Don’t Just Grow. Be Transformed.

Personal growth is important, but it’s not everything.

Like many of you, I agree that life’s experiences — the successes and the challenges, the joys and pain — are all opportunities for growth. Growth can bring personal change on many levels, but there are other dimensions to “growing up,” too.

Honest self-reflection reveals that sometimes our commitment to personal growth is driven by the very best parts of ourselves — our highest aspirations — but sometimes not.

Personal growth requires our effort to convert an area of relative personal weakness to one of personal strength. Those efforts can be very fruitful indeed.

Growth enables us to:

  • Accept our failures as a natural part of learning. After all, most of what we know how to do well was learned through past failures. Margaret Gould Stewart’s post on failure and learning at work is a great read for aspiring managers like me.
  • Discover and embrace the true nature of learning, such as recognizing that what we think we know sometimes has to be unlearned as we proceed toward deeper understanding. Our commitment to growth can teach us that knowing is not the same as understanding.
  • Recognize that confidence can be overrated. Rather than chasing the allure of false confidence, we can cultivate a growth mindset — one in which effort and willingness to change are valued above success or projecting self-confidence.
  • Take the risks required to improve, like the risk required for productive iteration. Openness to growth and its associated risks allows us to maintain the beginner’s mind, as described in Heather Payne’s post For Educators: The Importance of Being Bad at Things.
  • Get comfortable with discomfort, recognizing that, in the words of Thomas Oppong’s blog post, “If you’re truly pushing yourself to improve — in any capacity whatsoever — you are uncomfortable.”

My commitment to personal growth has been a powerful force in converting my areas of personal weakness into areas of personal strength.

However, I often see in myself a one-dimensional view of personal growth which can suggest that “growing up” is all about escaping weakness. In reality, there’s more to growing up than attempting to escape our weakness through self-improvement.

Growth brings a sense of accomplishment, yes. But striving for that sense of accomplishment can be just the thing we use to cover over deeper issues that need our attention — issues that growth and accomplishments alone cannot address.

My earliest memory — all images and no sound — is of a Marine Corps officer standing at the door of my family’s low-income housing unit in Elyria, Ohio. He came in military dress to tell us that my oldest brother had been killed — not on the battlefield but as the victim of violent crime while off the base. As the officer left, I saw my family standing above me weeping and embracing. At that early age I didn’t understand what was happening, but I now recognize this as among the first of many wounds from societal injustice. I still feel the pain of that loss.

Beyond my own pain, I’ve been shaken by the neglect of injustice globally: the make-shift shanty houses of South Africa which I initially mistook for dog houses; the heartbreak of a shirtless, small boy in Delhi, India rummaging through a pile of trash as I watched from an air-conditioned bus; and the shock and communal trauma of standing silent beside the body of a black, teenage boy shot in the back in the afternoon of a summer day in Chicago.

For years my anger has motivated a commitment to social action, justice, and — yes — personal growth. But I’m slowly waking up to the reality that, when fueled by anger and pain, this commitment to personal growth has become a form of striving that doesn’t lead to healing.

If we’re going to make a difference in the world, we’re going to have to grow. That’s an enduring fact of life. But to make a true difference, sometimes we need more than just personal growth.

When deeper wounds are left unhealed, our efforts to bring justice and personal growth can easily morph into an empty form of striving.

I see that my own efforts to achieve justice and personal growth have often descended into relentless attempts to escape past trauma while bypassing true healing. And what is justice if not the capacity for healing?

For my part, nothing has done more to unlock my capacity for transformation than the presence of a self-sacrificial God whose love persistently pursues me just as I am. Nothing enables me to confront the collective trauma of disregarded people worldwide than experiencing the capacity for healing that is at the heart of God’s own commitment to justice. So I believe that transformation, like true justice, is necessarily a divine act.

If my talk of God makes it hard for you to read on, take what you can use and leave the rest.

Personal transformation, in contrast with personal growth, is the act of being made new.

While growth requires effort, personal transformation requires surrender. This is not a surrender to or an acceptance of pain or injustice, but a surrender to the possibility of healing. And while growth is often about fully actualizing the image we have of ourselves, transformation is about God fully actualizing in us the person He already knows us to be.

Growing up is our work. Being transformed is God’s work within us.

While personal growth can often feel like reaching toward a future version of ourselves, being transformed feels like waking up to our most authentic selves, free from the judgment of our own expectations.

Transformation is not a process of becoming someone you’re not. It’s really about becoming your truest self, trusting that God knows and loves your authentic you better than you can ever know and love yourself.

Like personal growth, there are many benefits to personal transformation . It empowers us to:

  • Clearly perceive the distinction between a healthy devotion to personal growth versus the unhealthy striving to escape our weakness. Transformation allows us to accept ourselves as we are, and to view our weakness as a strength in God’s hands — a feature rather than a flaw of our humanity (2 Cor. 4:7).
  • Work for social justice without ignoring our need for healing. That includes healing for ourselves, for others, and for the collective trauma held within our communities.
  • Give and receive gifts of grace that are not deserved. Being committed to our own self-improvement may not create much space for giving others the good things they need, regardless of the less generous things they may deserve (1 Pet. 4:10).
  • Invest sacrificially in the growth and transformation of others, just as God has invested in us through Jesus. This allows us to lead from a posture of service to others rather than one of self-interest or self-protection.
  • Have honest conversations with ourselves, with God, and with others, including conversations that are powerful enough to invite healing and reconciliation. What justice is there without an honest acknowledgement of injustice and pain?

I am a wounded person who is almost always angry.

In my hands, even a commitment to personal growth can become a dead-end form of striving, not the source of life and healing that I really need.

Whatever your present state of hope in ourselves or in the wider world, I do believe God is still working for justice.

And I want to be a part of that, even part of God’s work of healing and transformation in me. Truth be told, I don’t exactly know how to fully lay hold of the healing that’s at the heart of divine justice. But I’m sure it will require vulnerability along with the faith that God is still working.

That’s why I’m writing: to open myself more fully to the possibility of real healing, transformation, and justice for myself and for others, and to co-create a community of people who are seeking the same.

So let’s not just grow. Let’s be transformed.