Reinvention or Renewal?

We need to be burned by God, to wrestle with him, to lose our sight in his bright light.

October 25, 2013 — Will you reinvent yourself when you reach midlife? How about when you retire? Reinvention is a plant that seems particularly well suited to the soil of North American culture. We are fascinated by new inventions and admire inventors. What better object to apply inventive energies to but the self?

For those who want to have a go at reinvention, plenty of resources are available. Psychologist Vivian Diller writes about the “3 R’s” of inventing yourself at midlife (resilience, reliance, and renewal). Reinventing You by branding expert Dorie Clark explains how to construct a compelling personal brand. Motivational speaker Raymond Chandler, author of Reinventing Yourself, teaches how to switch from a “victim mindset” to an “owner mindset.” The title of a blog post by “lifestyle marketing guru” Kathi Sharp Ross asks, “So What Are You Waiting For? Are You Still Dreaming?” She offers tips to reinvention laggards on how to fire up the engines of self-renewal. And if articles and books aren’t sufficient, there are thousands of life coaches who are, as Patricia Marx describes it, “poised to goad you into being the person who you allege you want to be.”

North Americans have long regarded self-invention with favor. Initially, the open frontier of our continent invited the disaffected to come and be whatever they wished. Fascination with self-invention persisted even after the frontier shrank and finally disappeared; witness Horatio Alger, Jr.’s immensely popular “rags to riches” novels and, later, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s morally compromised self-made man, Jay Gatsby.

Now we are in the age of the Boomers. They’re discontented with the selves they originally fabricated and are reinventing themselves with new self-images, changed careers, and active, self-expressive approaches to retirement. When we’re relatively disinterested in the past, we are free to remake ourselves as many times as we want. What an inviting prospect! Or is it?

Being Renewed

Our society may value reinvention, but it isn’t the biblical way of being made new. Invention (and reinvention) results entirely from human ingenuity and effort. In contrast, biblical transformations depend on God’s initiative.

Would 75-year-old Abraham have left his country and his family to wander the earth and eventually become the father of many nations had God not told him to? Would Jacob have wrestled with God and suffered a transforming wound if God had not come to him during a dark, fear-filled night? Would fishermen have left their families and occupations to become disciples without Jesus’ call to follow him? Would Paul have gone from persecuting to proclaiming Christ if Jesus had not spoken to him on the Damascus road?

Rather than reinvention, the process of personal change that occurs in response to God’s initiative can better be thought of as renewal. As Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). To the church at Rome, Paul wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2a).

Renewal carries the connotation of restoring something that was lost. We aren’t fabricated into something totally unlike our former selves. Instead, our renewal involves recovery of what might have been had we not been sullied by sin, the flesh, and the devil. Renewal harkens to creation—to the making of the first human beings. It is a remaking, a re-creation of humans in the image of God.

God takes the initiative in renewal, and it is God’s work, but we are not passive bystanders to that work. Ezekiel delivers to the Israelites God’s message about their renewal:

“‘I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.’ They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezek. 11:17-20).

God acts, gathering the people from foreign lands. The people respond, removing impediments to their renewal. God continues the process, giving them new hearts that have been re-formed so that they are responsive to him. Renewal is continual and reciprocal. People don’t set out to reinvent themselves but respond to God’s initiative by rejecting all that runs counter to his renewing activity.

Stories of Renewal

Eleanor describes herself in her blog as “a university-trained behavioral gerontologist with decades of experience supporting people in times of life transition. Her expertise is helping people successfully adapt to change.” In her mid-fifties, she was unaware of how much change she herself would soon face. The first blow was the loss of her job. She took whatever part-time work she could find and tapped into her retirement account to support herself. Still, as she later put it, “Bit by bit, over time, I found myself sinking.” Finally, her home of 13 years was foreclosed and, as she was about to turn 60, she was evicted. Right before Christmas of 2010, she piled her belongings in her car, not knowing where she would spend the night. Since then, she has been to Australia, Fresno, Vancouver, and back to her home base of Los Angeles, going wherever she could find temporary employment.

She took to calling this time in her life “my spiritual sabbatical,” first in jest but later seriously. She decided that she had received the “Gift of Desperation (G.O.D.).” She elaborates, “In late December I was, in fact, defeated. What I didn’t realize at the time was that being defeated was a very good thing. It led me to seek a different way to live. My life has never been more abundant than it is now.” Shortly after that fortunate defeat, Eleanor became a Christian.

Almost exactly two years after she was evicted, an accident destroyed her car, the place where she sometimes slept. The next day she wrote, “Now the surprising thing (to me, at least) was my reaction. When I got home I got on my knees and counted my blessings. . . . I found 20 things to be grateful for about the accident and I concluded my prayer time by thanking God for taking the car! That’s not the old me.” Eleanor is filled with gratitude for the grace she has received from God and the generosity of those she has encountered on the journey. God sent her on a “spiritual sabbatical” and renewed her along the way.

The process of renewal isn’t always as wrenching as it was for Eleanor. Lisa became a Christian at age 10 but for many years afterward had a static spiritual life. She was trained as a counselor and held various positions in the mental health field. She put great emphasis on ethical and professional standards and had a number of conflicts with supervisors and coworkers over her principles.

