Why the Slow Work of Transformation Beats Legalism

Why the Slow Work of Transformation Beats Legalism June 11, 2024

transformation beats legalism
{Photo by Maria Dashkova for Scopio; transformation beats legalism}

Transformation beats moralism. But as a young adult, effort was my mantra. And effort, coupled with an adolescent zest to save the world, was perilous. In my early 20s, I stumbled my way through so many “good deeds,” it is painful to look back. The time I began buying food for a physically challenged, low-income woman and her teenaged daughter, then was unable to continue after one month, despite creating an impression of commitment. They welcomed me into their tiny apartment kitchen where I unloaded the groceries I’d brought onto near desolate shelves, feeling awkward as hell. Or the time I invited a homeless youth to family Thanksgiving, then had to un-invite him when someone close to me became enraged by my actions. I wanted to save him, but couldn’t see the limits preordained by my own life chaos. I wanted so badly to think I was a good person, I acted from self-absorption and tone-deafness. People got hurt. I had not learned that true helpfulness involves sufficient openness to sense when one is guided to an action, then acting with care and conscientiousness, aware of one’s shadow and potential to be a bumbling ass.

I grew up in a style of Christianity that put great emphasis on being “good.” Those who weren’t were called “worldly”; and we weren’t supposed to be like them. Furthermore, we were not only to be moral and effortful in our inter-personal lives, we were to meet certain obligations like praying in a certain way or reading the Bible every day. It was exhausting. I don’t know how it worked for others, but it mostly served to make me feel inadequate—even bad. Truly, no one could keep up with the expectations. Those who thought they were keeping up were often kidding themselves, and tended to be self-righteous and intolerant.

As a young woman, I worked so hard to pursue a kind of “goodness” because I didn’t fit the description defined by the context around me, a picture of sexual purity, obedience, female submission, and commitment to traditional understandings of religion. In these ways, I learned, I was not good. Thus, I had to compensate for resulting feelings of shame. Instead of proving myself in moralistic ways, I put effort into other measures: such as my ill-conceived good deeds, or good grades, artistic skill, intellectual achievement, attractive appearance. Most often my efforts led me farther from center where the shudder of silence could speak and I could see the prerequisites of my own unskillful heart. My striving resulted not only in blinding hubris, but in exhaustion and humiliation and worsening illness.

transformation beats legalism
{Photo by Aditya Sharma for Scopio; transformation beats legalism}

Breakthroughs in Faith

A breakthrough in my faith-life came in my mid-to-late twenties as I studied theology. At the time, I learned about the repeated emphasis in Jesus’ teaching and throughout the Christian scriptures on Spirit, or the presence of God within—that the Spirit is always with us and fills us with love and direction and a kind of goodness that is centered in love. This teaching says the spiritual life is not about forcing ourselves to be good. Rather, the spiritual life is about surrender, about opening and trusting that God is transforming and restoring our hearts and minds every single day. It is about letting in the Spirit, allowing this work to be done; and we begin to trust and open to God’s Spirit as we experience God’s love. We can stop putting such forced effort into our personal goodness project, because often this project impedes the work of the Spirit. You see, the Spirit’s work is humbling and clarifying. If we’re fixated on making ourselves pure and good (which often is about feeling superior to others), we resist this humbling, clarifying work, which is unglamorous.

For me, the Christian teachings on Spirit, this new understanding, was transformative. I no longer had to strive all the time to “be a good person.” In fact, I often found that the harder I tried to be good the more I put up a road block to Spirit—most often not telling myself the truth about something important. The Spirit helps us to see ourselves as we truly are, which is to say, flawed—but also deeply loved. I found and continue to find this teaching incredibly hopeful and liberating. It allows us to see ourselves evolving as offspring of the Divine, and to see others in this hope-filled, transformative way.

Wren, winner of a 2022 Independent Publishers Award Bronze Medal

Winner of the 2022 Independent Publisher Awards Bronze Medal for Regional Fiction; Finalist for the 2022 National Indie Excellence Awards. (2021) Paperback publication of Wren a novel. “Insightful novel tackles questions of parenthood, marriage, and friendship with finesse and empathy … with striking descriptions of Oregon topography.” —Kirkus Reviews (2018) Audiobook publication of Wren.

About Tricia Gates Brown
Tricia Gates Brown is an everyday theologian working as a writer/editor in Oregon's Willamette Valley, mainly editing and co-writing books for the National Parks Service and Native tribes. After completing an MA in theology then a PhD from the University of St. Andrews in 2000, she continued to pursue her studies—energetically self-educating in theology, spirituality, and the emotional life. She is also an Ordained Deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon. Tricia is an art quilter, potter, and novelist. Her art can be viewed at https://bit.ly/TGBArts . You can read more about the author here.
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