Transformation, Part 2 – The Role of the Heart

crosspost: this article originally appeared HERE.

Here I think it is helpful to introduce David Benner’s understanding of transformation.

While acknowledging that the mind plays a significant role in transformation, Benner suggest that only when a person’s heart is utterly transformed will they be able to experience lasting change.  He writes, “My attachment to sinful ways of being is much too strong to ever be undone by mere willpower.  There is no substitute for surrender to divine love as the fuel to propel such undoing” (Benner, p. 73).  I relate to this statement.  Willpower goes a little ways, but ultimately sputters out.

Based upon our experiences with pain, rejection, brokenness, and sin we are fearful of surrendering our personal will to God.  This is actually pretty understandable.  Think about it this way: the failure of our parents and other authority figures has grossly disfigured our understanding of the character of God, for we always tend to see the Father as a grand projection of the character of our own human parents.  Thus, we refuse to surrender to God’s will.  Based upon our very real experiences with other humans God simply cannot be fully trusted.  Sin, and our ongoing return to destructive behavior, is on one level a way of coping with this pain.  I can certainly think of some pretty destructive behaviors and desires in my own life that have been born out of an attempt to cope with the aches of my heart.

I believe that it is absolutely true that our human experience with our parents sets us on a trajectory for how we will view God.  If our human father was distant, cold, or not around at all, we will certainly tend to see God that way.  If our parents were violent or abusive, God will surely resemble the same.  Even for those of us who had loving parents, it is difficult to fully trust in the loving goodness of God as Abba, Daddy – though it is probably at least initially easier than those from overtly abusive pasts.  All this to say, Benner is right – until we surrender to God’s love, we cannot fully submit to His will.  But we won’t surrender to His love, until out hearts believe and experience His love.  Benner writes, “If you look at how people actually relate to their god, it becomes apparent that large numbers of people live in a universe they consider to be unfriendly.  Even among Christians…their God is still a God who requires appeasement – gestures and beliefs to earn favor and escape wrath” (Benner, p. 37).  So, one of the first steps towards lasting change is allowing the perfect love of God to help us let go of the ways that we wrongfully fear God.

According to Benner, transformation begins when we experience God’s perfect love.  God is unlike our fickle human authorities.   He is utterly and completely perfect in His love.  Love is not just an attribute of God; it is His very character.  When we learn to fully accept and rest in God’s love we will begin to trust His will.  God’s will is an extension of His love and His will is therefore always loving.  When we learn to surrender to God’s love we can submit to His will – because we actually trust it.  When we are submitted to the will of God, surrendered to His love, we are changed.  Benner explains, “Love and love alone is capable of making a person willing to give up his or her own life in loving others” (Benner, p. 87).  He continues, “If God’s heart is to become mine, I must know his heart.  Meditating on God’s love has done more to increase my love than decades of effort to try to be more loving” (Benner, p. 88, emphasis mine).  Meditation and resting in God’s love saturates our hearts, compelling us towards love of God and love of others.

Benner’s exploration of the role of the heart is very helpful.  But, it perhaps does not give enough credence to the reality that wrong thinking and wrong ideas about God exist firstly in our minds (since our minds are how we perceive the world).  My heart will not be open to submission to God’s will until my mind is convinced of His perfect love and the goodness of His character.

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