Formation – an act of giving form or shape to something or of taking form.
Transformation – a complete or major change in someone’s or something’s appearance, form, etc.
I grew up with an obsession about transformation. As a Christian, this word maybe best described what I felt was the point of the biblical story in general and the gospel in particular. I deeply resonated with stories such a Paul’s (then Saul) transformational experience on the road to Damascus where his life was instantly and drastically changed. This is what I longed for, hoped for, and even spent many hours praying for.
In fact, there was several years of my life where I spent hours every week praying for revival, which is best described as an instantaneous transformation of a large group of people who have somehow had an encounter with God. Stories of past revivals captivated me. What has been called the Great Awakenings in America are perfect examples of this. Reading about people like George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Finney and Jonathon Edwards captivated my imagination. My heart longed to see a great movement like this!
I was deeply shaped by people and groups that shared this perspective. In fact I was a leader in a local youth conference we put on called “Transform”.
It has been years since I have gone to a conference like this and my focus has changed.
I began to become more aware of God’s work in my life and the world around me in a different way.
I see God’s work more as a slow process than as an instantaneous transformation. This can be seen all the way from nature, to the growth of an individual human, to the growth of the human species, to the growth of the universe. It seems to me that God is not in a hurry.
Take creation for example. Scientists believe that the universe has existed for approximately 13.8 billion years. Try to imagine waiting that long for creation to evolve!
Humans are amazing, but when we begin our life we spend about 10 months in the uterus of our mother as we are formed. Then, when we finally take our first breath, we are still fully dependent upon others to take care of us. This continues for many years as our minds, emotions, and physical bodies mature.
The individual formation of a human also reflects the overall formation of humanity. I have mentioned before that spiral dynamics has been a helpful tool to me. According to spiral dynamics humans first entered the beige stage about 100,000 years ago. This was the basic survival stage. What we believe are the two most recent stages (Orange and Green) has only come about in the last 150-300 years. Right now, we have more stages represented than at any other time in history (and we wonder why we struggle to get along). The development and evolution of humanity has been a slow process.
This is also reflected in my own experience. As I grow, I see God’s work in my life like water flowing over a rock. It takes years for the water to smooth the rough edges. Likewise, God’s work takes time. In my experience, God is gentle and persuasive, not harsh, forceful or coercive.
Unfortunately, what many understand and believe to be Christianity is the interpretation of a harsh and coercive God who gets angry every time you mess up. It is very easy to be a Christian, read Scripture, and believe this is who God is. For many, the choice is either to accept a wrathful, coercive, tyrannical god or reject Christianity.
Also, many are quick to make clear judgements and to give an enormous amount of detail about life after death. In reality, if we are honest, we have no idea what happens when you die.
What we do have, as NT Wright has pointed out, are signposts that can help give us a rough direction. Part of this, I believe, is gaining from our own experiences. My experience, and the Reality I see around me, points to a God is has an enormous amount of patience. My experience is that God has patience for each of us as we develop and mature – both as individuals and as a species.
Lastly, I personally experience God’s love and patience in my own life. I do not think God asks or expects instant transformation, but true to the way the universe seems to be hard wired, I experience God to be most patient with me. While I do hold open the times where I believe people do encounter a real Damascus experience, I also believe these are rare times and God’s most common way of working in the world is gentle and gradual.
If one seeks solely after a transformational experience it often leads them to believe in a coercive and domineering God who controls everything. This will also be reflected in our own lives and will affect the way we treat others. We will tend to be less patient, a little more harsh, will see things as black and white and will push others to see things they same way, and will often pressure people toward a transformational or conversion experience.
If we understand and experience God’s slow, formational work in the world and in our own lives, this will be reflected in the way we treat others. We will tend to have more patience, more love, and will be less domineering because this is how we understand God’s work in the world. Rather than pushing for a conversion experience, we can be aware that God is always working, everywhere, through a slow, gentle process.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability – and that it may take a very long time.
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin