Transformers

transformers20-hiNo, not that kind (though I admit it would be cool to watch my Corolla turn into some gigantic battle-bot from outer space). I’m talking about anyone who is, to use the apostle Paul’s language, “in Christ.” You don’t have to be from the planet Cybertron (really, who comes up with this stuff?) to be a transformer.

In two recent posts, we pondered these words from Paul, this time from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:

We don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! (2 Cor 5:16-17)

Saul of Tarsus, zealous Pharisee, aggressive persecutor of the church, is on his way to Damascus to wreak more havoc. Confronted by the risen Jesus, he is transformed; he becomes Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, saying and doing things for the sake of the gospel that no self-righteous Pharisee could imagine.

Much of Paul’s conflict with the Corinthians turns on their seeming lack of transformation, their persistence in old, culture-bound ways of thinking. But Paul, having learned his lesson on the Damascus road, insists that he no longer judges people by “what they have or how they look” (with the unspoken but implied, “like you do”).

But despite the tensions in their relationship, he sees something in them; he sees changes wrought by the Holy Spirit, however faint they may be. And he rejoices: Look, look! New creation! More evidence of the gracious fulfillment of God’s promise! He may even have in mind the words of the prophet Isaiah:

Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history. Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? (Isa 43:18-19a, CEB)

This is one reason why it’s so important to take the long view, to have what theologians call an eschatological perspective. There are many ways to tell the stories of our lives, and more specifically, of our conflicts. Someone has offended us, and in self-defense, we want to protect ourselves from being hurt again. We treat the other person as the enemy and judge his or her character accordingly.

And we might be suspicious of new behavior, of what seem like attempts at repentance or reconciliation: Does he really mean it? Is she being sincere? How long will the change last? Self-protectively, we hedge our bets, waiting for the inevitable disappointment, the slip back into their old ways: There, you see? I knew he’d never change.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we become naively trusting, nor deny the risk of staying in relationship with those who have injured us. Rather, it’s a question of which story we choose to tell, and the consequences that come with it.

One story is, “They’ll never change. Oh, they may try really hard for a while, maybe even ‘get religion.’ But eventually, it will be back to the same old thing.” And yes, that story may be the “right” one. The problem is that thinking this way means pulling back from full engagement in the relationship, subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly showing our distrust and disdain, letting others know that they’re perpetually on trial.

How do you suppose that will impact the relationship?

Paul could have responded to the Corinthians in that way (and truthfully, few of us would have blamed him). But he lived out of a different story. He didn’t deny their wrongdoing; he confronted it. And yet he also loved them like a father. Why?

Because he saw the spark of the gospel in them, the presence of the Holy Spirit. The spark may sometimes have seemed small and dim, but he had a choice: tell the dour and pessimistic story that darkness always wins, or rejoice in the very presence of the light as a sign of the graciousness of God and his promise.

If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The person who has offended us can be transformed; we can rejoice in what change we see without collapsing into pessimism or naivete. And while we’re praying for God to change him or her, we can remember: we’re transformers too. God can and will renew our minds, if we would but ask and cooperate.