Discover more from The Inward Odyssey
Longing to Change
Embracing a new paradigm: my shift from transactional Christianity to a training faith
I am incredibly excited to share with you exclusive early access to an initial chapter of my current book project. Within these pages, I delve into my personal history, tracing my transformative journey throughout the formative years of my life.
This post will be longer than usual. If you have time, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments.
Because of the distance between us, the speaker was in miniature, but there was a largeness in his voice. All throughout the night, I remember him thundering rhythmically about sin, repentance, and the urgency of accepting Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.
As he came to a close, without losing any urgency, his voice slowed, softened, and said:
“I want you to bow your heads and close your eyes.”
Everything went dark, except for those starlike patterns you see when you squeeze your eyes tight. His voice returned, “If I could pass this microphone around the auditorium, you’d hear dozens of stories of transformation, all because people asked Christ into their lives.”
I remember my forehead balancing on the seat-back in front of me, and in each nook of my ten-year-old eyes, tears were beginning to form.
I wanted to be a Christian. I wanted to stop sinning. I wanted to be transformed.
“In just a minute,” he said, “I’m going to ask you to raise your hand.”
Trying not to move my head, I glanced in the direction of my parents; and then in the direction of my siblings.
It was a strange feeling.
I was embarrassed for crying, and then a little guilty for feeling embarrassed.
Once more, the speaker’s voice came low and rumbling:
“No one looking around, please, eternal lives hang in the balance.”
I could feel myself holding back, afraid to move.
What would my parents say?
What would my siblings think?
Were they going to raise their hand?
What if they did and I didn’t?
What if I did and they didn’t?
I didn’t know what to do.
But even as a ten-year-old, I knew I wanted to be a Christian. I wanted to be different. I wanted to change.
Then his voice summoned:
“With no one looking around, I want you to raise your hand. Don’t wait. Tonight, is your moment.”
“I have to.” I thought, “I don’t care what anyone thinks. I have to do this.”
I pushed my arm high into the air.
This was my transformational moment.
Getting it Right
Fast-forward a couple of years.
I was now able to participate, in what seemed to me, the biggest thing going: Youth Group. I remember being huddled in a living room with my closest friends. We were listening to the final lesson at our youth group’s weekend retreat.
“Sometimes our lives get complicated and messy,” the youth leader said. “Do you ever feel that way?”
I wasn’t old enough to know about complicated, but I knew something about messy: I couldn’t stop thinking about female body parts, repeating profanities, or glancing at my neighbor’s exam when I “forgot” to study.
The leader spoke again:
“In those moments, wouldn’t you give anything to get back to that feeling of newness you had when you first became a Christian?”
Honestly, I didn’t even know if I was.
The experience I had as a ten-year-old hadn’t changed me. I don’t know what happened to that little boy in the auditorium. All I knew was “it” didn’t work, or that I didn’t do “it” right.
I knew this because there was no discernible difference between my non-Christian friends and myself. Well, there was one difference, I went to church a lot and they didn’t.
But this time was different. I was older. I knew what I was doing, and my longing was real.
I did want newness
I did want to be a Christian
And I wasn’t alone this time, my friends were with me. Everyone, it seemed, was caught up in the momentum of the weekend, each retreat day building on the next like an unstoppable wave. We were starting something new. We were being activated for some fantastic purpose.
The leader closed:
“Transformation means to turn something old into something new. Remember, how Jesus healed people who were sick and made them well. He can take your life and make it new tonight. If you want newness, if you really wish to change, then repeat this prayer with me. You can say it quietly under your breath, or in your heart.”
I remember closing my eyes tight, and with considerable volume, saying the prayer out loud. I wanted everyone to know I was in.
I wanted to change.
I wasn’t getting this wrong again.
I’m a high school senior sitting in the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and white flecks of donut icing won’t brush off my sweater.
No matter how many times I swipe, it only sinks deeper into the fabric.
Donuts were the high point on Sunday mornings, and I liked sneaking them into the service. On this particular morning, we had a guest speaker, and thankfully he was wrapping up.
“I want you to bow your heads and close your eyes.”
Assuming the position, I balanced my head on the seat-back in front of me. That’s when I noticed the glaze. It’s amazing what you can find bent over for eight or nine minutes.
Up to this point, I had gone to church all my life, multiple times per week, but I still wasn’t any different. My teenage “conversion” had the same result as my ten-year-old one.
It didn’t take. Nothing came of it.
