It will very likely take the rest of my life to figure out the implications of the fact that Jesus is the smartest man to have ever lived. In this matter, I am a beginner, and always will be, as Thomas Merton has written,
When it comes to spiritual transformation, where does a beginner begin? I am fortunate, because I am not a beginning beginner, if there is such a thing. Since I have read the Bible many times, I have a clue, at least, where to start. The concept of transformation occurs in only a few places in the Bible, and the idea of transformation of the mind appears only in Romans 12, so far as I can tell.
Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
This passage presents two concerns for me. First of all, it is a little scary, because the idea of bodily sacrifice in the context of worship conjures up visions of death on an altar. Secondly, I don’t really know what some of these phrases mean, such as “spiritual service of worship.” I think that many people read that and respond by going to a church service. I am not being sarcastic. The thought is, “When I go to a church service, I am going to the house of God where I will present my body as a living and holy sacrifice.” And then, somehow, we think that transformation automatically follows. If you are particularly interested, you go to Sunday School class where you learn lots of cool stuff about theology or the Bible and you are transformed by all the new things you are putting into your brain. If you are particularly committed, you will memorize verses from the Bible, which they say will transform your mind.
My experience with these strategies may not be normative, although I have argued that it is, as depressing as that might be. In my experience, none of the activities that we engage in through the church works. To be blunt: I believe that these so-called strategies for spiritual transformation are hocus-pocus; magic; self-deception; the way to non-discipleship; a method for segregating my life into the Christian and the rest of it, which effectively puts God on the margins where He belongs because He certainly doesn’t have anything to do with my secular life except when it comes to abortion and homosexuals and praying for things like parking spaces or that the doctors can fix whatever ails me or that I’ll get a raise.
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You may have noticed that I am quite fond of The Message. Eugene Petersen wrote this translation as a result of his interactions with people over many decades, people who did not “get” the normal translations because they are written in such a weird language: religlish. His translation slaughters the Greek in many cases, but he captures the sense of the Scriptures in a way that is supremely helpful. Here is his take on Romans 12:1-2:
So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
My basic question in reading this passage is, “What do I need to do to experience spiritual transformation?” The answer is simple, concise, clear, and smack-dab in the center: “…fix your attention on God.”
That is all I have to do, and I will be changed from the inside out. Guaranteed.
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Let me tie this post into the previous one, in which I wrote about Jesus being the smartest person the world has ever known. If you will grant me the liberty of claiming that Jesus wrote this passage in Romans, then you will appreciate that the smartest man in the world has told me that if I want to experience spiritual transformation, all I need to do is fix my attention on God.
Me: You mean, like, on Sundays?
Jesus: No, I mean 24-7-365. That is what it takes. That is the universe that we live in. God is the center of the universe and you need to fix your attention on the central figure in the universe. 24-7-365. Otherwise, forget it.2
Me: Ok, so this is just one of those unworkable, unrealistic things, isn’t it? I mean, how do I fix my attention on God all the time? That’s just not gonna work.
Jesus: I never said it would be easy. In fact, I told you that being my disciple would be hard. Learning to play the piano, to choose a silly analogy, is not easy either but, as unlikely as it might seem in the beginning, people do actually learn to play that crazy thing. What I did say is that fixing your attention on God would make the difference between life and death.
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So, how do I fix my attention on God, 24-7-365? Perhaps the smartest man in the world knows how.
1 Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer. Doubleday, New York, 1971
2 Facing this decision is often done so in the context of fear and an expectation of hardship and suffering. Perhaps, we should think of it in other terms. Given the promises associated with following Christ, maybe we should think of this decision as . In the 1999 movie, The Matrix, Morpheus frames Neo’s similarly difficult decision thusly: “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed, and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes.” If Jesus said, Follow me and I will show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes, wouldn’t you be intrigued?