The Word Among Us

October 2004 Issue

Going Further with God

The Call to — And Excitement of — Ongoing Conversion

Millions of people drink coffee every morning. For many of them, it’s the one sure thing that will get their “batteries” charged for the day.

For others, it simply feels good as it goes down, warming them up and filling their senses with its strong aroma. Some people like to drink their coffee black. Others like it with sugar or cream or even whipped cream. The French gave us caffé latte—half coffee and half milk—and the Italians gave us espresso—so thick and rich. The Irish have even been known to put a dab of whiskey into their coffee. Many grocery stores carry all kinds of “specialty coffees” such as mint, mocha, or almond.

It’s clear that coffee drinkers have many options. But how many do you think would put gasoline in their coffee? What about a spoonful of bleach? Maybe a couple of mothballs instead of sugar? Of course not!

This analogy of coffee can help us set the stage as we look at the concept of ongoing conversion. While all analogies have their limitations, we can imagine the coffee as representing our life in Christ. The good ingredients like cream and sugar would represent habits and attitudes that can enhance this new life. Some examples might be prayer, hard work, serving others, building a family, developing our talents, or even having fun. The bad ingredients, like gasoline or mothballs, would then represent behavior and attitudes that are opposed to God’s will and his commandments, anything that is potentially destructive to our relationship with Jesus. Through the good ingredients, then, we can foster an ongoing conversion, and through the harmful ingredients, we risk hindering this conversion.

What is “Ongoing Conversion”? In initial conversion, we come to know Jesus and begin to experience the blessings of being members of his body, the church. Through conversion and baptism, we are brought into the kingdom of God and know that heaven is opened to us. Yet within each one of us, there reside pockets of behavior that are opposed to God and need to be eliminated—or, as St. Paul says, “put to death” (Colossians 3:5). These negative pockets have the power to bind us up, lead to further sin, and separate us from Jesus and one another.

Ongoing conversion is the process of pursuing habits that lead to holiness and rooting out those habits that separate us from Jesus. In our first article, when we introduced the concept of ongoing conversion, we used the prodigal son’s older brother as a brief example. Now we want to take a closer look at this young man so that we can get a better view of what ongoing conversion entails.

While the younger brother left home and wasted his father’s money in all kinds of sinful living, this older son stayed at home with his father. He was a good and honest son, a hard worker who never caused any trouble. Yet at the same time, this boy seems to have been prone to anger, jealousy, and selfishness—all of which became evident when he saw how his father welcomed his younger brother home.

Let’s assume for a moment that the father’s words to his older son hit home. Let’s assume that grace worked in the boy and helped open his eyes. Perhaps he would have told his father, “I know that everything that you have is mine. I see what you did for my brother, and I appreciate your love for him. Please forgive me for the way I acted when he came home. I let my self-righteousness get the best of me. I hope I will never act that way again.”

If this son had said words like this, he would have become “further converted.” His “old” way of thinking and behaving would have been dealt another blow, and he would have experienced even more blessings from living with his father.

Three Ways to Deeper Conversion. Ideally, all of our decisions are made in response to the Holy Spirit’s guidance and the teachings of Scripture and the church. In practice, there are times when this decision-making process is simple and easy to adopt. At other times, however, the issues are more complex, and the decisions aren’t as black-and-white. We may not be so sure what the right choice is. Then, there are other times when our own self-drive rises up in opposition to the Holy Spirit, and we knowingly act out of our selfishness and in opposition to the Spirit.

In the first situation, ongoing conversion would continue almost naturally. The second situation, because it involves more complicated issues, requires something more. It requires a new light to go on in our minds—such as a new revelation or an insight from another person—something to help us understand why a certain action is good or bad.

St. Peter had a few of these episodes in his life, and one of them is a classic illustration of the “gray areas.” After Jesus told the apostles that he was going to Jerusalem, where he would be put to death, Peter rebuked him by saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). As far as Peter was concerned, he was protecting his Master and trying to convince him not to follow a seemingly suicidal path. But Jesus shocked Peter by responding abruptly, “Get behind me, Satan!” (16:23).

Peter probably learned later on why Jesus had answered so sharply. He probably learned that even though his intentions were good, his vision of what Jesus was supposed to do was faulty. We can also reasonably imagine that when Jesus explained to Peter why his words and his thoughts were “of Satan,” Peter understood and changed. This whole episode probably led Peter to a deeper conversion because he came to see how his words and intentions were in direct opposition to God’s plan of salvation.

An example of the third situation—that of knowing the right thing to do but failing to do it—is evident at the Last Supper. Jesus was in the middle of saying good-bye to his closest friends and preparing them for his death on the cross. But instead of the sorrow or fear you might expect them to have, the apostles got into an argument about which one of them was the greatest (Luke 22:21-24). They knew the right way, yet their pride and self-centeredness got the better of them. We can assume that in time they too came to see why their behavior was opposed to God.

The Scriptures are filled with exciting and moving stories of ongoing conversion. Thomas had his doubts resolved. Job had his eyes opened. Isaiah had his sins cleansed. Peter had his faith restored after he betrayed Jesus three times. James and John, the “Sons of Thunder,”#8221; learned that their desire for places of honor in the kingdom stemmed from pride. Martha learned how to overcome her frustrations with her sister Mary. All these stories show us how much Jesus wants to open our eyes and give us the grace to rid ourselves of everything that is opposed to him so that we can draw closer to his love and power.

How to Deepen Your Conversion. All of these examples from Scripture are compelling, but how can we deepen our initial conversion? How can we foster ongoing conversion? The first step is recognition. The Holy Spirit wants to teach us how to recognize the positive aspects of our lives and our behavior so that we can reinforce them. At the same time, the Spirit wants to help us recognize the negative elements and the way they cut us off from Jesus (John 16:8-11).

Sometimes the Spirit will show us personally what needs to change. It may happen at Mass, in prayer, or while we are reading the Bible. But it may also happen in the early morning as we are waking up or during the course of our everyday lives. There are times when the Spirit will use other people to help us, and times when a situation we are in helps open our eyes.

No matter how the Spirit chooses to move us, ongoing conversion is more likely to occur as we step back and try to recognize why we do what we do—or why we did what we just did, for that matter. What circumstances cause us to act in union with Jesus, and what circumstances cause us to act in opposition to him? Today, try to take some time to review your actions. Ask yourself, “When was my behavior like sugar or milk in my coffee, and when was it more like bleach or mothballs?

When you see your good behavior, thank Jesus and take steps to reinforce it. Should you see something negative that needs to be dealt with, ask Jesus for the grace to work on it and come up with some practical steps you can take to help root it out of your life.

Finally, be sure to guard your future. Remember that Satan is always on the prowl (1 Peter 5:8), looking for ways to convince us to stop checking our behavior, or worse, trying to convince us to let the negative aspects back into our lives. It’s for this very reason that we ask the Father to give us our daily bread, to lead us not into temptation, and to deliver us from evil.

Sometimes it seems that we will never graduate from the school of Christ. There always seems to be another area in our lives that gets out of hand and needs our attention. But we should never get discouraged or think that our lives are reduced simply to fighting sin and trying to be perfect. We should be clear that as hard as it sometimes seems to be a Christian, every time we take another step closer to Jesus, he takes five more steps closer to us. Jesus wants us to know that every time we put “sugar” into our “coffee,” he transforms us into his image a little more—and like the sugar, that transformation is very sweet.