Let’s start with one of my top five verses in the Bible, shall we? Romans 12: in three versions.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (NIV)
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (NLT)
Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God. (ESV)
In the first blog of this series, I wrote about the Christian’s call to “be different,” the origin of that concept and how we sometimes get it wrong. We almost always get it wrong when we take the Defensive and Different stance, fixing our eyes on culture and trying to go the opposite way. Because sometimes, not all aspects of our culture are going against the values of Jesus.
And yet, here we have this beautiful instruction from Paul, not to copy or conform to the patterns of “this world” or “this age,” but instead, allow your mind and thinking to be renewed.
In other words, don’t just step in the footsteps in front of you. Don’t fall into a groove without thinking about it. Don’t mindlessly accept that everything you’ve been taught, told, sold or pressured into believing is good. Question everything!
And then, pursue God’s will – which is good, pleasing and perfect.
The keys to getting this right, I believe, is being an intentional thinker, allowing God to renew your mind, so you can then test out what you’re hearing. You can discern it through deep thoughts, through trial and error, through refreshment of your soul.
There is absolutely nothing reactionary or defensive about this instruction. Rather, it is wise in the way that James describes wisdom: pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. God’s wisdom leads to that which is pleasing and good. Lord, please give me that in a full measure!
I love the emphasis in the ESV translation of “this present age.” Not one human walking on this earth is impartial, but we see everything through a lens. Paul is inviting us to clarify that lens. In fact, he’s inviting us to beg God to take off these worldly glasses for us and renew us completely so that we can see and do His will. We are all, to some degree, products of our age and culture, even to some degree of our native language! We don’t have understanding of things for which we don’t have words. (This is one of the reasons I love studying scripture in its original language.) And we read the Bible in our native language, in our present age, and as a product of our position in our society, in our church, maybe even in our own family.
I love the concept of the book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope. Written by Esau Esau McCaulley (PhD, St. Andrews, assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College) and next on my stack to read, it opens our eyes to the way people read scripture based on their position in any society. How does the African American read Scripture differently than a member of a non-minority group would? What are the gifts to be had from this perspective? And what are the potential liabilities?
I find myself thinking of all the ways our present age and place in it can cloud His will. When we read the Bible, do we cast our own country as Israel or as Babylon (I’ve heard American pastors do both)? Am I the prodigal son or the judgmental older brother? Am I the tax collector or the Pharisee? Do I identify with the slave whose been set free or the oppressive rich man dragging the poor into court, taking advantage of the working class. When the Holy Spirit is keeping me on track, I find myself in both sides of all these stories, Because God is always working on my heart.
I also find that many of the patterns of the world that I’m tempted (or pressured) to conform to never seem outright evil, but can be enslaving and truth-distorting none-the-less.
So I find, as I beg for renewal of my mid, that I can’t identify first as an American; if I have love of God and country, country must be a much lesser love. I can’t align myself too closely with any political party. I can’t see myself on the right side of history every time. I can’t be too loyal to any denomination of the church, nor any worship style or discipleship modality. I can’t embrace every tradition of my family of origin; to worship God is to outgrow some of the immature ways I learned to relate to people and pain. “This is the way we’ve always done it” is not an admirable spiritual stance in any of these spaces.
Instead, I need to see all these things: my nationality, politics, success, birth order, wealth, gender, profession, personality and gifts as potential liabilities to my theology. To discern the will of God, every single one of these perspectives have to be questioned.
I listened to Christianity Today’s in-depth report called “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” about a church that went to war with culture in Jesus’ name. It was a fascinating and depressing rabbit hole to go down and I had to stop part way through to preserve my mental health. But the distress it caused me was worth this one line they reported about what several powerful and toxic leaders had in common: a belief that their innovations, that were really their personalities, could cure what ailed the church in their time. God protect us from any way in which we see our own preferences and personalities as the center of truth. That is, literally, narcissism. And a product of being “different” without a renewed mind.
I pray about this whenever I write a Bible study, a talk for a recovery group, a woman’s brunch presentation. Every. Single. Time. God, give me truth far beyond my own experience. Let me reach not just those in the room like me, but those who are unlike me. Balance the instructions of your complex word so I will not enslave the perfectionist, shame the introvert, empower the abuser, disable the victim. Let me be a vehicle of your perfect will.
It’s a complex task, this being like Jesus. We can’t follow him by automatically rejecting every movement of culture. Nor can we walk his ways in the automatic footsteps of our ancestors. We must question everything, in Jesus’ name.
P.S. For bonus points, enjoy these gems from Eugene H. Petterson. The first is a quotation from my current read A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and the second is Romans 12:2 from The Message, his Bible paraphrase.
Christian consciousness begins in the painful realization that what we had assumed was the truth is in fact a lie. Prayer is immediate: “Deliver me, O Lord, from lying lips, from a deceitful tongue.” Rescue me from the lies of advertisers who claim to know what I need and what I desire, from the lies of entertainers who promise a cheap way to joy, from the lies of politicians who pretend to instruct me in power and morality, from the lies off psychologist who offer to shape my behavior and my morals to that I will live long, happily an successfully, from the lies of religionists who “heal the wounds of this people lightly,” from the lies of moralists who pretend to promote me to the office of captain of my fate, from the lies of pastors who “leave the commandment of God and hold fast the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8) Rescue me from the person who tells me of life ad omits Christ, who is wise in the ways of the world and ignores the movement of the Spirit.
The Message version of Romans 12:2
So, here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.