Many centuries ago, when the light of Christ was just beginning to dawn forth upon the earth — after the man Jesus Christ had left this world and left the responsibility to spread the light of God in the hands of his disciples — a church planter named Paul wrote to one of the earliest Christian churches that “we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” [2 Cor. 3:18].
For Paul, these were no idle words, for he was a wicked man — indeed a man who, as a fanatical orthodox Jew, had devoted his life to persecuting the adherents of the new sect of Christianity that was emerging from Judaism — a sect that was seen as heresy. At the time, he was known by his given name, Saul, and as reported in the Book of Acts, he was notorious for arresting Christians on behalf of the Jewish authorities in Israel [e.g. Acts 8:3]. But something changed in the life of Saul — so dramatic of a change that under his new name, Paul, he became known as the greatest Christian apostle in history.
What happened is that one day, on the road to Damascus, Saul quite literally with an unveiled face found himself contemplating the Lord’s glory, for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ was revealed to him in a blinding vision of a light from heaven, whereupon Saul’s spiritual blindness became manifested also in a blindness of his physical eyes. Saul was going to Damascus to arrest the Christians in the city, but instead, in his stricken condition, he was led by his companions to a house where he humbled himself before the Lord in prayer and fasting; whereupon he found himself being welcomed and healed by a Christian named Ananias. “Placing his hands on Saul, [Ananias] said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord — Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here — has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized” [Acts 9:17-18].
As Paul, a new man in Christ, the man who had been blind in his prejudice and opposition to God’s plan became the man who would later write to the church of the Romans, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will” [Rom. 12:2]. Paul saw the light and was transformed. From his Spirit-inspired mind, according to God’s will, came forth letters to the churches that we still read today as a major part of the Christian Bible. Though a terrible sinner who had hated Christ and his followers, his transformation was so complete that he became one of the greatest saints of the Christian faith.
Paul’s story, dramatic though it is, is hardly unique. God delights in bringing about amazing transformational change among human beings. For example, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah felt unworthy to serve as a voice for the Divine, for as he said to God when resisting his calling, “I am a man of unclean lips” [Isa. 6:5] — in other words, a sinner, a man who could not be trusted to deliver God’s pure and holy message. But God had other plans for Isaiah, and after the touch of an angel burned away his sinful self-doubt, he went on to become one of the greatest prophets whose words were recorded in the scriptures.
For some people, spiritual transformation can happen in an instant, through a peak experience like that of Paul or Isaiah. But for most people, it’s a process that lasts a lifetime — and presumably continuing far beyond this present life, as long as needed so that our souls may be restored to perfect harmony with the One in whose image we were created.
This process often involves suffering, which may be acute, as in the case of Paul’s temporary blindness or the hot coal that the angel reportedly applied to Isaiah’s sinful lips, or it may be a long journey of struggle to overcome whatever afflicts us, which God has allowed to be part of our lives so that we might learn and grow from the experience. Even Jesus, we read, “offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son [of God] though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” [Heb. 5:7-9].
Obeying Christ means to walk in his way; and to do this, we are called to transform ourselves such that we may gain the power to transform the world around us. God doesn’t let hell into heaven, but brings heaven into hell, that it may be transformed to become more heavenly. Such is the work of Christ, and our work as his disciples and fellow children of God.
To learn how to do this, we can practice in simple ways to observe what is and let it become for us something better than what it might otherwise be — for in the renewing of our minds, we gain the power to have a new experience of reality, through the power of freedom of attention and interpretation.
To illustrate the principle, I’ll tell a little story from my own life. A few days ago, as I was working on this sermon, I paused to take a walk through my neighborhood and sat down on a bench by a pond. I closed my eyes, and opened my ears to the sounds all around me — and I began to hear many things that I had not been aware of before. Several kinds of birds were singing, combining their instrumental voices like an orchestra, and a wind chime was tinkling in the distance. I became aware of other senses as well: The rays of the sun warmed my black jacket. A gentle breeze caressed my face.
Suddenly a cawing crow added his voice to the symphony, like the blast of a trumpet — and then another one joined him, and they had a conversation. A barking squirrel called out from a nearby tree. And then I heard a man walk by me, talking loudly about work on his cell phone. I wondered if he was wearing a mask or if his heavy breath would carry the coronavirus in my direction. I opened my eyes and came back to reality.
But what was the true reality? Was it the birds and the wind chimes, or the frenzied conversation about spreadsheets? All of it is real, but how often do we stop and listen to the more subtle things that are going on around us? And how often do we look within ourselves — really look deeply — and find out what’s there inside us, affecting us and our perceptions of the world, and the world we create in our lives?
Many people these days are struggling with anxiety or depression, as a result of the extra stress being caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects on our jobs, our families, and our social activities. Lately I’ve seen articles in the media about a scourge of “pandemic burnout” — the growingly overwhelming psychological effects of more than a year of lockdowns, facemasks, economic dislocation, and unpredictable sickness and death from an uncontrolled disease. In a time when our normal routines have been so profoundly disrupted — and when “getting back to normal” doesn’t seem to be happening anywhere near as fast as we would like — we would be wise to look inward and attend to our mental and spiritual health.
