Assessing and Encouraging Spiritual Transformation

Spiritual transformation (metamorphosis) is change, governed by Christ, accomplished through disciplined cooperation with the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:3, II Corinthians 3:18).

Spiritual transformation is multi-dimensional, whole-person change that occurs sometimes pivotally and sometimes incrementally.  We change by knowing (cognition), by choosing (commitment), by doing (character/conscience, competency), and by relating (communion, compassion).  Systemic assessment, disciplined whole-life application, and social interaction (koinonia) encourage the process. (For theoretical basis, see Appendix A.)


Isaac, wake up!” (in a hoarse whisper).  The young man stared at his aging father kneeling over him in the darkness.

“What’s wrong, Dad?”

“I’ve been praying.” That was nothing new to thirty-year-old Isaac.  “The Lord has been talking to me.”

Isaac touched his father; the man was shaking.  Praying at night was nothing new.  His father loved to stare at the stars while he prayed; they represented the seed God had promised him—through Isaac, but something was different this morning.

Isaac pulled on his clothes, ran his fingers through his hair, and slipped through the tent door.  Outside his father already had supplies packed up, a couple of servants fully dressed, and a donkey prepared for traveling.  Each man picked up his part of the supplies, and the group walked out of the camp, past the guards—wordlessly.  Isaac breathed in the cool air, tasting its freshness, sniffing its fragrance.  The cool air brushed his cheeks.

As they proceeded in silence, light began to dawn, and Isaac could see his father had been crying, in fact, he was still stifling tears and sobs.  Mile after mile passed in absolute silence.  No one could ask any questions!

After they had traveled three days, Abraham left the servants and the donkey behind.  Just father and son began the ascent of Mount Moriah.

“Dad?”  He just had to ask, “We have fire, and we have wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”  Isaac had been through the routine numbers of times.  Through childhood, then adolescence, then young adulthood, Isaac had known the pattern of sacrifice.  Faithfully, repeatedly, he had focused his mind on the truth of substitutionary atonement, entire devotion to God, and the assurance that all was well once the sacrifice was received.

The old man cleared his throat, “My son, God will provide Himself a lamb.”  But the words stuck in his throat.  He believed, yet there still had to come the moment when he sobbed out the horrid truth to his son. 

Isaac’s world spun crazily on its side.  His whole life passed before him.  He quickly reviewed all he had known about his father’s religion.  He reaffirmed his own faith in this One-God.  He thought of the other gods he had heard about and seen.  He thought of all the times he had prayed to the true God.  He thought of all the explanations he had offered to others who had asked about their faith in the One-God—words he had spoken knowledgeably, but words that had never had the depth they were beginning to take on this terrible day.

Father and son locked eyes, then arms, then stepped back and stared at each other, weeping.  Isaac’s whole life passed before him again on high speed!  His insides churned.  His head grew light!  His face twisted into question marks.  Father was serious!  Both men cried a loud wail and threw dirt into the air!  As their eyes met again, both of them knew.  Each man could see it in the other’s eyes, “Yes, I will do what the Lord has asked.”  Two radically different roles, one identical devotion!

The two of them erected an altar and laid the wood in order.  Isaac let his father bind him and spread his body on the altar.  His life replayed itself a dozen times.  His father was weeping; he was shaking.  It was over now, just another second and . . . .

You know the story.  Suddenly everything was different.  Isaac knew something about his father he had never experienced before.  Abraham knew something about Isaac he had never seen before.  Deep in his gut, Isaac knew something about himself he had never discovered before, in fact it was not even there before that moment!  Abraham knew something new about Abraham.  Even God said, “Now I know . . . .”

Each of them had experienced a pivotal change, a hallowing moment that metamorphosed their relationships and their understanding of life, death, substitutionary sacrifice, gratitude, and stewardship.  Nothing could ever be the same again!  Well, tragically he could neglect the relationship, and that would bring other changes, but as long as he maintained the daily walk with God, Isaac’s spiritual transformation would plumb new depths.  Knowing, choosing, doing, and relating had gone to new heights.

Of course, I believe this sacrifice pictures the second work of grace in a wonderful way, but I also submit that it has dynamics similar to other pivotal experiences of transformation in our lives.

