Why We’re Failing at Spiritual Transformation
I recently addressed the question, Are Christians Overselling Transformation? In this post, I looked at how often we talk about “dying to self” and “becoming more like Jesus,” but continue to be mired in petty, irrelevant emotional outbursts, offences, and grudges.
Following this theme, I wanted to discuss one of the reasons we struggle with being truly transformed by the gospel. By way of illustration, I’ll be using a couple scenes from Steven Spielberg’s amazing 1993 film, Schindler’s List.
The winner of seven academy awards, including best picture and director, Schindler’s List tells the tale of Oskar Schindler and his rescue of over a thousand Polish-Jewish refugees during the Holocaust. By employing them in his factories, he kept them from the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp and away from the dangerous Amon Goeth (played brilliantly by Ralph Fiennes).
Goeth—called the “the butcher of Płaszów”—was eventually tried and convicted as a war criminal for personally ordering the imprisonment, torture, and extermination of thousands of camp prisoners.
In a pivotal moment in the film, Schindler and a drunken Goeth stand on a balcony talking. Schindler appeals to Goeth’s vanity and lust for power to get him to quit randomly shooting and abusing prisoners:
“[The Jews] don’t fear us because we have the power to kill, they fear us because we have the power to kill arbitrarily. A man commits a crime, he should know better. We have him killed, we feel pretty good about it. Or we kill him ourselves and we feel even better.
That’s not power, though, that’s justice. That’s different than power. Power is when we have every justification to kill—and we don’t. That’s power. That’s what the emperors had. A man stole something, he’s brought in before the emperor, he throws himself down on the floor, he begs for mercy, he knows he’s going to die . . . and the emperor pardons him. This worthless man. He lets him go. That’s power.
This attempted appeal to Goeth’s arrogance is very similar to how many Christian books and sermons motivate believers toward Christian attitudes and behaviors. While they don’t typically manipulate people through appeals to vanity (well . . . maybe occasionally), they do tend to prod them based on promised pragmatic outcomes and internal satisfaction that godliness brings.
For instance, if you love your enemies you’ll:
- Win them over
- Make them your allies
- Feel the satisfaction of not stooping to their level
- Convince them of their foolishness
When they’re not appealing to pragmatism, they’re subtly promising that Sermon-on-the-Mount-like behavior translates into the kind of otherworldly peace and tranquility that one associates with eastern religions like Tibetan Buddhism.
Like Amon Goeth, we take all of these resources in and fall in love with the fantasy of seeing ourselves as magnanimous, charitable, benevolent, and merciful individuals.
The day after this discussion with Schindler, a stable boy works to get Goeth’s horse ready before the commandant arrives. But before he can finish, Goeth is there. The boy struggles to mask his panic; he knows that not having the horse ready could get him killed.
Stable Boy: “I’m sorry, sir, I’m almost done.”
Goeth:“Oh, that’s all right.”
The stable boy struggles to finish while completely confused at Goeth’s patience and good nature.
During the day Goeth rides around his kingdom holding himself like an emperor in the saddle. But no matter where he turns his head, he’s met with ungrateful, demoralized, and lazy prisoners. He forces himself to smile benevolently nonetheless.
Later in the day when Goeth returns from his work sweaty and tired, he’s met by a worker who has been unable to get the stains out of the commandant’s bathtub. During a brief exchange, it becomes clear that the worker has been trying to remove the stains with soap and not lye. An honest, but stupid, mistake.
Fearful, the worker awaits his fate as Goeth’s hand moves toward his pistol holster. Goethe stares at the worker wanting to shoot him but instead declares with a grand gesture, “Go ahead, go on, leave. I pardon
At this point the script says these profound words:
The worker hurries out with his pail and cloth. Goeth just stands there for several moments—trying to feel the power of emperors he’s supposed to be feeling. But he doesn’t feel it. All he feels is stupid.
Moments later Goeth shoots the worker in the back as he leave’s the commander’s villa.
I can not think of a better example of the problem we have living out the ideals of Jesus. When we’re sold an outcome-based image of what will happen when we forgive our enemies, love those who persecute us, feed the poor, turn the other cheek, etc., we’re put in a precarious position.
Like Goeth, I’ll give forgiving others a try hoping it will make me feel more godly and altruistic, but it doesn’t. I just feel foolish. I feel taken advantage of. I put the offender in the position to hurt me again. I stand there in the wake of my graciousness just feeling waves of humiliation wash over me.
When we have been sold an outcome that doesn’t come to fruition, we’ll always revert back to what works . . . or at least what makes us feel better. Obviously holding grudges and hating others doesn’t ultimately “work.” In the long run, it only creates more of the problems that the gospel tries to solve—but it helps us not feel so powerless and foolish.
Maybe instead of appealing to our individualistic needs and desires, we need to start seeing our spiritual transformation (which translates into genuine change) as integral to expanding the kingdom’s influence in this broken world. We aren’t turning the other cheek to achieve an expected result or to feel altruistic; we’re doing it because it is how we display the character of Christ for the world to see.
I discussed this issue in a post entitled Why the Sermon on the Mount Is Absurd and Impractical. We’re not called to certain behaviors because they “work,” because they’ll guarantee for us a specific end, or because they will make us feel a particular way about ourselves. We’re called to adopt a particular posture because it reflects the character of posture of Christ himself.
Once we begin to shed the pragmatic expectation that these behaviors will give us the outcomes we desire, we can begin to submit to the Spirit simply because that’s what we’re called to do.
Then we can quit trying to see Christianity as wish fulfillment, and start seeing it as the subversive revolt it’s intended to be.