It’s not easy to overcome such powerful negative emotions as fear, grief, and the gnawing presence of worry, emptiness, or frustration. But Jesus assures us it is possible. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” says Jesus. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [Matt. 11:28-30]
Consider that this is a man who was preaching a radical religious message that was generating tremendous controversy, and at great risk to himself and his followers. He knew that his destiny was to be executed as a martyr — even a gruesome death on a cross! And yet he says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. How could that be so? How can we learn from his example and find rest, despite our troubles?
As Stephen R. Covey writes in his bestselling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the answer is to become less reactive to external things that we cannot control, and instead to live proactively based on consistent internal beliefs and values. “Reactive people,” he points out, “are often affected by their physical environment. If the weather is good, they feel good. If it isn’t, it affects their attitude and their performance. Proactive people,” on the other hand, “can carry their own weather with them. …”
“Reactive people are also affected by their social environment, by the ‘social weather.’ When people treat them well, they feel well; when people don’t, they become defensive or protective. …” In summary, says Covey, “Reactive people are driven by feelings, by circumstances, by conditions, by their environment. Proactive people are driven by values — carefully thought about, selected and internalized values. Proactive people are still influenced by external stimuli, whether physical, social, or psychological. But their response to the stimuli, conscious or unconscious, is a value-based choice or response.”
I think Stephen Covey’s explanation goes a long way toward understanding what we must learn to do if we wish to become more like Christ. God is a creator, who makes things happen rather than merely reacting to circumstances or the actions of others. To live in God’s image, as Jesus did, we must learn how to create reality instead of being subjected to it. Even when Jesus humbled himself to the death on a cross, he gave it the beautiful and transcendent meaning that arose from the Divine Spirit within, rather than accepting the soul-crushing interpretation that others around him quite naturally placed upon the event. In his mighty defiance of the conventional wisdom, he asserted the almighty power of God to define reality rather than, in the reactive way of mere creatures, to be defined by it.
I believe that God allows us to suffer so that we can practice our creative powers to shift our attention and choose our interpretation of events in our lives and our world. In choosing to interpret suffering this way, I practice what I preach — for the very interpretation itself is a manifestation of the principle. “This is not a vale of tears but a vale of soul-making,” says the poet John Keats. Our tears in this world may be bitter, but we cry these tears for a reason; and in so doing, if we choose to give it this meaning, we can become powerful souls.
Indeed, “The dark night of the soul is the supreme mystery of the path,” says the Christian yogi Bede Griffiths. And it is this path, the mystical path of the cross — whatever our cross may be — that leads to the exaltation of the soul in the divine image.
This transformation is not easy, and sometimes God lets us experience terrible tests of faith and endurance as we walk on the path of enlightenment. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who survived imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps, wrote of the struggle and its implications in his classic bestseller Man’s Search for Meaning. “The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails,” he writes, “the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity — even under the most difficult circumstances — to add a deeper meaning to his life. … Here lies the chance for a man either to make use of or to forgo the opportunities of attaining the moral values that a difficult situation may afford him. And this decides whether he is worthy of his sufferings or not.”
Frankl tells a poignant story of one woman he met in the Nazi death camp. “This young woman,” he writes, “knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge. ‘I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard,’ she told me. ‘In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously.’ Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, ‘This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness.’ Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. ‘I often talk to this tree,’ she said to me. … Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied. ‘Yes.’ … She answered, ‘It said to me, “I am here — I am here — I am life, eternal life.”’”
Such a remarkable transformation of character, such a lofty attainment of a mystical spiritual perspective and the transcendent union of the soul with the Creator, is something that we cannot necessarily expect to happen overnight. For one thing, few of us have ever been through the horrific degree of suffering that this woman experienced. But we all go through something, and as we do, we should strive to make the best of it, which means to learn from it and interpret it in a way that can elevate the soul rather than sinking into a pit of fear and doubt and despair.
For most of us, the transformation of the soul is gradual — the result of times in our lives when we must go through uncertainty and transition, and we are impelled by circumstances to become something different or try something new in order to survive. One of the most important things we can do in such situations is to tell ourselves a good story, a story about whatever is happening and whomever we are becoming that can uplift us, so that we may become the character we would like to be in the story we write for ourselves.
In his 2020 book Life Is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, bestselling author Bruce Feiler writes that “Life is the story you tell yourself. But how you tell that story — are you a hero, victim, lover, warrior, caretaker, believer — matters a great deal. How you adapt that story — how you revise, rethink, and rewrite your personal narrative as things change, lurch, or go wrong in your life — matters even more.”
Through his research, collecting and analyzing hundreds of life stories of people who have gone through major life changes, Feiler discovered that such transitions often take much longer than we expect them to, and require us to dig deep to summon and develop our best skills of creative adaptability. But when we do, we can emerge on the other side of serious disruptions in our lives as stronger and more fulfilled individuals, who have been transformed into something greater through the struggle with change and adversity.
Feiler also notes that although we’d like to think of our lives as mostly stable, only occasionally punctuated by big changes, the reality is far different. The average person spends about half the time in an unsettled state, going through some kind of significant transition.
Evolution is a law of the universe, not only for the physical world and the various species of life on Earth, but also for our minds and our souls. We are all being transformed into something ever greater, if only we walk the path that God has set for us with integrity. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote in a prayer we would do well to remember — especially at a time when it feels like so much all around us and within us is changing and filled with uncertainty — “Above all, trust in the slow work of God. … Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
Watch on video (starting at 9:20):