Consider what Abraham and Isaac knew or came to know (about God, about themselves and about each other), what each chose or committed to do (the affective impact, the social impact, even the physical impact), and the change that happened when they actually carried out the sacrifice (including the last-minute substitution).  Don’t forget both perspectives—father and son!  Then study the interpersonal relationships that throbbed (or rather stretched) throughout the whole experience and the altered relationship that followed.  Would Isaac be more or less trusting toward his father after this?  Would he be “a living sacrifice” who had already “died” and hence had no fear of death or dying?  Would he live out his life completely devoted to God?  This is not to minimize the sanctifying power that comes only from God; it is simply a reflection on the human dynamics in the experience.

Pivotal changes include transformations like conversion, entire sanctification, and major life crises (such as serious loss, facing death, forgiving an abuser, marriage, changing occupations), in which major transformation telescopes into a relatively short period of time, and there is frequently an element of surprise!  This is similar to Wesley’s concept, as expressed by T. L. Smith, that “a second ‘moment’ of hallowing grace was crucial to the process by which the Holy Spirit perfected God’s children in righteousness and love.” (1983, p. 80; compare Smith, 1981), but no suggestion is implied that the other pivotal experiences are of the same level or the same divine engagement as conversion and entire sanctification.

Incremental changes include growth in relationships, receiving new “light,” education, reflection, disciplined formation of habits, truth “sinking in,” and many almost sub-conscious changes.  Even developing a new circle of friends will change us.   These are processes through which we are transformed almost imperceptibly.  The growth can only be recognized later when we ponder what has occurred over a period of time.  Of course, incremental changes both precede and follow pivotal changes.

The lingering memory of how I hurt a brother may temper my reactions in the future.  The poignant awareness that my children are 11 and 12, that I have not built the strong relationship I intended, and that it may soon be too late to correct my mistake can eventually shift my whole point of view.  The nostalgic dawning that I am 61 and quite probably do not have 20 years of ministry ahead of me can slowly then suddenly transform my demeanor.  The realization that the harder I push that recalcitrant church member, the more likely I am to lose the whole family can sap the fiery frustration and induce me to take a more conciliatory approach.  The discovery that my driven-ness has alienated my friends or the slow simmering dis-ease that my unwillingness to apologize has allowed a formerly close relationship to develop an un-crossable distance can melt down my stubbornness and bring about a sudden change that has been incubating for months.

The repeated participation in the Lord’s Supper (a multisensory, educational and worshipful experience) delivers personal transformation, sometimes pivotally and sometimes incrementally.  The disciplined reading of the Bible over a period of years infiltrates and transforms my mind (both what I think and how I think).  We may never be able to describe exactly when it happened, but we know something has changed.

We change by knowing (cognition), by choosing (commitment), by doing (character/conscience, spiritual disciplines, exercising competencies), and by relating (communion, compassion).  We may even change in one dimension before changing in another.  There is the “aha” moment when I realize that I have misperceived what a person meant, or that I have not forgiven someone even though I have spoken words of forgiveness, or that my unease is more than reluctance—it is active resistance.  In that cognitive moment, something changes even though I still have to work through the emotional and behavioral implications.  I begin to pray, “Lord, change me.”  I might even pray, “Lord, make me willing for you to change me.” (Reminiscent of Augustine’s reluctant, “Lord, make me pure, but not yet.”)  Consider how the Lord worked on Jonah, bit by bit, until he began to surrender, but Jonah could not make the whole change in one instant.


Jonah opened his eyes. My eyes don’t work! I’m blind! Motion sickness overwhelmed him. Vertigo! Muscles tightened around him then relaxed. He was inside a giant washing machine. Sea weeds wrapped round his head and all around his body. Water kept sloshing into his mouth, trying to work its way into his lungs. Jonah spat disgustingly and coughed to clear his windpipe.  He passed out.

He was startled awake by a sense of turning. He lost all sense of direction. His stomach retched out its contents, then went into dry heaves. All the has-been food was floating around him. He screamed but there was no sound. He passed out again.

“Oh God! I’m living in Hell! Let me die!” His mind reels. There is no category for this experience.

