Lately I have been reading and reflecting on the meaning transformation. It is a word used quite liberally by people writing about leadership, international development, theology and other fields. You can easily get a half million hits from a Google search of the term. Some authors make quite dogmatic statements trying to delineate how transformation is different than change, but don’t offer much rational for their conclusions. For what its worth (maybe not much) I’d like to offer my two cents as a reflective practitioner of leadership, international development, and Christian theology. I’ve come to believe that transformation is often mistakenly used as a synonym for the word change. Transformation is much more than change. It is change, but change on steroids… change so significant that it leaves the object of transformation unrecognizable from its previous state. The term is derived from the Greek word μεταμόρφωσις or metamorphosis, whereas μετα (i.e. meta) means change. We are all familiar with the term metamorphosis as it applies to the butterfly, frog, or dragon fly. Transformation carries a similar connotation and I think it is sad if we continue to dilute or understate its meaning. Here is a working definition of transformation based on my reading and reflection. A change so significant to the object of transformation that the previous identity no longer fits and therefore a new name or identity is required for the transformed object. If this is true, what does transformation looks like in people… what would it look like in me?
This summer I rebuilt our bike shed and the change was so significant that a neighbor commented, “You can’t call this a shed any longer. It’s too nice.” That felt good to hear. He thought the word shed no longer fit what I had built. My neighbor’s complement points to what I believe is the key meaning embedded in the term transformation, a new name is needed to describe an object of transformation. Judge for yourself (see below).
Question: Should we call it something other than a shed even if the fundamental purpose of the structure hasn’t changed? Hmmm? Maybe, but in spite of my neighbors flattery, I still think it is still best described as a bike/tool shed…albeit a greatly improved shed. I’d like to argue that the type of change implied by the term transformation goes deeper than changes to outward appearances. In people, transformation is the best term for describing those deeper changes… changes in purpose, meaning, thinking, and values. Changes so significant that we will need new words or names to describe the transformed us.
As a student of theology, I’d like to suggest that Jesus and his disciples seemed to think about human transformation as I describe above. In other words, this is not at all a new idea. Jesus (and his disciples) repeatedly promised that everyone who followed him would be transformed. Jesus promised to make his followers different from what they were…so different they would need new terms to describe and think about themselves. Jesus gave his followers new identities to better fit the transformation in their purpose, values, thinking, and inward character… not outward appearances. Some of the new identities Jesus and his disciples used are:
- Children of God
- Friends of God
- Salt & Light
- Fishers of men
- Born again
These names/roles are meant to describe followers of Jesus. Jesus promised to transform his followers into objects of mercy, objects of friendship, and objects of collaboration. These new names also point to an expectation of ongoing transformation of inner character. Transformation that is observable/verifiable by self and others… not simply a hypothetical change. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t promise these new identities would be easy or trouble free to embrace. Rather, Jesus warned his followers that both struggle and transformation would be an inevitable consequence of following him. Hmmm? I wonder if we can conclude that struggle is a normative part of the transformation process? I think so. Isn’t even the butterfly’s struggle to free itself from it’s cocoon integral to it’s own transformation? What does this mean for me?
I’m thankful that I have been spared from a lot of struggle in my life. Hmmm… but maybe as a result i am less transformed than I otherwise might be? Thought provoking. I have been a follower of Jesus for around 40 years now. It started to happen during my final years in secondary school when I was 17 years old. Hmmm? Later this year is my 40 year high school reunion. I wonder if any of my old friends from those days will recognize me when we meet up? I both hope so and I hope not. I mean I hope I have changed significantly in character since then. I also mean that I hope I have already reconciled with all those classmates I had wronged and that I have forgiven all those who wronged me. I think so, but I also wonder if I have I really “transformed” or if I am just an older, slower, more wrinkled version of the Scott my high school classmates knew in the mid 1970s? I wonder if I resemble Jesus any more now than I did when I started this journey more than 4 decades ago? I can still cringe when I think of who I was back then. I also can cringe when I see how much more in my life still needs transformation. I’ll find out soon enough. Lord have mercy.