Sunday, August 28, 2011

How Shall We Live? (Romans 12:9-21)

At one point in his ministry, Methodist founder John Wesley found himself feeling as though he lacked faith (OK, that actually happened more than once but I'm picking a specific one). His friend George Whitfield had some...interesting...advice for him. Preach faith until you have it, Whitfield told Wesley, and then once you have it, preach faith.

Some parts of this idea run counter to the way we might think things ought to go. We are pretty good on the thought that our emotions or feelings can spur actions. We know that it's usually healthier to admit them and express them -- appropriately -- than it is to deny them. But we're not always as up on the idea that our actions can influence and may even help determine some of our emotions, feelings and attitudes.

Earlier, Paul told the Romans they should not be conformed to this world, but "be transformed by the renewing of [their] minds." He didn't give a list of specifics because every person's mind is different, but in this passage he offers broad but concrete suggestions as to what kind of life we lead that can help spur the renewing of our minds and our transformation into the people God desires us to be.

Right off the bat, for example, is the idea that we should hate what is evil and cling to what is good. Then we are to actually try to outdo each other in showing love to one another, and love our enemies, and bless those who persecute us, and so on. All of these things run counter to the way the world around us seems to suggest for our course of action, which is do unto others before they do unto us. They also run counter to our feelings about what we should do. Even though we recognize that clinging to what is good in terms of behavior, thoughts and speech is a good idea, we might think we can't do that just yet, because we don't feel any love for what is good. Shouldn't we wait until we feel that love before we start moving in that direction, so our response is genuine?

Well, apparently no. If we take Paul's words here as our guide, we're just flat-out told what we ought to do to enable that mind renewal and transformation without any regard taken for whether or not we feel like it at the time. And although again I'd point out it's not a good idea to deny the reality of feelings, it's not always necessary to use them as our only spur to action.

If we look at experience, we can see this demonstrated. A friend of mine moved to Los Angeles to help her goal of working in the entertainment industry. She was a person of faith, but I noticed in our conversations over the years that aspect of her life seemed to occupy less and less of her time and her communication with me. One time we were trading messages back and forth on Facebook and that subject came up, and she simply confessed she had no faith anymore, that she had lost any feeling of faith in her life whatsoever. I didn't say -- because this is not the kind of conversation you can have on Facebook -- "Well of course you don't feel any faith. Your blog is all about your workouts and what you're eating and your boyfriend and according to it, most of your time and thought is taken up with those things. You haven't paid much attention to your faith in a long time, so why should you feel it?" But that's what I would have said, probably in a gentler form, if we had been talking face to face.

I attended an open-level Narcotics Anonymous meeting once as a part of a ministry seminar. Part of these meetings, which focus on the first steps of recovery and which are open to anyone, is a focus on testimonies about the impact of the 12 Steps on the lives of people who are walking them. One man at the meeting I attended described how his earlier attempts to clean up failed and did so for a simple reason: He wanted a changed life but he didn't make any changes in it. He hung around with the same people and went to the same places and so naturally he wound up doing the same things, including drugs. He had to change his ways if he wanted to change his ways. He phrased it this way: "If you hang around a barber shop, you're gonna get a haircut."

Paul's list in this passage talks about changed ways of living. Those changes don't save us. A world where everyone tried to outdo each other in showing love would be a better world for certain, but only the grace of God offered in Christ brings salvation and restores our relationship with God. God's grace healed our broken relationship with him and made us, in Jesus' words, "born again." But once born, we have to grow up, and the way we grow up is by learning how to act like a grown-up would act and then doing so.

Do we feel like blessing our enemies? I don't. I feel like lettin' 'em have it, and then when the dust settles givin' 'em seconds. No matter -- we should bless them if we want to be transformed into the kind of people who do feel like blessing our enemies. If we wait till we feel like it, we might wait a long time.

And as Wesley's correspondence with Whitfield shows, the same pattern can develop in many other areas of life. Wesley had other crises of faith during his life, but his sermons always demonstrate a faith that God can work in the lives of those who seek him. I imagine we all want to be transformed, we all want to be renewed as God's followers. And we all wonder how, and we wonder if Paul's suggestions here really make that difference.

Does this answer seem too simple? If you want a changed life, live a changed life? Maybe so. Certainly not easy, but almost too simple.

Which is probably why it's so hard to do.

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