His skin begins to crawl. He gags, retches. He imagines the color of the green bitter bile that stings his mouth, spits it out, and it oozes all over his face. He passes out again.

OoooOOoooh! His skin is becoming raw. Weeds twist around his arms and legs. He squirms to find a less painful position. Stomach muscles tighten around him. No way to get comfortable in here! Pass out! Pause. Shudder.

Horror! How long will I live in here? I’m certain to die, but how long will I suffer these nightmares? Gasp. Heave. His consciousness blinks out.

Oxygen deprivation does its mind-altering worst. Phantasms terrify him. Shudder.

His life review passes before him again. He can’t stop the play from rolling. Everything he ever did plays and replays. Every harsh word. Every kindness he ever received. Every time he neglected his family. Every time he prayed. Every occasion when he went to the temple. He passes out, delirious.

There is pain in my joints! I’m cold. Shallow breath is all that is possible.

More nightmares!

God Almighty! What are you doing to me? Let  me  Die!

More life reviews! Mother. Father. Now all the characters are confused. The merry-go-round accelerates. His lights go out!

He awakes with involuntary jerking. Shiver! Heave! Gag! Shudder! Ache. “Oh, my God!”

“Nineveh.” That was it! “Go to Nineveh!” Heave. “It’s over. My ministry…. Well, I’d rather be here than be tortured by angry Ninevites! Anyway I hate those pagans!” (He was a stubborn man!)

He slipped out of consciousness. It’s a mercy that our mind can only suffer so much and then the circuits are overloaded and the lights go out.

“I’m still here!” Angrily he kicks the wall. Its flesh yields. Kick. Punch! Elbow! Gag! “I am entombed, alive! I can’t Die!”

Exhale. He begins to lose consciousness. Here it comes – Death! “I don’t know what is after death, but it can’t be worse than this!” Oh, it can’t?? He passes out.

He wakes again. “How long have I been here? Eternity! Eternity! Eternity! Time is frozen in place. Time has lost its meaning. Besides, where am I going? What or who is waiting for me? One minute can last forever! He shudders and weeps silently. Eternity is spinning on its side! Despair sweeps over him. I’m lost!  Lost forever!

Pensively, “I said I’d rather do anything than go to Nineveh! But this?” Lights out.

He blinks. “I have not been able to see anything for hours! Or is it days? Shake head. Could it be years already?

Motion sickness whelms over him again. Up! Down! Twist!  Spin! Always spinning! Slowly! No no, it’s a fast spin. I guess maybe it’s slow.

“Nineveh. NO! Do you hear me, God? I said, NO! Besides that is impossible now.”

His mind replays his entire ministry. The good times in prayer. But now I’m separated from God. A living Hell!”

“I’ll never again see the temple!”

Did Jonah have children? A wife? Brief scenes of pleasure dance before him and torture his twisted consciousness. My family, my friends, my possessions. Nevermore! Never, nevermore!

God!?” Resisting Him is stupid!  That hard lump of rebellion is starting to melt. “God, if I could, maybe I would.” Shake head resolutely.No, I wouldn’t!”

“Yes, I would! But that’s impossible! I’ll die right here in this wretched (heave).”

A fresh inflow of water and bubbles awaken him. “I’m still alive! In this living Hell!”

More living, crawling, swimming, wiggling things! All invisible in the outer darkness. Or is it inner darkness?

Hiccup! “I’m still alive! God! Get me out of here!”

No answer.

God if You’ll….”

No sense trying to cut a deal! Heave.

Wails,God, do You hear me?”

Of course, He does.

God, I’m sorry!” Gag.

Oh Lord, have mercy!” Twist.

“Yes, Lord! I will! I promise! Yes! Nobody else has a God like this! Everybody else seems to be able to do whatever they please with no God to interrupt their plans! Maybe I wish this God were dead! No, He’s alive and He’s after me! Yes, Lord, Yes!”

“If I knew directions, I’d pray toward the temple in Jerusalem, but I don’t even know up from down. Oh well, I’ll just do my best.”

God! … I give in! Yes!”

Jonah still had a lot more changes to make, but he was headed in the right direction.  God kept working on him!  Emotion, volition, cognition, isolation, despair, all had done their work, but we never find out whether Jonah came to see Ninevites the way God sees them.

