Do not Conform to the Pattern of this World But Rather Be Transformed

For each of us, becoming like Christ takes knowledge, wisdom, and not a little effort. One of the pivotal verses we must take to heart is Romans 12:2, which tells us that we are not to conform to the pattern of the world any longer, but rather we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

Romans 12:2
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.

This verse has great truth buried within it. For one thing, the words “conform…to the pattern” are one Greek word, suschematizo, which means, “to form according to a pattern or mold.”  Furthermore, the word “world” is not kosmos, the created world, but rather aion, or “age.” Why is that important for us to know? The word aion does not just mean “age” in the sense that it is a finite period of time. The linguist Richard Trench gives a good idea of its meaning.

Aion came to mean all that exists in the world under conditions of time…. Aion includes all the thoughts, opinions, maxims, speculations, impulses, and aspirations present in the world at any given time, which may be impossible to accurately define but which still constitute a real and effective power—the moral or immoral atmosphere we breathe.”

Christians must face the fact that the Devil has created an “atmosphere” in this world that is ungodly, and which leads people away from God and into sin. That “atmosphere” of ungodliness is as real as the country-western atmosphere in a country-western bar, or the Asian atmosphere in an oriental restaurant. Furthermore, the Devil’s intent in creating an ungodly atmosphere is to have people conform to it just as if they were conforming to a mold. That is why God tells us that we must not be conformed to the pattern, the mold, of the world.

As Christians, we must become spiritual meteorologists. We must become sensitive to the spiritual atmosphere around us, and able to recognize how we are being influenced, and whether that influence is godly or ungodly. Interestingly, Eugene Peterson, in his popular version of the Bible, The Message,  translates Romans 12:2a as: “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit in to it without even thinking.” Christians need to think about what they are doing and why they are doing it, not just do what everyone else is doing.

The spiritual atmosphere we live in influences almost everything we think or do. For example, how do we speak to each other? Caustically and sarcastically, like the people in the television comedies speak to each other, or do our words convey love, encouragement, and compassion? Do we dress to impress (often sexually), or do we dress with a view to letting the Christ in us shine through our lives? Do we go into debt to have a car that will “Wow” our neighbors and make us feel powerful, or are we concerned about “Wowing” the Lord Jesus Christ? What is important to us? Is it things that have a firm root in Scripture, such as helping and blessing others, or is it isolating ourselves for hours at a time watching television or playing video games, in the end contributing nothing meaningful to ourselves or our society?

If we do not become spiritual meteorologists, we will be led, usually without even realizing it, into a life of ungodliness, sorrow, and pain. We must become aware of the atmospheric mold the Devil is trying to squeeze us into, and then have enough love for God and ourselves that we refuse to live in the ungodly lifestyle he lays before us daily, but instead recognize who we are in Christ and what we can do for ourselves and our society, and then get about doing it.

One way the Adversary steals blessings from us is to play on our desire to have a better life. When we get quiet and think about it, a truly better life comes from having love, peace, joy, good health, and good friends, not just more “toys” and “things” in life. Furthermore, having a blessed life does not come from doing what we want to do all the time, giving in to our desires. Having a wonderful life is a heart issue, not a “things” issue, and it involves obedience and discipline. We should know this from our study of the cultures of the world. Many people who have little in the way of material things are very happy, and people of old wrote of having a blessed life long before there were video games, MP3 players, name-brand clothing, and hot and cold running water in homes. Of course we would not know that from watching television or talking to many of the worldly people we know. But when a Christian gets quiet and listens to his heart and the spirit of God, he knows that having more things does not bring happiness. Scripture makes that very clear.

Ecclesiastes 5:13
I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner,

Sometimes our material possessions make our lives more complicated and difficult than they should be, and hamper us from becoming like Christ. What should we do if that is the case? It may take great courage (fighting the flow of culture usually does), but we can rid ourselves of those things that are weighing us down and holding us back, and move toward a more simple lifestyle that allows us more time and energy for the things that really give us joy and peace.

The tension between trying to have peace in life and wanting more things, usually spurred on by advertisers, is recognized in Scripture:

Proverbs 14:30
A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.

Proverbs 17:1
Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.

Sometimes people are led by the atmosphere of the age into having physical possessions not for the sake of owning them but for the prestige they bring (“prestige” means “reputation, influence, distinction”). Other people seek prestige by how they look, who they hang out with, etc. Interestingly, our English word “prestige” comes from the Middle French prestige, which means “an illusion” (World Book Dictionary). From God’s perspective, having prestige among men is just an illusion. There is nothing about it that has real substance or worth, and prestige with men is fleeting at best. Nevertheless, prestige among men has been, and continues to be, a powerful cultural influence, and it has deterred many people from taking a bold stand for Christ and to be Christ-like. This was as true thousands of years ago as it is today.

