The world is aching for change, especially in the past decade or two. The biggest buzz was the turn of the millennium back in 2000 with great hopes of peace, love and happiness. But the decade that followed will be mostly remembered for 9/11, Enron, the Recession.
Another buzz hit the world in 2012, over the end of one era, and a beginning of a new one, as predicted by the Maya calendar: an era of prosperity, peace, redefinition of human values. Yet we’re stuck with a threat of nuclear war in Korea, dangers in Ukraine, and a redefined family in the West.
People are desperate for new ways on how to become a better person, how to get more productive, how to have a more fulfilled life, how to be enriched spiritually… but sofar it turns out that all attempts seem to fall short.
Are we to conform to this call to transform our minds?
A few years ago, I listened to an audio book called The Secret Mode of Prayer, by Gregg Braden, just to refresh my mind to think fresh thoughts. I was amazed by it, and quite encouraged. It was liberating to hear a fresh perspective on spirituality after going through years of no prayer at all just because the idea seemed too… old and hypocritical.
There are tons of similar programs and techniques that circulate online, promising renewal, refreshment, rejuvenation etc. What makes these programs so appealing to a post-christian world is that these teachers take familiar ideas from the Bible and give it a different twist. They interpret biblical ideas in a different way that most church-going people find… new. Fresh. Applicable. Very much unlike the stale, moldy, restraining way of thinking propagated in churches.
So what does the Bible say about transformation of mind?
Romans 12:1-2 is perhaps the most famous paragraph that speaks about such renewal:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 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)
There are literally hundreds of thousands of texts online (326.000 according to Google) that speak about these two verses. Most of the texts that come up in the first 10-20 positions on Google talk about this text by analyzing the Greek meaning of some of the key words like Urge, Renew, Living sacrifice, Pleasing, Proper etc. All that is great…but this text is not a stand-alone idea that we should dissect with bible lexicons and dictionaries. This text is the apex, the pivot point of the entire epistle where all the previous 11 chapters of theological teaching are now mirrored into the world of pragmatic, down-to-earth, day-to-day life. So the immediate context, namely chapters 11 and 12, offer us the means to understand what really is a transformed mind, how it’s done, and what are the requirements of such renewal.
The Literal, Theological and Practical Context of Transformation
Interestingly, Chapter 11 sums up the role of God in human history, and is a precursor of the Transformation verses, that is then followed by pragmatic tips on living within a community. So at one hand, the transformation text is linked to what God is doing in history, and on the other hand is deeply related to what we are to do as His Church.
As in any drama, to understand the culmination we need to understand the events that lead up to it, and then the results that follow after.
What we need to understand for a proper transformation
In Chapters 9-11 as a thought-unit Paul talks about the question of salvation of the Jews and Gentiles. In summary:
“It is futile to pursue after righteousness by works. The Jews tried it and failed…It is a matter of faith… The stumbling stone on which the Jews tripped up was Christ. They were so busy pursuing their own righteousness that they failed to notice God’s provision for them.”
Paul wraps things up in a rather unconventional way, providing no appeasing and black-white verdict on who’s got it better, Jews or Gentiles. It almost sounds as if Paul anticipates that some people will try to play the comparison game. To counter this, Paul gives a stark warning: Don’t think more of yourselves. If God didn’t spare the branches of the good olive tree, don’t think that He can’t cut you off too if you forget the order of things. It is clear that the emotional response to the text is that of humility and full recognition that it is God who saves based on faith, not on merit.
It is with this state of heart and mind that Paul takes us onto the Renewal of Minds text. Only with a sober, conscious, whole-hearted appreciation of the saving work of Christ can we move on to talk about transformation.
Therefore: A Christ-powered Transformation
If there is a single word that represents a U-turn, a pivot point, a moment of change, it is this one.
Rom 12:1 marks a fresh start of a new topic, a new train of thoughts that will be building up on the previous chapters, but in a different, quite practical/pragmatic way.
From now on, Paul’s tone of voice is different. In the past eleven chapters he used a “you must” vocabulary only 13 times. In this chapter alone he uses the “Must” (aka imperative) tone 11 times. He is clearly done with theoretical debates and is now in a “Let’s Get Down to Business” mindset.
Let’s look at some key words and their wider meaning:
Urge: The verb sounds authoritative and urgent. Greek military leaders used this word to spur their soldiers onto battle. But despite this strong/harsh usage, this verb at its root is more sensible, comforting, encouraging. It is the same word in a noun form used to describe the Holy Spirit, as the encourager, comforter, the Parakletos.