I suppose there were a couple of weeks of reading my Bible in the mornings and some genuine attempts to stop using profanity, but whatever momentum I experienced, eventually fizzled.
What made all of this so unhealthy was the frequency of these experiences. In any given week, I may be taught to:
have the courage of David and face my giants
commit to abstinence and refrain from first, second, and definitely third base
or become like Blind Bartimaeus and grow desperate for Jesus
If I wanted any of this to happen, I needed to “Raise my hand,” “Come forward,” or “Say a prayer.” It was as simple, and toxic, as that.
I repeated these experiences again-and-again, constantly trying to get it right, wanting to change, wishing to find transformation, but the pattern was painfully the same:
Nothing happened. I didn’t change.
Oddly enough, I never really rejected Christianity. I just cooled to it. I simply couldn’t make sense of how it worked? I couldn’t put it into practice.
Growing up, I was a real pragmatist.
I enjoyed solving problems with practical solutions like coat hangers, paper clips, and duct tape. I still like doing that. What works? What’s practical?
That’s what I’m interested in.
If this prayer doesn’t end soon, I remember thinking, the seat-back in front of me is going to imprint on my forehead.
Fortunately, he was ending:
“God can remove your unrighteousness and transfer Christ’s righteousness from his account to yours if you’ll only believe. I want you to come forward if you want this righteousness. Right now. Don’t wait.”
The words still have a haunting effect.
I remember hearing people beginning to move forward.
This was my chance.
I raised my head from the seat-back, stood up straight, shuffled toward the aisle, and instead of walking to the front, I walked out the back.
Maybe there were a few donuts left.
At the time, I didn’t realize I was living through one brand, of one denomination, of one branch of Christianity.
I thought it was Christianity.
If I had to label my experience, I’d call it transactional Christianity.
If I did A, I’d get B.
It was a formulaic approach, and many people from my Western, Evangelical tradition grew up relating to God in this way. Transactional Christianity was the product of the British and American revivalism of the 19th century, which is where “Altar Calls” or “Public Professions” or “Making Decisions for Christ” got their start.
These post-sermon techniques were invented to summon non-Christians to publicly confess their faith. But unfortunately, they evolved into one of the primary ways professing-Christians thought they could grow in it.
The reason “Altar Calls” made the leap from evangelistic services, to everyday services, I suspect, is because Evangelicals found them attractive and satisfying. Now every sermon could offer an emotional crescendo, immediate results, and instant change:
Raise your hand if…
Say this prayer if…
Walk this aisle if…
It was immediate gratification at its worst.
I couldn’t remove the donut icing with a swipe of my hand, but I could remove all the unrighteousness from my life by raising it.
Perhaps, it worked for others, but it never worked for me.
Never receiving the “B” side of the transaction left me feeling exhaustingly hypocritical, my words saying one thing and my actions saying another.
The only way I knew how to deal with it, was to stop trying altogether.
This was probably wrong, but at least, it was honest.
I don’t remember communicating this with anyone. I didn’t need to make a dramatic announcement.
I simply “checked out.”
Spirituality Wrongly Understood
Fast-forward one last time, to my college years.
I remember being home on some break, waking up a little early, walking downstairs into the living room where my dad was reading.
I loved reading with him.
He usually had a candle lit, some instrumental music playing in the background, and of course, a pot of coffee was on. I try to recreate that same environment with my kids.
I remember sitting down and picking up the first book I saw on the floor. I thumbed each chapter, reading the quotes at the top.
It was the quote at the top of Chapter 8 that shifted the entire trajectory of my life. Here’s what I read:
“Spirituality wrongly understood or pursued is a major source of human misery and rebellion against God.”
That’s precisely what those growing-up years felt like: I didn’t understand Christian spirituality, the way we live what we profess.
And that’s what I think I had always been looking for. How does Christianity work? How does transformation happen? How does it get lived out?
When I look back on my life, I realize that so many of my longings were legitimate and sincere, but my understanding was just wrong. I didn’t know how to live the longings within me. And that misunderstanding made me miserable.
After reading that quote, I remember looking down for the author’s name. It was unusual:
I immediately ordered one of his books. I devoured it. Here was someone who knew exactly what I had experienced, and not only knew it, but was offering me something to do about it.
After the first book, I ordered everything else I could find, not just the books, but I tracked down every CD and Cassette tape I could find.
Dallas showed me a kind of spirituality that worked, one I could make sense of. He gave me a singular, concrete vision for transformation, which was not about trying to embody everyone and everything I read about in the Bible, but simply embodying Christ.