At the time, she attributed the skirmishes entirely to her colleagues. However, starting around age 40, she sensed God giving her a different perspective: “I helped create [these problems] for myself because of my immature attitudes, lack of understanding of relationships, how I handled myself.” She recognized that she could have approached these situations differently. She also saw that God wanted more from her than just her professional diligence; he wanted a relationship with her. She has started to regularly ask God “to reveal to me what I need to know in order to be obedient to him.”

Now nearing 50, Lisa reports that she has grown more in the past 10 years than she did in the previous 30. Six months ago she felt God leading her to take another job, one in which she faces problems with administrators similar to those that occurred earlier in her career. She has come to see these difficulties as part of a “spiral path” on which God is having her revisit the issues that she handled poorly before. Her new job is not an opportunity for reinvention but for continuing the process of renewal that is already well underway.

Then there is me. My career as a professor and psychologist was disrupted two years ago when my dad asked me, “Would you come back home and help us?” I knew that he and my mom had reached the point in their life where they needed assistance, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I might be the one to help. I tried to hold on to the life I had. But in the end I realized that Dad’s words were God’s call. I resigned from the university where I taught and returned to my hometown. I am not reinventing myself, but I am being remade into the son and servant that God wants me to be.

Renewal and Loss

In each of the cases above, the process of renewal began with a loss—Eleanor lost her home, Lisa lost the conviction that she had done everything right, and I lost a career. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, indicates that many of us undergo a late-life spiritual transformation that begins with some sort of loss or disappointment: “Normally a job, fortune, or reputation has to be lost, a death has to be suffered, a house has to be flooded, or a disease has to be endured.”

We suffer not only the loss itself, but also are deprived of the certitudes and consolations that sustained us in the first half of life. We encounter God in a new way, and he seems much different than he did before. As Rohr puts it, “Authentic God experience always ‘burns’ you, yet does not destroy you(Exod. 3:2-3), just as the burning bush did to Moses.” He adds, “Early-stage religion is largely preparing you for the immense gift of this burning, this inner experience of God, as though creating a proper stable into which the Christ can be born.” Of course, this burning is not the result of self-invention but of God’s passionate, renewing love.

Reinventions of the self are typically superficial—the putting on of a new persona, not a transformation of the inner self. The self-reinventor is still ensconced firmly in the mental set of the first half of life, where ego and success are ascendant. To truly enter into “second half” faith, we need to be burned by God, to wrestle with him, to lose our sight in his bright light. With our sense of who we are thus disturbed, we are ready to be renewed.

Preparing for Renewal

Renewal is God’s work, but that doesn’t mean that all we can do is passively wait for it to occur. Here are some things that we can do to prepare for or participate in our renewal:

  1. Take on Christ’s yoke. According to Dallas Willard in his book Renovation of the Heart, all who accept Christ’s forgiveness take on his yoke (Matt. 11:29). Willard suggests that the key thing we learn from his yoke is to abandon outcomes to God, recognizing that we lack “the wherewithal to make this come out right, whatever ‘this’ is.” In the case of self-renewal, we abandon the idea that our efforts will by themselves remake us into something pleasing to God.
  2. Change your thoughts. Willard also recommends that we “take initiative in progressively retaking the whole of our thought life for God’s kingdom.” The path he gives for accomplishing this is to diligently learn about God and his intent for us, then actively think about the implications of what we’ve learned.
  3. Pray for self-knowledge. The process of renewal often begins with an awareness of something about ourselves that affects others negatively or seems contrary to our own flourishing. One way to pursue such self-knowledge is to pray the prayer that Lisa, one of the individuals described in the article, uses every day: She asks that God will show her who she is, giving her insight into her faults.
  4. Attend to epiphanies of recruitment. In his book Forgetting Yourself on Purpose: Vocation and the Ethics of Ambition, Brian Mahan suggests that, in the course of pursuing our ambitions, we are likely to encounter “epiphanies of recruitment.” These experiences are invitations “tosee things differently, to live a different kind of life, to embrace one’s unique vocation.” My conversation with my dad was such an experience. Renewal flows out of accepting such invitations.
  5. Listen to stories of renewal.The Puritan writer Thomas Manton wrote, “Good examples have a powerful influence upon us, for we are led more by pattern than by precept.” Christ’s church, past and present, is overflowing with accounts of those whom God has renewed. Hearing their stories shows us the ways in which God plants seeds of renewal in the human heart and prepares us to be remade.

Web Q's

  1. Ritzema says that reinvention of oneself is “a plant that seems particularly well suited to the soil of North American culture.” What is it about our culture that makes people want to reinvent themselves?
  2. If the work of renewal is God’s initiative, how can we be receptive to God’s work in our lives?
  3. In what ways might “the gift of desperation”—times when our life seems to spiral out of control—be instrumental in our renewal?
  4. The author says he heard God’s call for renewal in the words of his father asking him to come home and help his parents. How might God be calling you to renewal?
  5. In what areas do you most feel the need for transformation and renewal in your life?

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