Our highest priority is to change ourselves (or to submit to the Holy Spirit’s changing us).  Then, having struggled with trying to change ourselves, we may be ready to help induce change in others, more considerately, a little less likely to damage them in the process.  We help to change others, if we can induce a change in their form of knowing, their form of choosing, their form of doing, or their form of relating, but first we must love them.

Ponder with me the following cautions.  As stated, the opening is probably too strong, but it may give us an opportunity to think.  Unless I have first loved you as Christ has loved you, I have no right to try to change you:

1. Because I might not have your best interest at heart.  I might want to change a minor problem (a surface symptom), when God wants to accomplish something bigger.

2. Because I might want to change you for my own advantage, perhaps to take it easy on me.  (“Don’t get me outside my comfort zone.”)  Or even to make it easier for me to get along with you.

3. Because I might change you simply to avoid the peer pressure of other Christians.  I might want to please the Jerusalemites, as Peter did at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14).

4. Because I would change you from the outside in when Christ longs to change you from the inside out.  He longs for your love to Him to be the fountain-spring of all changes in you.

5. Because the changes I might make would not be convictions for you.  They would always be second-hand, something I convinced you to change, not Jesus.

The world and some religious people try to induce change through fear, threats, dominance, materialism, promotions, and pressure.  There is another way: Love is Jesus’ choice.  Jesus changes us by loving us.  All Christian leadership should flow from a relationship of love.

We like to think that spiritual transformation occurs when people sit in rows, and we stand in front of them to spray out our spiritual blessings upon the congregants, especially if we then call them to the altar for a prayer of dedication and surrender, but while choosing is required, it is not the only method; it is only one dimension. We often think we can change people by just explaining what God expects, by declaring what the Scripture promises, or even by confronting with the truth of one’s misdeeds, but while knowing is required, it is not enough.  We think if we could just get people to practice obedience, to form habits, to endure the rigors of spiritual disciplines, that would accomplish the goal.  R. S. Taylor (1962), in The Disciplined Life, explained that discipline has a role to play in holiness, but while doing is required, it is not enough.  We hope the tender love of the father toward the prodigal will change him, the love of Christ for Mary Magdalene, the love of Hosea for Gomer, but while loving (relating) is required, it is not enough.

We don’t really change people by shouting at them, not even by shouting loudly—not the kind of change we are after.  We don’t change people just by eliciting emotions, although emotions provide a gateway to change.  The reason some of our people whine, “I’m so tired of being stirred and not being changed,” is because they expect an emotional experience to change them.  That is not biblical.  Experiences of great change often involve strong emotions, but emotions in themselves do not change us, they do not produce the deep transformation we are after.  Furthermore, we don’t actually change people; we cooperate with God as He works on them.

Spiritual transformation is multi-dimensional, whole-person change that occurs sometimes pivotally and sometimes incrementally.  We change by knowing (cognition), by choosing (commitment), by doing (character/conscience, spiritual disciplines, exercising competencies), and by relating (communion, compassion).

Think of David when Nathan jabbed him with “Thou art the man” (II Samuel 12:7).  David had known for months that he had done wrong, but now the cover had been ripped away and others knew!  David was embarrassed!  Emotions swung wildly.  He had to swallow his pride, choke back his defensive impulse, and begin the process of repenting, of committing to make restitution, of finding his way back, and of adjusting to the new life with the realization that critics knew about his sin and that his rebellious sons would throw it in his face.  How could he ever discipline anyone else after what he had done?  Change came in pieces, with rough edges and uncomfortable stabs!

Think of Philemon when he and his wife read Paul’s letter.  “Forgive Onesimus?!  After all he has done to us?”  Philemon and his wife saw the problem in a new way, made up their minds to forgive, and then began sorting through ways to straighten out the ragged relationship and to establish Onesimus as a Christian brother—with honor!  There was a moment of knowing, another of choosing, and then an extended process of change in relating through doing.

