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Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Be Transformed

One of the most popular draws to this site is this verse:
"Do not conform any longer 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." (Romans 12:2 NIV)
This made it into a post several months ago about Groupthink and the church.  I've been watching this play out in my site analytics for several months now.  New people visit that post almost every day, and they're coming from all over the world.  Why is this verse so popular?  What cultural trend does this indicate?

Frankly, I don't know, since I've never been able to interview my visitors about it.  If you first came to this site to read that post, please leave me a comment weighing in on the topic.  I'd love to hear from you.

Anyway, I speculate that the root cultural trend is the nonconformity angle in that verse.  In fact, I'm concerned there may be some misinterpretations of that verse out there that could be damaging to Christianity.  I want to draw a line today between good and bad understandings of that verse, because it's crucial that Christians today understand what it means.

So, about nonconformity....I do preach a type of nonconformity on this blog, but it's about detecting and resisting human pressures (from within and without) to cave, to cower, and to give up this gift we've been given as Christians.  This isn't a form of "expressing yourself."  The focus isn't all on "me" and "developing my potential," but rather on doing what God wants, seeing that good is done, and resisting what is evil.  In other words, the focus is on God, not humankind or its wants and feelings.

I understand that society uses the word nonconformity to mean a rejection of peer pressure and an expression of individuality.  In other words, it's a type of rebellion against others in favor of doing what we want, or leaving one peer group for another one that has different values. Your Dictionary online is perhaps more specific. It defines nonconformity as, "failure or refusal to act in conformity with generally accepted beliefs and practices."

Lately, the Church (I mean the visible church; all people who call themselves Christians) has begun to pull out Romans 12:2 and use it to label itself as some kind of rebellion (nonconformity) movement, in essence saying, "take that, world!"  Is Christianity that, really?  Personally, I think that talk makes Christianity into some sort of clique or gang that is "getting back at the world" by being different in measurable ways.  Is that what Paul was getting at?

The Shape of the Cookie Cutter

Let's look at the first phrase of the verse again: "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world."  That really does sound like rebellion, doesn't it?  Before, we were like everyone else, fitting into a cookie-cutter pattern, and we are not supposed to stay in this pattern "any longer."  What is the pattern, though?

The pattern that scripture and human behavior seems to bear out is one of rebellion.  Rebellion against God and His leadership over our lives, in favor of self-leadership.  Adam and Eve first decided in the garden that what they wanted (to be "as gods") was more important than what God wanted (for them to obey Him voluntarily).  So they ate the fruit despite the rules that forbid it.

Really, nonconformity as it has been defined is rebellion against one aspect of another human's leadership.  In essence, exchanging one human leader for another, ourselves.

But the Church's focus should not be on human leadership, or self.  The apostle Paul wrote, "Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians 3: 1-3 NIV).

So Christians are not supposed to be focusing on self, and that draws a hairsbreadth of a line between how some are reading the passage from Romans, and how it should be read.  By refusing to "conform any longer with the pattern of this world," does that mean, "take that, world"?

Look at the second part of that passage from Romans again: "but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." So we are rejecting the rebellious pattern of the world that we have been a part of, and are being changed, in fact, renewed by something.  The sense of it is that we aren't just being cosmetically changed on the outside, but rather rebuilt from the ground up with all new materials.  Our thinking is being turned around into something completely new and substantially different, but we aren't the ones changing ourselves.

So we are rejecting or rebelling against something, but that something is our own fallen inclinations, which convince us that we know better than God what is good for us.  Our focus isn't supposed to be on pushing back at the world--it's supposed to be on not resisting God any more.  That's what "do not conform" really means in this context.

The last part of the verse reads, "Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will."  The whole point of ceasing to resist God is to finally listen to Him and be equipped with the knowledge to obey God in the way that pleases Him.  This verse is hardly about the world, really.  It's all focused on God and His ways.  It isn't about "pushing back" at the world; it's about being able to navigate safely through it, ignoring all the things that distract us and threaten to pull us away from what God wants.

Not Pushing Back, Pushing Toward

I've been very concerned that this new "Church rebel" idea makes Christians look openly hostile toward their neighbors.  God didn't tell us to act this way, and by rejecting "the pattern of this world," we aren't being told to rebel against people or God-given institutions such as governments and laws.  This in-your-face scoffing attitude looks down at the world.  It is a worldly attitude that sets "self" above others.  It has no place in the church and needs to end now.

Our attitude toward the world outside our church doors ought to be one of compassion, born out of our new understanding of what controls human behavior and how God can fix this.  With our renewed minds, we ought to be able to see that God's will is that none should die without coming to know Him (2 Peter 3:9).  We should be focusing on what God wants us to do for the world, so that He can reach it through us, rather than what makes us different from the world or divides us from it.

Forget the rebel attitude--get the humble attitude!