That’s what the “V” stood for in his memorable transformational acronym V.I.M.
It may sound strange coming from someone who grew up within the Christian fold, but it’s really true, Dallas was the first person to explain to me that the ultimate purpose of my life was to follow Jesus — I was to be with him, learning to be like him. Growing up, I was asked to believe a lot of things about Jesus, a particular list of non-negotiables, but no one ever asked me to become his disciple or apprentice. Dallas asked. And I said, “Yes.”
The “I” in his V.I.M. acronym stood for intention, which meant that I needed to actually decide to become like Christ. I needed to choose to pursue it. My Evangelical upbringing stressed this pretty well — make a decision — was the mantra. But there was too much pressure on intention, they wanted it to do too much. They forgot the means, which sustained and strengthened intention. That’s what the “M” stands for.
The “means” were the spiritual disciplines from the Christian tradition, the practices that worked alongside grace to gradually, not instantly, transform me. This is where Dallas recommended Richard Foster, a wonderfully practical person. Richard’s work gave me a field guide for spiritual practices, helped me tackle the main challenges of a training life, and encouraged me to abandon denominational extremes and embrace the beauty and balance of the Christian tradition.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Willard and Foster were old friends, co-conspirators who had been working for a long time to develop practical strategies for Christlike transformation.
So, in a very short time, I traded:
a vision that was about embodying the Bible, for one that was about embodying Christ
an intention that was framed as a one-time decision, for one that was rooted in daily life
and means that were basically emotional pledges, for timeless Christian practices that were forming Christ within me
In short, I traded transactional Christianity for training Christianity.
This made sense.
My new trajectory was set.
The Threefold Way
That was almost 20 years ago.
Dallas and Richard were bridge builders, trailblazers, practitioners that not only got me going, but got me curious. They were always urging me to go back and explore.
Dallas would often say, “Go back and read Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle,” or “You must try Frank Laubach’s Game with Minutes.” Richard would frequently remark, “You must look into the Journal of John Woolman,” or “Go out and get a copy of Brother Lawrence’s, Practicing the Presence of God.”
It was like they had a Narnian wardrobe of their own, and they kept saying, “Go through! Go through!”
And I couldn't believe what I found.
Here was a myriad of Christian pilgrims — Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant — not consumed with their theological differences but centered on developing a universal way of training with Christ.
Each of these saints lived in a unique time and place, and yet buried within their pages were striking similarities. They used different metaphors, but the discussion revolved around phases or stages of transformation. For example:
In The Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa (335—395 CE), saw these three transformational movements as a kind of mountainous ascent
In The Interior Castle, Teressa of Avila (1515—1582 CE) envisioned ascending from floor to floor inside a diamond castle
And in his space trilogy, C.S. Lewis (1898—1963 CE) visualized interplanetary space travel between planets
What would happen, I wondered, if all of these “footprints” were brought together, would a wider path form?
It was only a matter of time before I realized that people already had.
These works, and others like them, were called spiritual itineraries, unique articulations of a more basic and original threefold pattern in Christian spirituality.
This wider path is known today as the Threefold Way.
Three Stages of Transformation
The Threefold Way has become my map — a map of spiritual country, a kind of geography of the soul, transformational terrain. I remember one of my favorite discoveries was realizing that I was already on the path these saints were describing.
I didn’t need to know about it to experience it. God had already been transforming me. And yet there was a gift in coming to understand the contours of the journey, a gift that empowered me to play a wiser role in my own transformation.
The stages gave me a framework for concepts I’d heard a thousand times but never quite knew what to do with. I was given words — words for my past experiences, words for what I was experiencing in the moment, and even words for what transformational experiences lay ahead. All of this worked a special joy within me, a joy in seeing myself a part of something larger, of living into a great synthesis, a solidarity between saints — their footprints producing a path for mine.
Many of these Christian pilgrims spoke of the Threefold Way by name, while others simply described the three transformational movements of purgation, illumination, and union. Through their lives and writing they amplified the three stages, like Jazz musicians riffing off each other’s music. That’s what I want to do in this book.
I want to riff.
I want to sketch the major experiences encountered in each stage, while weaving in my own stumbling journey, offering you a modern day perspective of this ancient path. But before I do that, let me give you a quick glimpse of each stage.
What is the Purgative Way?
When we begin the Purgative Way — the introductory season of our transformation — our journey is new and exciting, but also hard and challenging. In my own life, I have especially sensed purgation as a season of deep conflict — “Why can’t I do what I want to do (Rom 7:15)!?” Why do I keep betraying the life my heart so longs to live?