Each stage of life may have its particular pattern for emphasis.  Children’s ministries may focus on a basic understanding of God (knowing) and a strong confidence that He loves us (relating).  Youth programs may emphasize social community (relating) and Christian service (doing).  Since adolescence is a key time to firm up convictions and transition toward individuative, reflective, personally chosen convictions, college programs might focus on cognitive advancement (knowing), total commitment (choosing), and social/spiritual bonding (relating).  Programs for adults aged 20 – 50 may emphasize stability in relationships (relating), faithfulness to commitments (choosing), and steadiness through the rough seasons of life (doing).  Elder programs may stress social connections (relating), but also draw on tender memories with familiar music patterns (knowing).  The characteristics of each stage of life should be considered when we try to help people in that stage grow spiritually, but we should probably strive to keep the whole range of knowing, choosing, doing, and relating fully engaged in our assessment as well as in the process of encouraging growth.

Henderson’s (1997) Model for Making Disciples points out that the Methodist society (50 people or more; 1997, pp. 83-90) served a cognitive function (knowing), the class meeting (10 to 12 people; p. 96) targeted behavior (doing), and the band focused on the affective (choosing, relating)).  Wesley believed, and Henderson (1997) and K. Watson (2008) both agree that this organization of people for spiritual growth was the secret of the Methodist revivals.  We need a multi-dimensional system of encouraging spiritual transformation.

Perhaps it would help if there was a way to assess the spiritual condition of people that aligns with this model of thinking.  The Wesleyan Wellness Profile (Cooley, 2011) is an endeavor to assess each of these domains and the related disciplines in order to transform knowing, strengthen choosing, inform doing, and deepen relating in the interest of further spiritual growth.  Developed in dialogue with nearly thirty Bible College leaders, the survey endeavors to measure students’ spiritual transformation relative to cognition, commitment, character/conscience, communion, and compassion, as well as a summary of accepted spiritual disciplines.  We realize we cannot actually measure spirituality, but the leaders have selected a number of agreed-upon indicators of spirituality and created a survey to measure them.  It is possible this survey could be beneficial among church members.

Thank you for the opportunity to share and to discuss how we can encourage spiritual growth in ourselves and others.

Appendix A

The model presented in this paper builds upon insights from a variety of constructs.  Bloom’s taxonomy and several related taxonomies come quickly to mind.  In 1956, Benjamin Bloom and a team of researchers divided learning into three domains. In the Anderson, Krathwohl, Airasian, et al. (2001) updated version, the cognitive stretches from remembering, understanding, and applying through analyzing, evaluating and creating.  The affective domain, outlined later by Krathwohl, Bloom, and Masia begins with receiving and responding, then rises through valuing, organizing values, and internalizing those values so that they become characteristic of the person.  This appeals to me as relating to spiritual transformation, but it does not cover enough.  The psychomotor domain conceptualized by the original group was later published by others.  It engages perception, readiness to act, guided response, complex response, adaptation, and origination (Atherton, 2010).  A contemporary writer, Dettmer (2006) suggested adjusting the third domain from psychomotor to sensorimotor, adding a social domain, and then summing them all in a unified domain. I found Dettmer’s concepts entrancing, but how do we get to what the Bible says about spiritual transformation?  And how do we keep the appropriate focus on it?

I have been intensely interested in James Fowler’s stages of faith (1981/1995) that encompass the developmental theories of Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg and others. Fowler’s third and fourth stages hold the most interest for working with college-aged students and adults.  Many young adults are in Stage 3.  They are Loyalists, whose faith is conventional and conforms to the people around them. They have not yet reflected on their beliefs and values, and formal thinking is just emerging.  College instructors hope to move their students to Stage 4, to become people of reflective, individuatively chosen faith—Searchers who have evaluated their own beliefs, who have established their own values, and whose faith has become their own.  That is probably unrealistic for many of our students.  In fact, Holcomb, (2004, pp. 112, 130) found that 32% of first-year college students in a sample from six member schools of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities were in Stage 2, with 64% in Stage 3. The disappointing discovery was that 69% of the college seniors were still in Stage 2 or 3 when they graduated from college.  Of course, pastors would also claim the same goals, but if it is true that many college students remain in Stage 3, it may also be true for the general adult church population.

