Why We’re Failing at Spiritual Transformation

Why We’re Failing at Spiritual Transformation June 1, 2015

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.

The pitch

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.

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 practice

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
you.

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.

Reflection

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 ImpracticalWe’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.


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  • Excellent post!

    How is it, do you think, that we can get our picture of God to escape Goethe-like behavior?

    Sometimes it seems that God lets the stableboy go, and other times, he punishes the stableboy, and other times, he lets him go before shooting him in the head. At least, this is the way some of the judgments of God appear to be in Scripture.

    I think this is one reason some people do not trust God … they do not know which “Goeth” they are getting.

  • I will try to respond when I can. I just want to make sure you understand that in my illustration Schindler is the church and Goeth is us trying to behave like Christ because it benefits us.

  • Shawn America

    Wow. This is fantastic. I have felt for a long time that forgiving someone for a particularly large offense doesn’t feel good at all.

    It is more in the category of “eating crow”. I do believe it comes from love, but a love with determination and duty in it.

  • You had me until “we’re doing it because it is how we display the character of Christ for the world to see.”
    I heartily disagree.

    We are called to forgive because we have been forgiven. When I recognize that I am guilty of using the wrong product to clean the bathtub and am deserving of death, when I experience a real revelation of who I am what I actually deserve I can’t help but be gracious and forgiving of others. I think this is why the Bible uses the analogy of fruit. An apple does not produce apples because it’s trying to display the character of apples to other trees and plants. An apple tree produces apples because it’s an apple tree.

    The problem in Christian culture is that we become comfortable and we are lulled into a sense that we deserve God’s forgiveness. I’m entitled to forgiveness. That guy? oh, that guy is bad new. Thank God I’m not like him. Thank God that God was smart enough to save me because I deserve to be saved.

  • Paul T.

    Excellent observations from the film! Goeth was a psychopathic narcissist. Schindler knew that the only way to manipulate the psychopath was to appeal entirely to the Ego. Evolved notions like empathy, equity, service to others, the common good, were useless to Goeth.

    It terrifies me that this is the case with so many religious people, particularly Evangelical Christians, who in life seem only to be motivated towards the Divine or Ethics by Ego’s giant carrot stick.

  • Lori,

    Sorry that it took me so long to approve your comment. I’ve been mulling it over since you wrote it, and I want to thank you for taking the time to respond. Naturally, I get a lot of push back on things I write. Some of it is thought-provoking, some of it is mean, and some of it is downright silly. I think yours was one where I was confused by your need to disagree here. But, since you disagree so heartily, I wanted to respond.

    If I was only talking about forgiveness, that would be one thing . . . but I am not. I am talking about all the attitudes and behaviors (fruits if you will) that Christians are supposed to display. You are absolutely right, the Bible does command us to forgive. But I don’t think it has to end there. I expect and demand that my children share liberally with those around them. Why? Because we are a family that shares and it is a value that, because it’s important to me, I want to be important to them. Sure, right now they share because I have asked them to . . . but there is more to asking them to than just making a demand.

    So many times the New Testament tells us to “be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you,” we are receiving more than just a command to forgive; we’re also demonstrating to the world the kind of God we serve. When you say, “an apple does not produce apples because it’s trying to display the character of apples to other trees and plants. An apple tree produces apples because it’s an apple tree,” I feel like you are missing the point.

    The fruit (let’s say an apple) that we produce comes from our branch which is either attached to the vine (obviously the vine is Christ) or not. So the apple we produce is good or bad depending entirely on how much of the life-giving energy is flowing, unhindered, from the vine. A healthy apple bears witness to a healthy branch which bears witness to the vine. That’s why Jesus tells us in Matthew, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” and Peter tells us “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God. . .” The fruit that we’re instructed to produce is in keeping with the fruit that Jesus possessed in his life and, therefore, bears witness to (and glorifies) the God we serve while demonstrating what kind of God he is.

    For instance, Christ in John 17 prays that we (the church) would share the same kind of oneness that the trinity experiences (“so that they may be one as we are one”). He also tells us in John 13 that “by this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” So Christ wants us to experience the unity that he experiences within the Godhead because that unity bears witness to the God who we serve by demonstrating the kind of perichoretic love that makes up the trinity. Obviously we can’t demonstrate that kind of love without practicing forgiveness with each other, so it makes sense that the New Testament would place such a premium on forgiving each other in the same way that Christ forgave us.

    I don’t think we have to say that it’s an either/or situation where we’re practicing obligatory forgiveness and not forgiving others because in doing so we display the character of God. They’re two separate things. We’re called to forgive because Christ forgives us, and by forgiving others we communicate something profound about Christ’s nature.

    Lastly, I am really confused about how cleaning the bathtub with the wrong cleanser makes someone worthy of death!

    Anyway, thanks for your comment.
    Jayson

  • I appreciate this article… THANKS!

  • Tim

    I think it all plays into this ideal I seem to find in Christianity that things are very formulaic. Just do X, and Y will be the result. Just doesn’t work that way, and turns God into a vending machine.
    That’s not faith, it’s magical thinking.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    What you believe is personal. but I was wondering, if you still have doubts why not close your eyes empty your mind, and figure out why.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    I will be honest. i spent many years as a christian, but not anymore. I felt this glow of energy after i deconverted. Yup. it felt like i was imprisoning myself and now i feel much different.

  • jekylldoc

    Some good observations here about doing the right thing with expectations of rewards, or at least results. Trusting in the kingdom is not something to experiment with, but to have enough sense of the world to commit to, despite the problems.

    Part of that trust, it seems to me, is that I recognize that my own calculating side will not know what to do with the ecstatic experience of giving, or of taking what Henri Nouwen called the “downward path” in general. I trust that over time I will begin to live into a practice I believe in, and that God will send social support to help me recognize the benefit to others rather than focusing on what I might or might not be “achieving”.

    I like the way you put it, “we’re doing it because it is how we display the character of Christ for the world to see.” In general, when we have to ask why questions we should probably just shift to the how questions.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    “the subversive revolt it’s intended to be”.-so a geopolitical wish-fullfilment fantasy, not an individualist one? How is that less instrumental? You’ve just turned Jesus from Mr. Rogers to Che Guevara-big deal!