John 12:42 and 43
(42) Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue;
(43) for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.

In the verses above, “many” of the religious leaders believed in Jesus, that is, they believed he was the Messiah. However, they loved the recognition and praise they got from men, and so would not confess their faith. It takes great strength of character to do what our hearts, the spirit of God, and the Word of God, direct us to do if it means that we will lose the prestige we have with people. Nevertheless, that is the model Jesus Christ lived, and although it may not seem like it when we are facing a difficult decision, we will be more blessed in life if we demonstrate our loyalty to God rather than try to befriend the world. Christians need to accept the fact that the world will never value being like Christ, and will not accept it, no matter how “nicely” Christ-likeness is presented.

If we Christians want to become like Christ, we must become aware of the “pattern of this world,” the “atmosphere” of the age we live in, the cultural influences that hinder us from becoming like Christ, and then make a conscious effort not to conform to them and thus allow the Adversary to steal the blessings of God from us.

More than just telling us not to conform to the pattern of the world, Romans 12:2 commands us to “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind….” The Greek word translated “be transformed” is metamorphoo, and is in the imperative mood, so it is a command. We are commanded to be transformed, it is not an option for Christians. It seems to be part of the “atmosphere” of our age that if a person has a particular personality and does not want to change, he or she says, “That’s just the way I am.” Well, “just the way” our old nature is, is not good enough for God, who wants us to be like Christ. Do we know better than God? Is doing things “our way” really going to make us more blessed than if we believed God and worked to be like Christ? God commands us to transform, and the good news is that we can, and our lives will be more blessed for it.

When a person becomes a Christian, he or she makes Christ “Lord,” that is, the boss, the one in charge. Christ said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). We Christians do not want to be in the category of those who have called Christ “Lord” but who do not do what he says. He commands us to be transformed—not outwardly, but inwardly—and, via his spirit within us, he will help us change.

The word metamorphoo can mean either to change in a manner that is visible to others, or it can mean to change inwardly, in one’s character. An outward, visible change happened to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration when Peter, James, and John saw him transformed into how he will look in his future glory. Romans 12:2, on the other hand, is referring to a change on the inside, a change in character, which will then, of course, be reflected on the outside, in how we live.

Each of us was born dominated by our sinful nature, the relentless internal proclivity toward self-centeredness. After we are born again and have the new nature of Christ within us, God commands us to put off the old nature and put on the new. This does not come naturally, as parents know. For example, we have to teach children to share with each other because their sin nature influences them to be selfish.

When natural, unsaved, people grow up following the leadings of their sin nature, all the while breathing the Devil’s “atmosphere” of ungodliness, sensuality, and selfishness, it is no wonder that they become “material girls” or “material boys.” Go to almost any college campus and you will see the following in abundance: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. That list is the list of “the works of the flesh” from Galatians 5:19-21, and we would be naïve not to expect to see those things, since many of the young men and women students have followed the desires of their “flesh” (sometimes a biblical synonym for the sin nature) all their lives, and on the campus are quite free to live out their desires.

It is great news, however, to learn that we do not have to carry out the desires of our flesh. We can change our character and our actions, and live like the children of God we are. God has sealed each Christian with the gift of holy spirit (Eph. 1:13),  which is the very seed and nature of God (1 Pet. 1:23; 2 Pet. 1:4). As our holy nature, it influences us toward godliness, just as our sin nature influences us toward selfishness. The two natures are at war within us, as Galatians says:

Galatians 5:17a (Kenneth Wuest)
For the flesh constantly has a strong desire to suppress the Spirit, and the Spirit constantly has a strong desire to suppress to flesh, and these are entrenched in an attitude of mutual opposition to one another….

The holy spirit nature God gives us enables us to defeat the influences of the world around us, as well as the “world” that lives inside us, even as Scripture testifies:

1 John 4:4
You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.

The one who is in us, via holy spirit, is “Christ,” as Colossians 1:27 says, and the Christ in us is greater than the world. Upon realizing that we have the spiritual power to not succumb to the atmosphere of the world, and the power to change any part of our character that has become ungodly, we now have to make up our minds to change. To change we must first get honest with ourselves about what needs to be changed. Making excuses for ungodly behavior will not help, nor will minimizing any character trait we do not want to have to deal with. Saying, “It’s not that bad,” will not help us become more like Christ. The Word of God gives us specific directions about the kind of behaviors that are, and are not, appropriate. For example, consider the following excerpts from Ephesians:

“But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Do not get drunk…. (From Ephesians 4 and 5).

God not only tells us what not to do, He tells us the kind of behavior we should be exhibiting in our lives. For example, we find the following excerpts in Galatians:

“Serve one another in love. Love your neighbor as yourself. Live by the Spirit. The friuit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Keep in step with the Spirit. If someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. Carry each other’s burdens. Let us not become weary in doing good…as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (From Galatians 5 and 6).

