This is a sequel to "Enough with the Sin Talk Already." If you haven't read it yet, it's probably best if you start there. In summary though, in that writing, you'll discover the hope of actual transformation to becoming more like Christ....that it IS available, and that is the source of our hope and freedom in this life. But what's commonly neglected, if one does get to the hope and freedom of true transformation, is the HOW. And yes...there is a how. With rare exception, it doesn't just happen.
This is going to primarily be a summary of Dallas Willard’s Golden Triangle as he teaches it in The Divine Conspiracy. In it, he so perfectly captures what I have stumbled into over the last few years.
This week I heard a talk on breaking free from sin and one of the key points made was that it’s not our ability, but rather it’s Christ’s. It is true that if you try to overcome something simply on your own, you’re not likely to succeed; you need God’s help. However too often in the church today we are left with that…as if God’s going to zap you into transformation. I mean really, how else is it going to happen?
Willard teaches two very important concepts around grace. First, he defines grace as God acting in our lives to accomplish what we can’t do on our own. Yes! We must have this grace!
Grace is God acting in our lives to accomplish what we can’t do on our own.
At the same time, he explains, grace is opposed to an attitude of earning…but grace is not opposed to effort.
Grace is opposed to earning…not effort.
We do have a role to play.
It’s not about trying, though, it’s about training. Training for Christ-likeness. Think of anything significant someone might want to achieve or accomplish. You don’t just go run a half-marathon the day you set your mind to it. You train for it. Skilled musicians practice, they train for it. Training applies in all areas of life. Transformation to be like Christ is the same. It takes training, learning from the Teacher himself, and we do have to put our own effort into it.
So with that, let’s look at how Dr. Willard explains the Golden Triangle.
“A picture of the factors involved in the transformation of our concretely embodied selves from inside (the ‘mind’) out (behavior) can be conveyed by what I call ‘the golden triangle of spiritual growth’. This image is designed to suggest the correlation in practical life of the factors that can certainly lead to the transformation of the inner self into Christlikeness. The intervention of the Holy Spirit is placed at the apex of the triangle to indicate its primacy in the entire process. The trials of daily life and our activities specially planned for transformation are placed at the bottom to indicate that where the transformation is actually carried out is in our real life, where we dwell with God and our neighbours. And at the level of real life, the role of what is imposed upon us (‘trials’) goes hand in hand with our choices as to what we will do with ourselves. “ (Divine Conspiracy p 380)
The Action of the Holy Spirit in and around us
We must learn to let the Holy Spirit foster his life in us. The concept of, quite literally, a Spirit-led or Spirit-filled life, was not taught in all of my church-life experience...at least not in a way that I could actually grasp onto or engage with. Yet at the same time, in talks like I referenced earlier, it’s almost all put on God’s action to zap-transform us. It leaves one feeling rather lost.
We need to teach the tangible aspects of living a life in interaction with the Spirit.
Francis Chan’s explanation of this was extremely helpful to me, in his book Forgotten God.
“When a person is habitually and actively submitted to the Spirit, what comes out of his/her life is the fruit of the spirit.... It is impossible to live in the power of the Spirit and sin at the same time...Living by the Spirit implies a habitual, continual and active interaction with the Holy Spirit.”
Galatians 5… as you yield freely and fully to the dynamic life and power of the Holy Spirit you will abandon the cravings of the self-life….we must live in the Holy Spirit and follow after him.
For me, it means working to be constantly tuned in to what the Holy Spirit is saying to me or doing around me.
Understanding Everyday Problems and Trials
We must accept the circumstances we constantly find ourselves in as the place of God’s kingdom and blessing….knowledge of the kingdom puts us in position to thrive on everything life can throw at us. It is absolutely essential to our growth into the ‘mind’ of Jesus that we accept the ‘trials’ of ordinary existence as the place where we are to experience and find the reign of God-with-us as actual reality. (Divine Conspiracy p381)
James 1:2-4…My fellow believers, when it seems as though you are facing nothing but difficulties see it as an invaluable opportunity to experience the greatest joy that you can! For you know that when your faith is tested it stirs up power within you to endure all things. And then as your endurance grows even stronger it will release perfection into every part of your being until there is nothing missing and nothing lacking.
Romans 5:3-5…But that’s not all! Even in times of trouble we have a joyful confidence, knowing that our pressures will develop in us patient endurance. And patient endurance will refine our character, and proven character leads us back to hope. And this hope is not a disappointing fantasy, because we can now experience the endless love of God cascading into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who lives in us!
And then there’s Philippians 4, where Paul talks about being cheerful with joyous celebration in every season of life. Why? Because we’re united with the Anointed One! And as result, we, like Paul, can get to the point where we can say that we have learned to be content in any circumstance, whether in lack or in abundance.
I would add that a huge piece of this is helping one to understand the source of the bad or challenging things in our lives….and the purpose of our lives. The fact that we are in a war, that the enemy is seeking to devour and destroy us, is critically important. If we think that it’s just us plus God equals a happy life, when things go awry, one’s likely to put the blame in the wrong place – and it’s usually on God. And how is God using the trials and tribulations of our lives? We are in training. God is growing us up, training us, and preparing us for our roles for eternity when we will reign with him. Without understanding of these two components, it is very hard to rejoice in every circumstance.
Planned Disciplines to Put on a New Heart
The word discipline has quite a negative connotation around it, but in reality, it’s quite simple and not negative at all.
A discipline is any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.
Disciplines are, again, about training, not trying. They are not righteousness, as Willard says, they are wisdom.
The importance of spiritual disciplines has been minimized in the church in response to the terrible ways that legalism has hindered and devastated people. But the truth is that they are very necessary and teaching them again, but in the right context, will bring such breakthrough!
“Spiritual disciplines are designed to help us be active and effective in the spiritual realm of our own heart, now spiritually alive by grace, in relation to God and his kingdom. They are designed to help us withdraw from total dependence on the merely human or natural and to depend also on the ultimate reality, which is God and his kingdom.“(Divine Conspiracy p 387)
We’ll dive into disciplines in greater detail another time; in the meantime you could study Willard’s Spirit of the Disciplines. Or to simply start, begin by making time with Jesus a non-negotiable priority – with silence, prayer, and the study and memorization of Scripture.
Willard wraps this up nicely: (his full article here)
“The three sides of the golden triangle of spiritual transformation belong together. No one of the three will give us a heart like Christ's without the other two. None can take the place of any other. Yet each, connected to the others, will certainly bring us to ever-increasing Christlikeness.”