Our theme at school this past year was “Transformed by Truth,” inspired by Romans 12:2: “And do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” While our team prays about these themes, and God gives them to us as the school year begins, only God knows how they’ll play out over the course of the school year. What he chooses to do with them is up to him, and it’s exciting to see it unfold. It is rarely how I would have anticipated.
When we began the year, I believed “Transformed by Truth” would mean getting our thinking straight, transforming our thoughts and perceptions in accordance with a biblical perspective on the world and culture, particularly on those issues that are particularly divisive (like the sexual ethos, politics, ethnicity, war, and others). Those things are critically important, and being a disciple of Jesus means engaging these ideas and many more from a biblical perspective.
But it hit me just before the mid-year semester break that this year would actually be about transformation of the heart before the mind. Transformation of the mind begins in the heart, at the source of our will. As Augustine famously said, we are what we love, and our thinking about the world around us is shaped by our greatest loves. Think about it: when you’ve watched a friend or colleague go astray on a biblical issue, whether something with cultural overtones like sexual orientation or gender, or on a doctrinal issue that may not have such a grip on our culture, like the exclusivity of the cross for salvation, or even walking away from the church or his or her faith, it was almost always rooted in love. Someone they loved went down that path first, or they began following someone or something they loved more, and the change in idea or perspective followed. The thinking became the justification, or the naturally-occurring consequence of that love. The head followed the heart.
I once complained to my pastor and close friend that I was the worst marriage counselor ever, my track record was horrible, and that if a marriage was steering toward Scylla and Charybdis and the couple really wanted to just scuttle the ship of their relationship, they should select me as their counselor. My pastor gave me this sage counsel: “You know, people do exactly what they want to do. And, the only way to get them to do something different is to make them want something else. To change their hearts.” I realized that only Jesus can change their hearts, and that the only thing I could do to help them was to try to guide them toward inflaming their hearts toward Jesus, then trusting Him to do whatever work He ordained. I became a better counselor, and a better school leader, after that.
At mid-semester, it became apparent that our focus on being “Transformed by Truth” was pointing to the fact that God was first concerned with transforming our hearts, starting with mine. Before I’ll align myself to how God thinks, I have to actually care to think his thoughts, and I have to know him and how he thinks. And, all this means heart change.
My heart can’t be changed by thinking itself into change. Before I cried out to Jesus the first time, I didn’t even want to love him. His Spirit gave me a new heart, one that wanted to care, and wanted to love him and what he loved. But I still loved a lot of other things, as well. A lot of things. Oftentimes, more than I loved him. And loving those lesser things competing for my affections more than the one to whom I owed them all meant that I was always going to be something less than the person he created me to be and wanted me to be. Loving those lesser things would keep me from thinking his thoughts, or having the peace he wanted for me, free from anxiety and fear, or even loving other people the way I was ultimately capable. And because I had all these ulterior affections competing for my love, I was never going to lead the people God gave me in my school in a way that was truly pastoral, the way he intended me to lead.
In order to make all these things a reality, I had to nurture and cultivate the love he had implanted in me, like a seed. I had to put myself under the shower of the Holy Spirit, so he could transform me into that person, a person who loves him better and more, and who is more deeply aware of how much I am loved and approved by God. I had to become a person who is able to actually receive that kind of love, despite the temptation toward shame and the voices telling me I wasn’t worth that love, on the one hand, and my own pride trying to lie to me that I was a person who didn’t need it, on the other. And the way I could do all this was through regular practices inclining my heart toward that love.
Regular practices are how we become better at anything in life: a better golfer or pianist, more healthy or more knowledgeable, a better leader or worker, or one who loves better. Spending time with God, regular practice involving letting him transform you, have been called “disciplines,” or “liturgies” in the Church for thousands of years, but they are simply those regular practices that shape our hearts toward God, the person we want to spend more time with and draw closer to in order to quicken our heart. The other traditional name for them is the “means of grace.” They are called that because they are the way we put ourselves under that sanctifying shower of the Holy Spirit, where he can restore us with his grace and make us new.