Our Christian ancestors tell us that purgation is a period of purification and renewal, the stage where we begin our break from the prison of self-centeredness into the freedom of other-centeredness.
The further I’ve traveled this path, the more I’ve had to learn how to:
embrace temptation as the genesis of my own humility
wisely train with spiritual practices, adopting a framework that’s both flexible and firm
and endure the mystery of affliction — which is not an easy acceptance — but rather the hard-won recognition that suffering and love are bound one to another
The Purgative way is a bit like the childhood stage of our transformation, the season where we’re working to learn trust, gain basic skills, and take initiative for our developing life.
Scripturally, it’s the stripping of the sins that so easily entangle us (Heb 12:1). It’s being purged with hyssop, and made whiter than snow (Ps 51:7). It’s being pruned to bear more fruit (Jn 15:2).
What is the Illuminative Way
The Illuminative way is the middle stage, the springtime of our transformation, that vigorous period when branches broaden, sprigs shoot, and pansies push through the earth. It’s the season where death gives way to life, vitality, and growth. Our transformation becomes visible, progress is pronounced, but more is needed.
What I’ve noticed in the Illuminative way, is the gradual shedding of my self-centered habits and hints, glimmers, the beginnings of a newfound freedom. I’ve especially sensed an increase in my longing for God’s beauty, truth, and goodness. All of which seems to be forming a kind of bridge that’s helping me move from purgation to union.
So, the Illuminative stage, like adolescence, puts us in a kind of in-between state. We’re growing, but we long for a fuller freedom. We ache for our Christ-self to mature within us.
Scripturally, illumination is about becoming light in the Lord (Eph 5:8). It’s about overcoming evil with good (Rom 12:21). It’s about developing the mind of Christ (Phil 2:5).
And I’ve noticed this too: entering the Illuminative way doesn’t mean I leave purgation behind. The Purgative and Illuminative ways are intimately linked:
Emptying prepares us for filling
Burning prepares us for shining
Pruning prepares us for growing
Purgation and illumination go together. Truth be told, all the stages do.
I may find myself in the Purgative way, and experience profound moments of illumination and union. Or I may find myself in the Unitive way and feel experiences of purgation and illumination. In this way, all the stages can be active within me at any given time. There’s always a back and forth rhythm between them — and yet — over the long arc of our lives, all three unfold sequentially, like a baby becomes a boy, and then a boy becomes a man.
What is the Unitive Way
The Unitive way, our Christian ancestors tell us, is our transformational destiny, the culmination of the twofold dynamic of purgation and illumination. Finally, we reach a transformational tipping point, a moment when all those small, incremental conversions become substantial enough to cause a thorough and more significant change.
I’ve experienced hints of this kind of union, but nothing more. So at this point in the book I shift from explorer to onlooker. Here, we can rely on the saints, those who’ve experienced a deep fulfillment of the Christian vision, where so much of their inner dividedness was drawn into a divine unity. These saints speak of:
their will becoming united with God’s will
their heart melting into God’s heart
their consciousness becoming wonderfully other-centered instead of self-centered
Scripturally, union is about becoming one with God, just as the Father and the Son are one (Jn 17:20-21). It’s about seeing God, because we’ve become like him (1 Jn 3:2). And it’s about becoming perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48).
We were made for union, it’s the aim our lives, the reason for our existence, the only thing that will satisfy us.
The more I turn to the three stages, the more I see a model I want to live by. I see the opposite of nominal and popular Christianity. I see something genuine and rare, something long-sought and hard-won.
Slowly, awkwardly, painfully I’ve become different — not flawless, not even close — but delightfully different.
I want to be careful not to overstate it.
I still struggle daily against ingrained sin, habits that cause me to wound others and myself.
I’m still too self-interested. I know that.
But I’ve changed.
I love more than I used to. I’m seeing the world in new and surprising ways. And that includes Christianity — I’m seeing it for more of what I think it actually is — a spiritual path of transformation.
The Way, was its original name.
As you’ve probably gathered, I don't think you’ll finish this book and be transformed. But I am hoping you’ll gain a fresh understanding of the transformational journey, an understanding that’s both rooted in tradition, and works for today.
In other words, I want to nudge your trajectory, like Dallas did for me.
I can still remember it clearly:
I could breathe.
I could change.
What a relief.
I wasn’t walking aisles anymore. I was walking a path.
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