As a Christian, the idea of transformation is a big thing. I’m involved in lots of conversations and studies about the concept. I hear sermons with this theme at their core many times a year. And I sing songs with lyrics describing the transforming process in many a worship gathering.
Christian transformation, as I understand it, is placing all aspects of your life before God—broken piece by broken piece—and fixing your attention on Him so that, through grace, He will bring out the best in you, revealing more and more of your true self, as God created you to be. (This is a very loose paraphrase of The Message translation of what Paul writes in Romans 12:1-2 mixed with what I’ve learned over the years.)
The concept of changing into a better, fuller, or more authentic version of who I am made to be should seem wonderful. If we believe God is good, He has created all human beings in His image, and we all have a divine purpose for being on this earth, who wouldn’t want to do whatever is necessary to bring about transformation so we can be more our true selves?
Think of butterflies, probably the most common metaphor for transformation. First you’re crawling through life, just hoping someone’s sneaker doesn’t come down you or a bird doesn’t carry you away. Then you go through an amazing transformation and you’re a beautiful, winged creature flitting through the air, alighting on flowers and drinking nectar. (Maybe you’ve seen Disney’s A Bug’s Life and Heimlich’s long-desired metamorphosis.) Shouldn’t we all want to become the butterfly?
But there are some realities of the human transformation process that I really struggle with. Our friendly caterpillar curls up in a chrysalis for its transformation. Life for the creature essentially stops while the changes occur—it doesn’t have to go about its usual activities at the same time. Its sole focus is transforming. And any pain experienced, any ugly stages that happen along the way are out of view of the world.
Unlike the caterpillar, our transformation has to occur in the context of our regular, everyday lives. At the very least, transformation can be awkward, as we adapt to new realizations about ourselves. At the worst, it can be incredibly painful and confusing, as parts of ourselves are stripped away like so many masks, revealing tender places and scars. During that process, we still have to go to the grocery store, get kids on a school bus, function in a job, and relate to family and friends.
It also isn’t a fast process. The average time for a butterfly’s metamorphosis from crawler to flyer is 7 to 14 days. Seems short to us, but some species live only 10 weeks, so that time of transformation is a significant chunk. Likewise, our transformation takes many, many years—in fact, the transformation process doesn’t ever really stop. If we allow it, God is constantly growing and changing us, revealing more of our real selves, revealing more of Himself in us.
Online recently, I stumbled upon a video of a conservator carefully cleaning and restoring a painting, which serves as another good metaphor for the transformation that God brings about. The conservator, with a little cotton swab, gently rubbed the painting, removing decades of dirt, to reveal bright paint colors. He performed this cleaning inch by inch. And once the painting was clean, he repaired tears and other flaws in the canvas and retouched the paint, so the masterpiece could be enjoyed for many more decades. It was a painstaking process, but the painting’s owner and the conservator thought it was worth the effort, no matter how long it took.
On the one hand, the concept of thorough, even continuous, transformation can bring joy and delight—ever growing, ever improving, ever becoming closer to our true self. On the other hand, given that transformation isn’t easy, the idea can also be paralyzing. I’m not sure I really want to start or allow that process.
I would much rather transformation be like the car wash. You pay the attendant, drive in, and emerge with an entire vehicle that’s shiny and clean on the outside. All the grime is washed away in a minute and a half while you sit safely and comfortably inside, watching the suds and brushes do their magic. But, alas, there is no substitute for time and surrender and hard spiritual, emotional, and even physical work.
I read this quote the other day: “For real change to occur, you will always need awareness, dedication, and perseverance. If you are really interested in these things, life will change in meaningful ways.” (Riso & Hudson, Understanding the Enneagram: The Practical Guide to Personality Types, p. 330). I guess that’s the question: Am I really interested in becoming aware of what needs to be transformed, being dedicated to the process of transformation, and persevering through any discomfort that comes with it?