This urging is a down-to-earth, brotherly encouragement. The tone of voice is not as if we are in a classroom, as it was the case in the previous 11 chapters. Now the tone of voice is as if we are all sitting in a living room, one big happy family, and Paul, a brother, is trying to encourage us to a transformation because of who Christ is and what He’s done for us. Remembering what God has done for us as individuals and most importantly as a group, is the best motivator for us as a group, and as individuals, to devote to a lifetime of transformation into Christ-like community.
Present: Unlike surrender, “present” means willful, gladly giving yourself to God, you know, the one who’s done all the things mentioned in the previous 11 chapters. Christ, who saved you, is the one you are presenting yourself to. We are presenting ourselves to the one who died for our sake. There is no need of reluctance, hesitation, fear.
Living Sacrifice: We hear tons of worship songs where people cry out to God on rivers, seas, mountaintops, rooftops… treatops… but what Paul is encouraging us to do here is to simply LIVE for Christ in the valley, in our towns and cities, close to Joe and Marry next door.
What this life for Christ means depends on where we as individuals are, but it starts with picking up our cross daily. As a community, living for Christ means getting together for worship regularly, encouraging one another, sharing our problems so we can pray for one another, teaching each other from the Bible, and reaching out to the world around us, making disciples from Joe and Mary next door.
Holy: We are set aside for God IN THE WORLD, so our holiness should be practical. Being locked up in a monastery, standing on one foot on a 30-foot pole, not washing for 7 years… that doesn’t count as holiness, nor is it pleasing to anyone.
Spiritual service of worship: This is my favorite. Although most of the translations use the word Spiritual, the Greek adjective is logikos. We got the word logic from this word, so in the strictest sense, our service of worship is logical. It should make sense to us. It should be something that we understand. A transformed mind based on the act of Christ results in a daily worship that draws on what Christ did for us, and passes it on to the people around, in a form that is most useful for them at that time:
- if crying is needed, we cry with the ones who are sad
- if it is encouragement, we give it as best we can
- when help is needed, we give it unconditionally
- if teaching is needed, we do it responsibly
- if rebuke is needed, we give it lovingly
This logical form of worship can only be done within a context of a community. Without interaction with this community this spiritual/logical worship is not really possible. It sounds, that if we want to worship, we ought to serve others in logical, practical, tangible ways. In that regard, worship becomes a very down-to-earth manifestation of the heavenly dynamic interaction between Christ and The Church. The mystical part of worship is between Christ and The Church as a whole. Down on an individual level, worship is quite tangible and logical.
Fighting off Conformation with Transformation
The word Conformed in v. 2, in Greek is suschematizo, it’s a passive verb, meaning you’re not doing the conformation; it is being done to you. This co-scheaming, is not an active process where you as a believer are getting closer to the world’s mindset. It is the World imposing its value systems onto you, you are being squeezed into a mold that the world finds OK. Because of this passive process of being depersonalized I found myself liking The Secret Mode of Prayer by Braden, when I first heard it a few years ago.
But when I heard the book a few months ago, after being in a community for a little over 8 months, the book suddenly didn’t sound as profound or as intelligent as it did the first time. This time, being back into a community setting, I took every thought captive and weighted it against Christ… and found it lacking. I could now push back because I was transforming my mind from a context of a local community.
The conformation that was being imposed on me had no power over me. I could think as a free person again. I could hear the words and evaluate them. Being from a marketing background, I started listening to the words Braden used and realized that all he’s doing is using hot phrases like technology, mode, system, secret, ancient wisdom etc. These are all hot words that polarize a mind into wanting more. I realized that this book, The Secret Mode of Prayer, was either an excellent work of a marketing mastermind geared on to make tons of sales, or, an evil entity parading as a wise teacher.
In a world bent on transformation, renewal, fresh ideas, positive change etc. people seem to be squeezed into forgetting that despite being individuals, we are social beings who live in communities, where we are inter-locked and affect each other.
In such an entangled world, the true source of positive change, the real transformational power, is Christ: fully God, fully man. We go to him empty-handed, and we receive salvation as exchange for our sins. Not because we are so faithful to Him, but because He is faithful to us.
The transformation, this renewal of the mind that we all crave, is an on-going active process done within the context of a local community. So worship, this seemingly spiritual-ized term, becomes a pragmatic, useful, logical service… not to the hungry people in Africa, but first and foremost to the person sitting next to you. It is in this community that God has set us, and it is here that we work out our worship, serving the one in need, helping them overcome problems, rejoicing with them, crying with them, praying with them, working with them.
So in a world bent on renewal and transformation, we offer this message by the way we live: Christ alone saves, by faith, not by merit. Out of thankfulness for His salvation, individuals get together in a local community, where the logical form of worship is played out through helping one another because of Christ.
Stephen Westerholm – Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Epistle to the Romans, 2nd Ed.
Tomas Oden ed.: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Vol VI: Romans. Page 262