What Forms and (Re)forms You?


First off, this in many ways is the prequel to “Are You Mindful of Your Mind?” It is also very related to “The Fight of Faith: How we are Transformed” but from a different vantage point. In the future I hope to put the three together in a more substantial article.

We’re shaped by a whole host of things—constitution, genetics, socioeconomic factors, health, education, culture, upbringing, etc.; and we are (re)shaped by a few, consciously and subconsciously. Therefore, we see the importance of understanding how it is that we are transformed. For when we know how transformation takes place we can make a better conscious effort at transformation.

We’re shaped by one of two Gods, one of two voices. The god of this world (Jn. 12:31; Eph. 2:2-3; 6:12), or the one true God. There are two masters with two different sets of commands, we will obey one of them (Matt. 6:24; Lk. 16:13). We will be slaves, that’s inevitable (Rom. 6). The question is to who? And with what result? Life or death (Rom. 6:23)? We’re shaped by one of two kingdoms. Our kingdom, informed by Satan; or, God’s Kingdom, informed by God.

This post is not concerned with which kingdom we should desire. It is assumed that we should desire the Kingdom of God. This post is concerned with helping us understand how we are (re)shaped or transformed to desire the right Kingdom. This is a more difficult task than it would first appear. However, if you know Scripture, and indeed your own heart, you know this is a difficult task. Yet, it is terribly grave and important (e.g. think of Judas desiring his own kingdom and thus betraying the Messiah and the true Kingdom).

We are being shaped. But how? And by what?


Putting things in categories, like putting things in containers, is helpful. However, their strength lies where their fault lies: they keep things that naturally run together from running together. With food this is helpful for taste, with thoughts it is helpful for understanding, but, when it’s all said and done, we must realize that containers like categories do not finally keep the contents apart. They are helpful, and perhaps necessary, but in the end affect (and yet assist) precision. Our categories are: 1) knowledge, 2) worship, and 3) practice. Below is a figure that shows their interconnected relationship (Figure 1).

The Interconnectedness of Knowledge, Worship, and Practice in Transformation

Figure 1. The Interconnectedness of Knowledge, Worship, and Practice in Transformation. 


By “knowledge” I mean worldview or view of our chief end or “the good.” Worldview deals with more then what we see as “the good.” However, it does, or should, also shape what we see as our ultimate goal as well. A worldview answers questions and tells the story of our existence, but it must also tell us where, if anywhere, that story is going or should go.

Notice also that it’s not just the intentional thinker or the Christian that is shaped by a worldview, by knowledge. We are all shaped and informed by what we know, or think we know. For instance, the sex addict and gangster are shaped by a worldview, even if it is a sub-conscious and unarticulated form of hedonism or nihilism. However, I do believe that one will be shaped more when one’s knowledge or worldview is more explicit. So, perhaps a sex addict who is also a convinced and proud naturalistic hedonist will have less restraint when it comes to illegal sexual practices (e.g. rape, prostitution, etc.); rather, for him it is more a practical matter of will he be caught, than a question of whether such and such practice is ethical or not.[1]


What then is “worship”? Worship here is the (often purposeful and artistic) ingesting of “the good.” This definition equally applies to the sex addict watching porn, the gangster listening to rap, and the Christian singing songs, meditating on Scripture, or celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Worship, as you can see, very clearly incorporates both the two other categories. Worship is, you could say, the conscious (and also subconscious) practice (our second category) of thinking about something (our first category).

Therefore we see that many things that we would not typically consider worship are in fact worship under this definition. Television, the mall, the radio, and innumerable other things shape and influence our view of the good life or our view of “the good” and thus are a form of worship. They move and inspire us. They shape us to a certain end. And this clearly happens subconsciously and consciously. Just as if we feed upon something or imbibe food through a different means it becomes part of us through the metabolic process. What we feed on, intentionally or unintentionally, shapes us into who we are and thus also greatly shapes what we do.


Practice is the conscious and subconscious practices that shape our life.[2] What some have explained as thick and thin habits or practices.[3] These habitual practices have greater or lesser affect upon us depending upon their significance.

What we do has an effect upon who we are and what we will be. So, for example, when three different types of men see an attractive lady jogging on the side of the road they will have three different responses because of their conscious and subconscious practices which are ingrained in them through their “knowledge” and “worship.” Yet, their practices, as we’ll see, serve to further their worship and knowledge.

