Renewing Your Mind

Romans 12:1-2 

Paul writes in Romans 12, Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 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. (Rom 12:1-2)

J.B. Phillips in the Living Bible, paraphrases it this way: Don’t let the world squeeze you into it’s mold.

Though we have been talking about things of the soul, that below-the-waterline part of our life that no one sees, but everyone senses, Paul reminds us that there is no unconnected part of our life in the pursuit of spirituality.

In fact, it’s important to take note of that, because one of the earliest heresies the church had to fight was that dualism of the Gnostics that said that body and soul were separate and unconnected. They said that it doesn’t matter what you do with your body, because it really doesn’t affect your soul.

That kind of thinking pre-dated even the Gnostics of the 2nd century. Paul had to address the immorality that existed in Corinth and remind the Christians there, Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit. Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Cor 6:15-20)

The Corinthians lived in a society saturated with sexuality. The temple to Aphrodite rose above the city and had a thousand temple prostitutes. Sexual immorality was a part of their worship to the gods. The Greek language coined a word, “to Corinthianize” which meant to live in sexual immorality. So Christians coming out of that society had to relearn and be reminded often that the body could not be used for immorality and be consistent with God’s will. We are whole beings, and one part affects every other part. We can no more separate our body from our soul than we could unscramble an egg. What we do with our body deeply affects our soul, and the depth of our soul will certainly affect the wellbeing of our body.

And yet, so often our fleshly desires are a stumbling block to the growth of the soul. You’ll remember that the apostle Peter wrote, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11)

John in 1 John wrote, Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)

Those are all fleshly, on the surface kinds of issues, but they have a deep and devastating impact on the soul.

Carlos Villas, a Spanish missionary in India, tells of a bicycle ride and a strange experience in the Indian countryside. He had become aware, he writes of an unusual silence in which all the normal noises and motions of nature seemed to come to a halt. At first there was no discernible explanation, and he was puzzled. But then, Villas says, he saw something off to one side, and the mystery became clear. There, not far from where he stood with his bicycle was a snake, its head slowly bobbing and weaving as it fixed upon a small bird perched on a lower branch of a shrub. The bird seemed paralyzed, as if locked in a hypnotic trance by the snake’s motions. It appeared incapable of flight. Villas braced in anticipation of the snake’s strike, wondering at the same time if there was something he could do to save the ill-fated bird. Then knowing no other alternative, he attempted to distract the snake by rushing toward it, waving his arms and shouting loudly. Perhaps his actions would also arouse the bird from its stupor. His effort was successful. The snake’s stare was broken, and the bird – free of the “hypnosis” – instantly spread its wings and leaped skyward.

The Bible refers to the human condition with a number of images: being held hostage, caught in slavery, being hopelessly lost, ravaged by a terrible disease. In each case the biblical writers are straining to describe the awful injury to the human spirit that has reduced humanity from that once beautiful position of being in the likeness of God’s character to one of terrible distortion and devastation.

There are only two possible sources of evil. One is the external world in which we live with all of its influences and seductions. And these do make it dangerous and difficult to live in purity and holiness. The other is the human soul itself, that spiritual source deep within every person. Jesus made it plain that the latter, not the former, explained the corruption of human behavior and the deterioration of our relationship with God and with each other. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’” (Matt 15:19-20)

The Bible does not take this position simplistically. It does not bad-mouth humanity, as some people think. Rather, it begins by describing the inestimable beauty of humankind. The Bible begins by describing men and women being made in God’s image and enjoying the supreme position in all of creation. The ultimate purpose of the first man and woman was to reflect the glory of God and engage in intimate communion with him. We can only imagine what that must have been like, walking with God in the cool of the day, discovering and communicating and laboring together.

But almost all of this, the Bible informs us, was forfeited in a series of events that set aside God’s original plan and purposes. The account of the original act of disobedience is the seedbed for all rebellious behavior today. Frank Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way” becomes the theme song of all those who prefer the divergent path away from the Creator. The song sounds brave and admirable, but it is only a small part of the story.

A.W. Tozer reflected on this struggle below the waterline like this: The deep disease of the human heart is a will broken loose from its center, like a planet which has left its central sun and started to revolve around some strange body from outer space which may have moved in close enough to draw it away.

