The more I grow in my faith, the more I understand that we don't just transform towards some specific goal. We are being, as Paul wrote, changed from glory to glory, becoming more like Christ... but the catch there is that we have no way of mapping out what that looks like. Not really. Not in any way that would enable us to write a truly accurate self-help book (although many have tried).
Instead, we have this concept of grace. The open-hearted, unearned gift of God which enables us to seek and grasp who we are meant to be in Him, and to become that person, and to survive the journey at His side.
Many people only see one or two of these stages as part of their growth in relationship with God. I believe that they're all necessary, that we all go through them at different times and in different ways (sometimes out of order, or repeatedly).
These are the stages of grace:
1) Grace opens the heart.
This is what many evangelicals mean by grace, when they talk about being saved by grace alone. It is not our decision that initially enables us to respond to the Spirit of the living God. He reaches out to us first. ("You would not have called to Me unless I had been calling you." --Aslan) He did it through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, but He also does it every day through people and beauty and the world around us.
This is the gift that enables us to reach the moment of choice, where we can either reject God's offer of love and relationship, or say "yes" to everything He has for us.
2) Rules help us figure out how to live with grace
One of the biggest divides between people who consider themselves conservative or devout, and those who are more interested in living life to its fullest and loving with abandon, are the "rules": thoughts about what pleases and displeases God, about what gives us life and what instead damages and pollutes us.
There is a huge problem of condemnation and fear plaguing the modern church. I am a product of it, so I know that intimately. But there is also a place for rules, for codifying things which are good versus things which are bad. It can be very difficult to figure out how to change from our self-centered outlook to one which privileges love towards others even when it inconveniences ourselves. We do well to learn from the lessons that others have laid down, and there is no shame in zealously opposing addictions, or casual sex, or cruel talking, or neglect.
We all need this stage. Paul even talks about it in his freedom manifesto, the book he wrote to the church in Galatia. "The Law was put in charge," he says, speaking to the Jewish believers, "to lead us to Christ." It's a babysitter, to keep us from running into the street and killing ourselves in ignorance before we can grow up enough to make those judgments on our own.
3) Grace takes us beyond rules into the reality of love
There is a place--and pardon me if I'm not good at describing it, being a very new resident myself--where grace steps in once more and pulls us out of our safe box of rules and ethics into a new way of living and loving. One where we no longer have to be concerned about others' expectations, or whether we are "perfect" according to some set standard, or whether we conform to what we once saw as a "real Christian."
Some of us go kicking and screaming, because this place does not feel safe at all. Some of us find that for the very first time we are free of the burden that kept our heads down and our shoulders stooped. But this is where the real work begins. This is where we begin to bare our true selves. Not our sins, not our failures (although those as well), but our talents and gifts, the creativity God has put into each of us, the complete individuality that makes each of us precious and valuable.
Outside, indeed beyond the rules, we find adventure and we find peace, as we no longer have to fight to conform. Instead, becoming trusting children again, we can leap into life holding onto the hand of God and dare things that we would never try if we thought too hard about it. The good works that God created beforehand that we should walk in them; the "greater things than these," that Jesus promised his followers would do by the power of His Spirit.
4) Grace ushers us deeper into the mystery of God
I'm even less clear on this, but my pastor mentioned it when we were discussing my experience of grace this past year, and I believe her. It's more of #3, but ever deeper. We are finite, and will never entirely understand God the Infinite, but the more we are able to let go of our own expectations on Him and on ourselves, and move forward in trust (faith) and love, the more we will know Him, and be known to ourselves.
When we see God, or part of Him, we see who we are becoming. When we see ourselves truly, we see a part of God.
That is one of the mysteries. I'm sure there are many more that I haven't spotted yet. :)
May grace follow each of you this Lenten season, whether you celebrate it or not, and wherever you are in your journey. Every place is touched by God, and that means you are, too.