So, for example, the sex addict will undress the attractive jogger. This will in part be because of his worship and knowledge and will yet undergird and inform his worship and knowledge. He will in a sense say to himself subconsciously that his knowledge of things is justified by the image of this woman and his worship is also justified. The gangster will have a similar response. But, perhaps to a different end; he may think of all the money he could make with her body. The Christian man also informed by his knowledge and worship will pray for the jogger; or, perhaps, not look at her so as not to be tempted.

Whatever the specific example, we see that our knowledge, worship, and practices have a very real impact on us and how we are shaped. Each aspect serves it’s purpose, yet it is closely tied to the other two. We cannot neglect any aspect or the fact that they are closely interconnected.[4] Now that we have defined each category, we will look at each aspect in more detail.

How are we Transformed?

In Aristotle’s terms our view of “the good” is reshaped by knowledge.[5] And, in catechismal terms, if our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever[6] it will necessarily have a specific impact on our lives. That is just the way we are as humans. We all, without exception, live towards our chief end, our view of the “good life.” However, this is messy, there are many things and ideas which vie for this place. Thus the importance of knowledge rightly directed (i.e. wisdom), worship, and habits; all of which inform, play off, and undergird the others (see figure 2 below). Notice also that it is not just the Christian that worships, all men do (e.g. the gangster has a certain type of rap music that glorifies his view of the good life).

The Reciprocal Transforming Relationship of Knowledge, Worship, and Practice_______________________________________________
Figure 2. The Reciprocal Transforming Relationship of Knowledge, Worship, and Practice.   

It is clear then that right and good worship is vital because it exalts and holds before us our chief end. If our worship has as its object the wrong thing we will thus go wrong in innumerable ways (cf. Rom. 1:18-32). Because of this, the reformation of our lives is a slow, and often painful, process. Witness the fall (the body of the book) and rise (the epilogue) of Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.[7] If we dig ourselves into a ditch we do not magically rise out of it (cf. Prov. 26:27). We have to dig ourselves out of it. Of course, as Christians we do believe that the Spirit assists us (e.g. Jn. 14:16). Yet, the fact remains, transformation is difficult and does not finally occur here.[8]

Scripture and reality are not at odds. We are shaped by what we know, worship, and do (and these are all interrelated). Scripture tells us to know the LORD, worship Him, and serve Him and thus be transformed. We see this same type of thing when we understand the relationship of faith and works, and the relationship of indicative and imperative. We know/believe God’s truth (faith) thus worship and have corresponding actions (works). Again, when we (rightly and supernaturally) understand God’s truth (indicative) we will worship, which in turn will change the way we live (imperative).

In Scripture we see huge importance placed on listening to He who speaks wisdom, the LORD, and not to the father of lies, Satan. We see this especially in the beginning. Eve listens to the serpent’s words and disregards the LORD’s, and chaos and curse ensue. However, notice that she did not just receive information/knowledge or believe the wrong source. Her desires were also wrongly informed. Because Eve listened to the serpent she saw the tree as delightful. She saw the tree as desirable (Gen. 3:6). Thus she fell.

As the Scripture says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). We, thus, resist the devil by being firm in the faith. We, like Jesus, fight off wicked desires with God’s Word. Satan would have us be reconstituted by his words, wicked untruth, yet we combat his lies by teaching ourselves to desire good things by the implantation of God’s words, the truth (e.g. the place of Prov. 7:1-5 in the larger context of Prov. 7). When we feed on the Word of God the metabolic result is a healthy representation of God. God would have us (re)shaped into His image, the image of His Son. Conversely, Satan would have us formed into what C.S. Lewis called the “unman.”

Our thinking and our beliefs play a large part but we are tempted not by thinking and believing but by our desires (recall James 1:14-15 from above). I do think, however, that thinking and beliefs are the atmosphere in which desire lives. They are the soil and habitat; they’re the ocean in which desire can swim. Thinking and believing are not unimportant. Eve would have never sinned had she not heard Satan’s “knowledge” and believed him. Yet, we are understanding Eve, and ourselves, wrongly, if we don’t also realize that she desired (again, recall Gen. 3:6; also Eph. 2:3 says that we also once carried out the desires of the flesh).

I think it also must be noted here that our desires are shaped by our thinking and believing but they are also shaped by less conscious things. I am quite sure, for instance, that quite a few Nazi Youth did not read Hitler’s Mein Kampf but yet were shaped by the very same image. This was because they lived and breathed and ingested it’s teaching, though not mainly consciously, but because it was the cultural air they breathed.

