Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12.2)
So I’ve spent the past few weeks battling with my Internet service provider—a battle ending this week, when I switch to a new ISPN. For reasons no one will explain (leading me to suspect behind-the-scene cutbacks), service has been maddeningly sporadic, with prolonged outages and turtle-slow speeds that require frequently clicking the refresh arrow. Sometimes a site freezes. I have to close the browser and start over. Since I’m not the most patient person when things don’t function as smoothly as I expect, I’ve spent a lot of time grunting and fussing at my screen, as if that will magically persuade the ISPN server to get a move on. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if I limited my Web activity to leisurely pursuits. Nothing on youtube, Facebook, or amazon is so urgent it can’t wait. For a freelance writer, though, a sputtering modem makes all the difference between a fine and not-so-fine job, meeting and missing deadlines, annoyance and agony.
When working on projects that entail online research, one supposes I could forego digging into the material and rely on how much—or, more likely, how little—I already know. That would eliminate the hassle and still get the job done. It won’t be as thorough and strong without the added time and stress of repeated refreshing, but at least it’s something. And therein lies the rub, because one of few things that drive me crazier than subpar technology is being forced to compromise. It goes back to being raised by parents who, when seeing I’d fallen short, always asked why I’d not done better. “At least it’s something” didn’t fly with them. It took several aborted attempts down that runway to convince me “at least” is a de facto admission that no matter how good the “something” may be, it’s still no good because it’s less than my best. My father put it like this: "Simply getting by simply guarantees you'll never get ahead."
That’s exactly what Paul says to us in Romans 12. “At least” may work for us and what comes of it may look fine to others. But it still won’t fly, because it’s not our best. Getting by on what we already know will never help us know all that we can be. Yes, the time and hassle of constantly refreshing our attitudes and perceptions can be unnerving. We’ll grunt and fuss a lot. But is “at least” really an option—especially since God sees and knows we’ve fallen short?
The passage begins with one of Paul’s most quoted—and least understood—admonitions: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12.1) On hearing “bodies,” “sacrifice,” and “holy and acceptable to God” in close proximity, we reply, “Got it!” and dash off a long list of no-no’s we’re fairly sure prevent us from meeting God’s purity standards. Without attending to the whole statement, it’s logical to assume Paul’s comparing us to livestock that Jews and pagans alike painstakingly bred and raised to be free of any disease or flaw disqualifying it for ritual slaughter.
A closer reading urges us to rethink such assumptions. What Paul describes has nothing in common with animal sacrifice. Nor, for that matter, is he speaking to us as individuals. The pivotal phrases here are “the mercies of God,” “a living sacrifice,” and “spiritual worship.” God’s mercy unites all believers as a single entity, a living sacrifice, and purifies us for spiritual service. It’s the polar opposite of what so many misinterpret as a call for surface holiness—a return to Mosaic legalism’s obsession with hygiene and conformity. Yet this makes no sense coming from Paul, particularly in the letter advancing his most eloquent argument that Jesus’s bodily atonement forever frees us from the Law’s rituals and demands. Equating holiness and acceptability to God with physical appearances and behaviors replaces spiritual freedom with carnal compliance. It mistakes cookie-cutter mentality for Christian solidarity. But we’re not assembly-line cattle being prepped for death. By God’s grace we’re one body, a singular organism spiritually transformed to witness life.
Now we’d be remiss not to stress that nearly all the Apostles’ letters, including Paul’s, caution against physically detrimental excesses and habits. Yet they take extra care to be clear they’re not advocating behavioral modification as a means of earning God’s mercy and acceptance. Again, it’s the complete opposite. Abandoning harmful pursuits is one of many changes that result from faith in God’s grace. Spiritual transformation occurs and manifests itself continuously. As participants in one living sacrifice, we shouldn’t look, act, and talk like each other. Neither should we look, act, and talk today like we did yesterday. True life produces unending change and growth. It’s not like Web access. It doesn’t slow down. It doesn’t freeze. It keeps loading us with new information, experiences, and insights. And if we’re frustrated because our lives have lost momentum or got stuck or feel incomplete, it’s time to refresh our screens and re-launch our browsers. While relying on what we already know may work for us and get us by in the world, it won’t fly with God, Who sees and knows it’s less than our best.
“Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul writes in verse 2, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” How marvelous it would be if Paul were actually describing what many take him to mean—a once-in-a-lifetime epiphany that whips us into a U-turn, cleans up our acts, changes how we think, and sends us barreling headlong into eternal bliss! That might work if we were no more than sacrificial cattle being groomed for the day we die. And unfortunately that’s how many believers approach their faith and view themselves. All the goodness and wonder showered on us, all the life we’re blessed to experience and enjoy, boils down to getting ready to die. But, thanks be to God, we are a living sacrifice. God’s grace liberates us from the confines of the stall and trough, opening before us a meadow of mercy on which we feast, mature, and thrive. Some of us are young and wobbly. Some of us are seasoned and sure. While it's important that the weak among us grow strong and the strong among us don't grow self-confident in their own strength, it's most important that each of us understands we all belong to one living sacrifice.
Every day, every moment, provides nourishment that renews our minds so we’re ever aware of what God desires of us that day, in that moment. Conformity is of no benefit to transformation's perpetual process, as it always lags behind new growth. God’s abundance provides an endless supply of knowledge and experience that renews our minds, challenging us to digest concepts and beliefs that were once intolerable and made us afraid. Willingness to refresh our minds is the only way we discover God’s will for us. It’s a risky way to live, because it calls us away from conformity and getting by on what we know so we can be transformed by what God wants us to know. Writ large between the lines, Paul insists taking risks, defying uncertainty, enduring criticism, and patiently waiting for God’s will to unfold is what we must do if we’re to participate in spiritual worship as a living, holy, acceptable sacrifice. Besides, considering the alternative, can we doubt embracing newness of mind and welcoming change is the only way to live? Of course not, because living to die isn’t living at all.
Dear God, we know no better way to live than participating in spiritual worship as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to You. Awaken us to each day’s abundant newness. Free us from intolerance and fear so that we’ll risk learning all that life offers. Quicken us to refresh our minds to welcome new ideas and discover Your will for us. Amen.
When we’re frustrated because our lives seem to have lost momentum, got stuck, or feel incomplete, it’s time to click the refresh button and renew our minds.