The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Spiritual Transformation Part I

Spiritual Transformation Part I

Exploring Spiritual Formation and Creativity

I’ve had a time and a half writing this week’s note. Too many rabbit holes to dive into. Too many threads to pull. So, this is going to be a multi-part adventure. Let’s begin.

There are a multitude of theories that are proposed about how to navigate the world. They each rely on a vision for what is really true. Some propose that the world is fundamentally irredeemable and the best we can do is hold on until we pass from this world to whatever comes next – if anything. Some propose that we should detach ourselves from everything of this world in order to experience the good life. Others propose that, contrary to visible evidence, that the world is a good place to be, and that we should be doing what we can to unveil that. Still, others propose that the only thing that is real is power.

One particular place I’ve noticed these kinds of broad propositions of reality is in the area of the pursuit of happiness. Consider a video I found on Instagram. Posted by Stephanie Harrison, founder of the New Happy Company, the video shows Harrison proposing a method be happier. It is avoiding the fundamental attribution error – a cognitive bias that attributes personal behavior to context, and other’s behavior to character.

Harrison uses the common occurrence of being cut-off while driving as their example of a situation. I can just imagine some common responses to being cut-off. “Can’t you see me driving here?” “What the…!” “Idiot is going to cause an accident.” The fear caused by the danger of being cut-off instigates a protective response. The thing that is deepest within us comes out when our person feels under threat. Anger is a normal response.

However, Harrison concedes that anger is not an emotion worth holding on to – especially if you are trying to pursue happiness. Even better to avoid it, or further, simply put it away, as Paul recommends in the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. In order to avoid anger, Harrison recommends that we consider that the person executing the offensive act, is just like us, a victim of their context, and should be excused, in the same way we would excuse ourselves. They aren’t a rude person, just as we aren’t rude. They just happen to be pressured into acting rudely.

I want to offer a different way. The way I’m going to attempt to articulate here paints a darker picture of reality, but offers a more hopeful future. I will go slowly so as to get it all straight. There are a few key elements which I have to address in the right order, and of course there will be questions that come up along the way.


One of the cornerstones of spiritual formation is the ability to know. Knowledge being defined here as interactive relationship. Working out ideas to the point of knowledge is experimenting with them through application and experiencing them in relationship. That is to say that we can come to know what evil is, even as we come to know what goodness, love, kindness, or gentleness are. Judgement then is the ability to call something as it appears to be, based on one’s knowledge. Judging rightly – perceiving things as they actually are – is a skill that is necessary and can be developed. We can train our eyes to see and ears to hear differently than they may be used to for the sake of judging rightly.

There are also ways of judging that can help us as we learn to judge well. One is that we need not judge beyond the scope of our knowledge. We can call the act of being cut-off dangerous, unwise, even reckless without calling the person committing the act dangerous, unwise, or reckless, because we don’t really know the person. Another skill in judging is to say that even if we were to call the person dangerous, unwise, or reckless, this is not a condemnation for the person to remain that way for eternity. They can change.

You may notice that separating the action from the person is one way to free the person from unnecessary judgement. But the other way is to honor the connection between the person and the act and separate judgement from personal condemnation.

Honoring the connection between a person and their action is precisely what paints a bleaker picture. Yes, that rude comment, flippant remark, lashing out in anger, is reflective of a part of our person. And with regards to spiritual formation, it is our whole person that is the unit of measurement. Measuring the parts (mind, spirit, body, or soul for example) leads to a kind of disintegration that is unhelpful at best and damaging at worst. If it is true that every action – the good and the evil – come from our whole person then we have to contend with the fact that we, our persons, are able, even willing to do evil (and thankfully good). We’re not just the kinds of people who will cut somebody off while driving when we are under pressure. Rather, the pressure shows us the kind of people we really are – the kind willing to endanger others for our own purposes.

This is a hard idea to come to terms with when stated plainly, and without any other context, so I’m going to pause here to let it sit for a moment.

If this was the only fact, that we are capable and willing to do evil, then we would be in a sorry state. It would be right to feel discouraged, even distraught, if this was the only truth. However, there is a complimentary truth, which is related to the idea of separating judgement from condemnation. It is the idea that transformation is possible. That even if evil is found operating within us, there is opportunity and means to become different kinds of people.

Again, I want to pause. There is thinking out in the world that says, “people don’t ever really change” – either they just control their actions or stay in the same patterns, but they never really change. That is not what we are talking about here. What we are talking about is the idea that people can really change into different kinds of people. In fact, the idea that we are continually in the process of formation is what underlines the idea that transformation is possible. If spiritual formation is always happening, then spiritual transformation is always possible.

A Little About The How

If spiritual transformation is possible, the next question is about engagement. What can I do for my part in this change? In this process there are things that we can do and things that we can’t do. It is important to know the difference. For example, we have access to our thoughts, and can decide what to meditate on and what to let pass. However, no matter how hard we may try we can’t seem to change an aspect of our character through direct effort. We can’t become a person less prone to anger, or more prone to happiness, just by trying to be less angry or more happy. Without this distinction – what we can do and what we can’t – we might be compelled to attempt the impossible and become frustrated with our own inevitable failure.

Instead, we can learn about and practice spiritual disciplines. That is things we can do, that position ourselves for a transformation of will and character. These practices function through indirect action. For example, we might engage in a practice of silence, interrupting our habit of language, which provides the opportunity for contemplation of our use of language. The space gives opportunity for a possible shift. The shift is the mystery – I would describe it as God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit acting – but no one really knows how a shift of will happens. Again, it is not something that happens by direct effort. A personal will cannot be changed by force of will.

A Quick Return

To return to the video that instigated this note. Essentially what Harrison is proposing is a form of behavior modification. There is nothing wrong with behavior modification. In fact, a lot of good comes of people controlling their behavior. However, there is opportunity for something much deeper, more profound, and quite miraculous – becoming the kind of person for whom said behavior is not even a part of your person. If it isn’t there, there is no need to control it.

This kind of spiritual transformation requires a number of things to be true. Judging reality, good and evil, rightly is just one aspect. So is the belief in the possibility of such a dramatic transformation. To act as if spiritual transformation were true, more may be required, and I will dig into some of that in the coming notes. For now, thinking about how we judge, and contemplating the idea of spiritual transformation is enough.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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