves. Progress is always good, so long as it is defined as movement toward a good goal. And so our spiritual lives can be lives of progress, right? We can be steadily progressing towards the perfect (which, btw, is how the final word in the Romans quote above is usually translated) choice by choice and day by day, right?

The problem with progress is it assumes an accrual of information; progress operates from an additive model of development. Once you create Part A, you then add Part B. Maybe you re-work some sub-part of Part A, but you keep the bulk of it unchanged. This model of development works great for systems, structures, and institutions. It is a safe way to change large, durable, and costly things. It is therefore not an adequate metaphor for people. People do not progress, they transform.

We are not durable goods; we are fragile and malleable and adaptive creatures. Our experience of the world is profoundly limited, and our brains fill in many of the blanks with plausible explanations. We develop understandings of how the world works, only to find that our assumptions don’t fit new information. We then have a choice: will we conform our understanding of new information to the “age” that we have been living in (in the Romans text, that word is often translated “world”), or will we allow our whole house of cards to be undone and re-built to include this new understanding?

Some people seem to think that science is a path of progress, but this is only true of bad science. Good science is perpetually re-organizing the “knowns” of the world, transforming those core assumptions rather than merely adding new information to pre-set truths. This is the same as the path of faith, of trust in God. God does not want us to “get better”; God wants us to renew our minds. God wants us to be willing to let go of all the assumptions we have about how the world works and what God is all about. God wants us to be as flexible as our brains are.

Our posture, therefore, needs to be one of humble openness. People committed to transformation are people willing to detach from their assumptions and truths, allowing themselves to be re-organized by God. People of transformation are people who trust that there is an active, loving God at work at all times, revealing more and more of the “good” and the “pleasing” and the “complete”.  1 Corinthians 13, the famous “love is…” passage, ends with a discussion of the coming completeness and our current partialness. Paul concludes that section with the famous phrase, “and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” His point is that when we go through transformation, we are being perfected in love; love will remain the center, even if everything else seems to be shifting or changing or falling away.

This month, we will be looking at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke as a series of transformational moments that led His followers to radically re-interpret who they are, how God works, and their place in the coming Kingdom. As Jesus’ disciples here in Seattle, we are called to move through transformation too. Sometimes we are going to feel freed by the renewal of our minds, and sometimes we’d rather push Jesus off a cliff. Sometimes we want to cling to our old ways of seeing God and ourselves, those simpler understandings where we knew what was right and how to “be good” and “be enough”. We are called to trust that God is revealing more of God’s self to us so that we might better understand how to love like God loves. Pastor John Robinson said to the Pilgrims as they departed for the New World, "God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word." May we be disciples committed to being transformed by that light, which is the will of God.

In Peace and With Love,
Pastor Andrew