We have a lot of things externally and internally that seek to shape us. As Calvin has famously said, we are idol factories.[8] That’s why we see much emphasis in Scripture placed on loving God with our whole heart (cf. e.g. 1 Chron. 12:38; 28:9; 29:9, 19; 2 Chron. 15:15; 16:9; 19:9; 25:2; Ps. 9:1; 16:9; 86:12), not just a portion of it.

We temper our hearts variously through understanding (cf. Deut. 6:4-9; Neh. 8), worship (e.g. Ps.; Eph. 5:18-20) and practice (e.g. Lev.). That’s how we’re shaped biblically and practically. The more we have our chief end in view and the better our chief end is the better we will live.

For instance, Jesus reasons with us in Matthew 6:19-24 about desire. He shows that what is in our best interest, i.e. what we should desire, is laying up treasure in heaven. He tells us specifically in verse 21 that what we desire, i.e. “treasure,” will bring the rest of us along (i.e. “heart”). So, again, Eve was led into sin because she desired (“treasured”) the fruit. Our battle is thus the battle of treasuring, desiring. That’s why sex education doesn’t work, for example. You can show a bunch of kids images of a bunch of nasty things and tell them a bunch of bad stories. But, in the end, if sex is what they treasure then that’s what they’ll do. After all, that is what is glorified on the screen and in our culture. 

On the positive side, Paul lived the way he did, and died the way he did, not merely because of his cognitive understanding or because of his beliefs; but because of what he desired (though, as we have said, they are closely related). Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, tells us of the desire that fueled his powerful life. He drove on through thick and thin because he had counted everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus His Lord. For Christ’s sake Paul suffered the loss of all things and counted them as rubbish, in order that he may gain Christ (Phil. 3:8).

Truly, wherever our treasure (i.e. desire, view of “the good,” or our view of the good life) is, our heart (“heart” in Scripture has to do with our whole self; cognition, volition, emotions) will be also (Matt. 6:21; Lk. 12:34).

If we are transformed by knowledge, worship, and practices, how do you think they can transform us? How should our everyday life be different?


[1] There is a transcript from Reasonable Faith’s podcast that shows the truth of my statement. Our worldviews have consequences, good or bad. R.C. Sproul shows this in his book The Consequences of Ideas. Friedrich Nietzsche even says in Beyond Good and Evil that philosophy always creates a world in it’s own image, it cannot do anything different. 

[2]“Certain habits stir up corresponding affections and appetites; certain core affections and desires are expressed in corresponding habits. You can’t separate desire from practice” (Michael R. Emlet, “Practice Makes Perfect?” 42).

[3] See James K. A. Smith’s insightful book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, esp. 80-85.

[4] Michael Emlet understands the complex nature of change. He says, “What we do flows out of who we are, but who we are is indeed shaped by what we do… We are changed by doing and we are changed by a self-conscious and iterative process that scrutinizes thoughts, affections, and actions of their faithfulness to a kingdom ethic, and then chooses certain actions and practices in response” (Michael R. Emlet, “Practice Makes Perfect?” 44).

[5] E.g. Aristotle says, “All knowledge and every choice have some good as the object of their longing” (1095a14 Page 4 for in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics Trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins [The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2011]). The glossary says that “Aristotle famously argues that all human beings do everything for the sake of what seems or is held to be good” (Ibid., 309).

[6] From the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

[7] “While God is always free to work miraculously and instantaneously, soul-change is typically a slow process that involves the replacement of old beliefs, affective responses, attitudes, and motives and patterns of relating to others with new ones, one at a time. Given what we know now of the neurological conditions of such change, it is not surprising why this process is gradual. Old neural networks must be shut down, and new ones must be constructed. None of this happens in genuine sanctification apart from the work of the Holy Spirt, but in this age most of the time God tends to work through the created order, and not take shortcuts. Though an incremental approach is sometimes hard for counselees to accept, such a stance, when grounded in justification, helps them to accept their present limitations and to be more realistic about the speed of their recovery, without undermining the ongoing call to grow in conformity to the image of Christ” (Eric L. Johnson, “Reformation Counseling: A Middle Way,” 26-27).

[8] Though I do not agree with everything, I believe “The Spiritual Experience of the Divine Truth of Transformation” is helpful.

[9] “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols” (Calvin, Institutes, 97).

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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