This captivity or bondage to sin can take any number of forms from addictions to ambitions, desires and lusts, pleasure or possessions – whatever it is that has seized our attention and loyalties away from God.

To make matters worse, humankind has attempted to lessen the terribleness of this sinfulness by minimizing and reframing it, or dismissing it as an outdated and irrelevant concept. Enlightened people are uncomfortable talking about sin, and even more so, its consequences. And for the most part, American Christianity has relegated sin to the unpleasant leftovers of a Victorian era puritanism, and expelled it from its preaching and teaching. But just because we ignore it and dismiss it does not make it any less real or less powerful. And like that bird, we are caught in the hypnotizing stare of the snake, unaware that the snake has us under its power.

And so we ask the question: How is the stare of the snake broken? Who has the power to break it? And what does the flight of a liberated one look like?

How is the stare of the snake broken? The power lies in the sacrificial death of Jesus our Savior. What happened at the cross broke Satan’s stare that held us in captivity. It made it possible for that transformational process to begin. The result? A remarkable change in spiritual orientation and a new set of attitudes, perspectives and behaviors in life. It made it possible for us to make a choice.

Paul writes about that choice:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin….  In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. (Romans 6:1-7,12-13)

God’s image is restored, character begins to be rebuilt, we are, to use the words of Jesus, “born again.” And back to Paul’s words in Romans 12 where we began this morning: We no longer “conform to the pattern of this world, but are transformed by the renewing of our mind.”

Those changes aren’t just the on-the-surface, above-the-waterline issues, but the deep down below-the-waterline soul issues. Eugene Peterson’s The Message, paraphrases that last phrase of Romans 12:2, “You’ll be changed from the inside out.”

And this transformation cannot take place without the guidance and work of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Corinthians 3:17, Paul writes, Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Paul does not write impersonally and theoretically. He writes from his own very personal experience. When he, as Saul the Pharisee, began his reign of terror on the Christians, arresting and imprisoning them for their faith in Jesus, he no doubt had to bring them to trial, listening to their witnesses to Christ-following faith. And he must have heard similar themes over and over again that amounted to one thing: transformation, life change, new direction, rebirth. And all of Saul’s hard-earned brilliance and dedication are worthless in the face of people whose lives below the waterline could not be impeached.

With all of that, Saul found himself on the way to Damascus, a fourteen day journey northeast of Jerusalem, to continue hunting down and persecuting these Christians who refused to abandon their beliefs in the face of imprisonment and death.

Then Paul writes, About noon, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ (Acts 26:13-14)

As Saul lay there on the ground, blind and disoriented, he becomes aware of the presence of Jesus and he asks two questions: “Who are you, Lord?” and What do you want me to do?” These, really are the two most important questions around which all transformation revolves.

Was Saul’s transformation complete in the wake of these two questions? No. The Damascus road event could have gone down as little more than a spiritual experience, a spectacular moment that might have burned out like a shooting star, if it had not been followed by an almost immediate and deepening awareness of what Christ was asking. And that came in the coming days as Ananias arrives and reveals to him what Jesus wants him to do. Saul had a long way to go before his transformation could be said to have fully taken place.

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about disruptive moments. Don’t you know this was as disruptive as one could get. It was an experience over which a man used to controlling all things had no control. He had travelled to Damascus with all the confidence of a powerful leader and in a moment was reduced to a humble, dependent follower seeking answers to questions he didn’t understand. Over the days and months that followed, Christ, through the Spirit began to mold him into the man who would take the gospel to the Gentile world.

So, as Paul writes those words, we are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, it is with a very personal awareness of what that means in the life of a follower of Jesus.

Paul spoke often of his grief and regret for persecuting Christians and how that had made him even more aware of the grace of God and how it had strengthened his resolve to more boldly and fearlessly preach the good news of Jesus.

Transformation begins when we have that same experience of encountering Jesus – and your encounter may not be as incredible as Paul’s – yours might be sitting over an open Bible or across the table from a friend. But before transformation can begin, you must come face to face with Jesus and ask those same two questions, “Who are you, Lord” and “What do you want me to do?”

Transformation begins when the Holy Spirit begins his work of changing your heart. The chains of sin that once held you in slavery are broken and shattered, and you are made free to live as God created you to live, in intimate communion with him. Our minds are renewed to think like God thinks and desire the things that God desires.