Many of us have struggled hard to obey Scripture and not follow our sin nature. It is not easy to obey God and become like Christ, and although we will never arrive at perfection, we can become far more godly than we might think we can, because our heavenly Father will help us as we do our part. We saw earlier that the word metamorphoo means to change inwardly, in one’s character. Medical science is just recently able to tell how profound a change is possible when someone really works at it. In the last couple of decades, scientists have developed the technology to be able to photograph the brain as it is thinking, and see what parts of the brain are active in certain situations. This has enabled us to see that when God says “transformed,” He really means “transformed.” 

For example, studies done on people who have learned to control their anger show that the brain actually responds differently to the same stimulus before and after the person made a concerted effort for several months to be less angry. Thus the transformation that a person goes through on his journey to become like Christ is not just a disciplining of the flesh, but a rewiring of the brain. That is why, though old habits and tendencies still pop up in each of us, the more we work to become like Christ, the easier it becomes. We will never totally rid ourselves of the desires of our flesh and our fleshly nature, they are part of us, but as we are transformed more and more into the image of Christ, some of the battles we have had to fight will end in victory, while other battles will be easier to win each time.

In His grace and mercy, God not only commands us to be transformed, but also tells us how to go about accomplishing the task. Romans 12:2 commands us to be transformed “by the renewing of your mind.” It is by changing our thoughts that we are transformed. It does not come from wishing, hoping, or commanding, but rather by “renewing.”

“Renewing” is the Greek word, anakainosis, which is made up of the prefix ana and the noun kainos. The prefix ana can mean “up” or “again,” and although the specific form of the word found in the New Testament is not found in ancient Greek literature, other forms are used, and mean “renew.” However, it is important to note that the primary meaning of ana is “up” or “upon,” and that emphasis certainly comes into play here in Romans 12. It is not just that God asks us to “renew” our minds, but rather to bring our minds “up” to a new level of thinking. Nevertheless, the idea of “renewing” is also very much in view, and the point is that, due to our sin nature and the atmosphere of ungodliness that we live in and breathe every day, we can never rest in any “new” that we attain, but must be in the process of “renewing” every day.

The noun kainos is also important, because there are two primary Greek words for “new.” One is neos, which means “new in time,” and the other is kainos, which means “new in quality.”  Every thought we have is “new” at that time, so God is not asking us to just have “new” thoughts. Rather, God is commanding us to bring our thinking up to a new quality, His quality. Whereas before we may have had fleshly, worldly, and selfish, thoughts, God is commanding us to bring our thoughts up in quality, so that they are holy, pure, selfless, giving, thankful, etc.

Not amazingly, when psychologists and counselors work with people to overcome problems such as anger, envy, lust, etc., they find that what God has been prescribing for centuries is what works. No one overcomes anger by venting it on the one with whom he is angry. Venting one’s anger has been shown to only make the person even more angry. Similarly, no one overcomes lust by satisfying his lust via rape, prostitutes, or pornography. That kind of behavior only makes the lust more deeply engrained.

On the other hand, few people can overcome their sinful desires just by saying to themselves, “I won’t think that way any more,” or “I won’t get angry like that ever again.” Many have tried that approach and it usually does not work, and thankfully the Bible does not say, “Just say ‘no.’” It says that we need to learn to adjust our thinking, redirect it, so that it has a new quality. That we are to redirect our thinking is one of the great lessons of this section in Romans. Counselors and therapists have known this for years, but it has been in the Bible for centuries. In many ways our minds are like two-year old children. If we just say “No,” or “Stop that,” to a two-year old, we get a big tantrum and poor results. If, on the other hand, we redirect the attention of the child, they move on to the new thing without a fuss. Similarly, if we just try to tell ourselves, “Don’t be angry,” we usually get poor results, but if we redirect our thoughts and ask ourselves how we can be loving in the situation, or be curious about the person, or make light of the situation, or think of how we can have a positive influence in the situation, we get much better results.

God does not want us to have sorrow, mental pain, loneliness, or anxiety, living as unwary victims of the ungodly spiritual atmosphere we breathe every day. He wants us to be blessed, and He knows that for us to do that most effectively we need to be aware of the spiritual atmosphere of our age and not live by its standards. Further, He knows that our flesh produces desires and thoughts that are unhealthy for us, and which lead to distress and dismay. Therefore He commands us to be transformed by constantly bringing our thoughts up to a new quality. At that point, it is up to us to obey. We are the ones who have control over what we think, and we must exercise that control. God knows that as we do this, we will be blessed in our day-to-day lives. It is not easy to become like Christ, but with some knowledge and effort, we can get closer each day.

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