Fowler (1986) analyzed substructures in the various stages of faith, revealing interplay among a number of factors: form of logic, role-taking, form of moral judgment, bounds of social awareness, locus of authority, form of world coherence, and symbolic functioning.  Somewhat easier to grasp, Parks (2000, p. 91) identifies three dimensions within the faith system: 1) form of knowing, 2) form of dependence, and 3) form of community.  A change in any one of these tends to produce a change in the others.  Fowler’s faith stages are fascinating, but Dykstra (1986) warns that Fowler is not really describing Christian faith.  In fact, Fowler constructed his system to be neutral toward the content of a person’s faith; he could analyze the faith structures of people from many religions or from no religion—even atheists!  Imagine an atheist in Stage 4 conversing with a Christian in Stage 2.  He might be more sophisticated in his faith structure, but he is wrong in his faith content!  Incidentally, that is what happens to numerous Christian young people in a secular university.  S. Henderson (2003) showed us the results are damaging to Christian college students.

Todd Hall’s Spiritual Transformation Inventory (n.d.) is based on Attachment Theory, pioneered by John Bowlby.  When I asked for a quick summary of attachment theory, Hall recommended Robert Karen, Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How they Shape our Capacity to Love (1994/1998), a very fascinating read.  The way a person relates to the primary caregiver in childhood develops a perceptual filter that tends to govern all other relationships even toward God.  Hall’s research is psychological and offers excellent insight.  As far as I know, I have read all his journal articles on this subject, as well as the book he co-authored with John Coe (Coe and Hall, 2009), Psychology in the Spirit.  If you use attachment theory in your counseling, you can connect your therapy with your students’ individual results from Hall’s survey.  Nevertheless, without saying anything negative about Hall’s approach, I believe Bible Colleges and churches should use an approach tied more closely to Biblical concepts.


Anderson, L., Krathwohl, D., Airasian, P., Cruikshank, K., Mayer, R., Pintrich, P., et al. (Ed.). (2001). Taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives. New York: Longman.

Atherton, J. S. (2010, February 10). Bloom’s taxonomy. Retrieved January 28, 2012, from Learning and Teaching Web site: http://

Cooley, T. L. (2011). Spiritual Assessment of Students at Conservative Wesleyan-Arminian Bible Colleges (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Available from Proquest (AAT 3449525)

Cooley, T.L. (2012, February). A multi-dimensional spiritual assessment program. Paper presented at 65th Annual Meeting of The Association for Biblical Higher Education, Orlando, FL.

Dettmer, Peggy. Roeper Review, Winter2006, Vol. 28 Issue 2, p70-78, 9p, 2 Charts; New Blooms in Established Fields: Four Domains of Learning and Doing.

Dykstra, C. (1986). What is faith? An experiment in the hypothetical mode. In C. Dykstra & S. Parks (Eds.), Faith development and Fowler (pp. 45-64). Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.

Fowler, J. W. (1986). Faith and the structuring of meaning. In C. Dykstra & S. Parks (Eds.), Faith development and Fowler (pp. 15-42). Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.

Fowler, J. W. (1995). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning (1st paperback ed.). San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco. (Original work published 1981)

Hall, T. W. (n.d.). Spiritual assessment.  Retrieved from

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Holcomb, G. L. (2004). Faithful change: Exploring the faith development of students who attend Christian liberal arts institutions. Dissertation Abstracts International, 65(12B), 6686. (UMI No. 3158250)

Karen, R. (1998). Becoming attached: First relationships and how they shape our capacity to love. New York: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1994)

Parks, S. (2000). Big questions, worthy dreams: Mentoring young adults in their search for meaning, purpose, and faith. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, T. L. (1981). The Holy Spirit in the hymns of the Wesleys. Wesleyan Theological Journal, 16(2), 20-47. Retrieved from

Smith, T.L. (1983). A historical and contemporary appraisal of Wesleyan theology. In C. W. Carter (Ed.) A contemporary Wesleyan theology: Biblical, systematic, and practical (pp. 77 – 101). Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury Press of Zondervan.

Taylor, R. S. (1962). The Disciplined Life. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill.

Watson, K. M. (2008). The form and power of godliness: Wesleyan communal discipline as voluntary suffering. Wesleyan Theological Journal, 43(1), 165-183. Retrieved from