The great thing is that God does the rest—transforming or changing us so that we will recognize how loved we are by him, how much he cares for us, even when past brokenness makes it hard to receive that love. Recognizing we’re loved that way changes our identities forever, showing us who we are, and freeing us from anxiety and fear. As we realize we are loved, we come to find that we are able to love out of the overflow of how Christ loves us. We are freed to no longer simply love transactionally—so that we’ll be loved or that someone will give us something in return—but to love those who don’t or can’t love us. We become deeper, better people, those whose hearts and minds are renewed.
Are you more in love with Jesus than when school began this year? Do you love others better? Are you less fearful and anxious, more at peace than you were then? Are you becoming more joyful than you once were, your heart healed? If not, as we enter the summer, can next school year be one in which you are transformed, where everything changes for you? At the end of the school year, would you like to use the summer to make a relational commitment to cultivate a relationship with someone you love, and want to know better and more, someone who can leave you forever changed?
Engaging in some of these ancient practices are the first step to putting ourselves in a place of transformation. Lectio divina, or divine reading, is different from inductive Bible study (which is also good). Lectio is an excellent way to slowly read small passages of Scripture, to meditate on them, and to let the Holy Spirit use them to speak to your heart as you speak to him. The Lectio 365 app is an excellent device developed by the Pray 24-7 movement to help you get started.
Making better use of periods of silence and solitude in order to be still and be alone with God, enjoying his presence, letting him speak to you or just being with him like you would with a close friend or spouse will change you, as well, giving God the space to speak to you and work on your heart. The Pause app, developed by John Eldredge, has a 30-day cycle to help you get started (I’m ADHD, and if I be trained to still my spirit, you can, too!).
Praying through the Daily Office, which is simply a set of prayers and Scriptures three times a day, morning, midday, and evening that help you pause your day and promote mindfulness of God’s work in your life, is a great way to pray without ceasing. It will also introduce you to the Examen, which is an ancient practice of daily focused prayer toward those things for which you are rejoicing and giving thanks for, repenting of, lamenting of, and looking forward to. These practices will actually increase your sense of God’s presence in your life throughout the day. Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools by Tyler Staton, or the Daily Office app are great ways to connect with this practice.
Are you able to get your work done in six days and use one day a week for true Sabbath rest: prayer, rest, doing things that truly restore your soul, being with family and friends, and letting God remind you that the world does not rely on you? It’s hard for those of us who are really driven, but it is truly a spiritual game-changer that the Lord uses as a blessing to calm our spirits and hearts. There’s a great section on keeping Sabbath in The Emotionally Healthy Leader by Peter Scazzero that teaches stressed-out modern people like me how to practice this God-given gift.
Almost all of us want to change, to become someone better or more than we once were. Scripture even encourages that; it’s the very nature of sanctification. But true transformation is not in white-knuckling your way into self-improvement, but in surrendering your heart to whatever God wants to do in you. Summer is a great time for refocusing and recharging. Why not start now?
24-7 Prayer (2023). Lectio 365 (Version 1.8.5) [Mobile app]. App Store. http:/www.apple.com/itunes/
Ransomed Heart (2023). The Pause App (Version 11.4.0) [Mobile app]. App Store. http:/www.apple.com/itunes/
Staton, Tyler (2022). Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools: An invitation to the wonder and mystery of prayer. Zondervan Books. Grand Rapids, MI.
The Daily Office, LLC. (2023). The Daily Office (Version 2.0.4) [Mobile app]. App Store. http:/www.apple.com/itunes/
Scazzero, Peter (2015). The Emotionally Healthy Leader. Zondervan Books. Grand Rapids, MI.
Editor’s Note: Join Jay Ferguson at ACSI’s Flourishing Schools Institute (FSi), where he will be speaking on the flourishing construct of Stress. The next FSi will be in Charlotte, North Carolina on June 20-22, 2023. Register your team today!
About the Author
Jay Ferguson, JD, PhD, is the headmaster of Grace Community School, Tyler, Texas. He practiced law for 10 years and, in 2002, joined Grace as development director before assuming the headmaster role in 2003. He’s written extensively on Christian education and training children, including his weekly blog, JaysBlog. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.