Romans 12 (NIV) 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.
A wide-eyed country lad sat transfigured at the big camp meetings, while holiness preachers thundered against the wickedness of this world. The way I heard it, this planet was doomed, so I should set my mind on things above in the hope that God would take me to heaven.
Paul would be horrified to think we’ve used his words to threaten each other and damn the planet. He was giving a message of hope and human flourishing.
What is “this world”?
The word world here is not the word for planet Earth or the cosmos. It refers to a period of time, an era, an aeon. Paul didn’t say God hates the planet; he said there’s a problem with how things are working at present, i.e. “in this age.”
That’s not news. You would have heard how almost 300 people were killed on Easter Sunday at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. Initial reports suggest it was retaliation for the Christchurch mosque killings last month. I can understand people crying for the blood of the Australian who perpetrated those murders in Christchurch, but it’s hard to understand how anyone thought justice could be served by killing more innocent people.
So how do the victims of those families in Sri Lanka respond now? Do they wait for their government to give justice to the killers? Or do some of them take matters into their own hands with honour killings in response? Where does the cycle of violence stop?
Jesus has an answer to that question. It stops with him. As they prepared to take his life, our divinely appointed ruler lodged a request for his killers to be released from their crime, “Father, forgive them. They don’t realize what they’re doing.”
Jesus broke the pattern of evil that has dominated the world in this era. It’s in light of what Jesus has done, that Paul writes this:
Don’t let yourselves be conformed to the schema of how life works in this era. Instead, take on the mind of Christ that transforms you together into a different kind of existence, a new era. That’s how we will all come to experience what God intended for the world in the beginning, flourishing in God’s good, pleasant, perfect will. (Romans 12:2 paraphrased)
What is “the renewing of the mind”?
There’s an entire industry of books teaching me to renovate my mind as the key to a better life. Unfortunately, it’s not what Paul meant.
Paul was not a child of the Enlightenment. He wasn’t following Descartes’ maxim, “I think. Therefore I am.” He wasn’t following Kant or Adam Smith. He wasn’t suggesting I pay Scientology to get my mind reprogrammed. In fact, Paul wasn’t even talking about my individual mind.
Our English translations miss the singular/plural distinctions Paul used. “Do not conform” and “Be transformed” are plural verbs, something Paul called us to all do together. But “the renewal of your mind” is singular: one mind in a corporate setting. This is something we can only do as one. This verse has nothing to do with individual transformation: it’s the corporate transformation that occurs as our collective mind is renewed.
The mind of the current era is to gain power at others’ expense. Jesus had a different mind: to rescue humanity at his own expense. We are constantly pressured to act defensively, to protect what is mine, to live at the expense of others, because that’s the mind of this age. Don’t be pressured into conforming with that way of thinking. Instead, be transformed by taking on the completely different way of thinking pioneered by Jesus, the way of thinking that renews our humanity and restores us as community.
The renewal of our mind is the restoration of our corporate humanity so we function together as the family our Father intended. It’s along the lines of what Paul wrote to Philippi:
Philippians 2 2 Be like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. … 5 Have this mind among you that you have discovered in Messiah Jesus.
In Marvel comic movies, the evil maniac wants to take over the world. We know that’s the essence of evil. Jesus thought differently. Instead of spending his life to rise in power and enslave the world, he took the form of a slave and gave his life to free the world. The gospel calls us to have this mind among ourselves.
People of God, let’s take on the mind of our Messiah. We can’t let this era squeeze us into the self-focused, power-grabbing way of life that perpetuates the destruction of each other. We are transformed together into a different kind of world by the mind of Christ, the one who gave himself for our restoration.
That’s the only way the world can be transformed to flourish in the good, pleasing, perfect will of God.
Update 2019-04-26: For a response from someone on the ground in Sri Lanka, see:
Ajith Fernando, Six Biblical Responses to Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings.
[previous: What worship pleases God? (Romans 12:1)]
[next: Finding your identity (Romans 12:3-12)]