Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed . . . (Romans 12:2, NIV)
It is interesting to me that while transformation is something that we all work hard to achieve, Paul in Romans commands us to “BE transformed.” In other words, let transformation happen to you. It is a passive imperative, in grammatical terms. It requires no action on our part. The action, empowered by another force, happens to us. This is a grace.
Because it is a grace, the world has no concept of how transformation is achieved. In fact, the world has no concept that transformation of a person happens at all. Several years ago, before Jesse Ventura was governor of Minnesota, I heard him on his morning talk radio show say, regarding Chuck Colson, “He hasn’t changed! He’s still the same crook he was back in his ‘hatchet days.’ People can’t change! Can a leopard change it’s spots?” I rather doubt he knew he was quoting a biblical text, lest he appear “weak-minded.” But this text does appear in the Old Testament scriptures. Jeremiah 13:22-27 is the passage and reads in part,
And if you ask yourself, “Why has this happened to me?”—it is because of your many sins that your skirts have been torn off and your body mistreated. Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil. (Jer.13:22f.)
But Jesus came to seek and save the lost, to give life abundantly and to heal the sick. These are all examples of transformation. That it happens in regards to one’s sexuality is just plain miraculous, and reveals the power of God’s grace.
But I want to land more squarely on the imperative part of that passive imperative. The word imperative means command or obligation. This is something that must be done. There is no excuse, no way of getting out of it.
We could look at this imperative in a couple of different ways. First, we could say that the passivity of the change is the imperative, and secondly, that the transformation itself is imperative. I believe both are key aspects to be discovered and lived out.
Let’s look at them each separately. The passive voice is not one of the more masculine aspects of human life. Actually, it is a very feminine way of responding to what is happening around oneself. C.S. Lewis once wrote that “compared to God, we are all feminine.” That is, we can only receive from him, we cannot give to him. He is completely lacking nothing and in want of nothing. So in relationship with God, we must come to him in a passive, receptive sort of way. This is our stance toward God. The virgin Mary embodied this posture in her response to Gabriel at the announcement that she would bear the son of God, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38 NRSV)
Our culture balks at feminine ways of responding within relationship. We see it as weak and ineffective. We abhor the “door mat” syndrome we witness in the way some people relate. And we hate being the door mat ourselves. But I submit to you, that is false femininity. That is not a reflection of the “image of God he created them . . . female,” according to Genesis 1:27. However, it does require humility, chief of the feminine virtues.
And when you think of it, that is how we all must come to God in relationship—open to receiving his gifts of life.
Let’s move on to the requirement of the transformation itself. Paul seems to be saying that being transformed is not an option. The Christian doesn’t get to choose if he should be transformed or not.
The world knows this in an intuitive way when they say, “I can’t become a Christian, because I don’t want to give up X, Y or Z.” Yet, some Christians balk at this out of a superficial desire to live in “freedom” under grace. (I see this insubordination to the will of the Father, and therefore, sinful in its rebellious attitude.)
But look at it this way. All the language in scripture about salvation reveals a profoundly transformational effect on the life of the Christian:
“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matt. 4:17) Jesus uses the word repent which is a word about changing one’s mind and one’s ways.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17)
“Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God.” (Rom. 6:11)
Neither . . . male prostitutes nor homosexuals . . . will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified . . .” (1 Cor. 6:9-11)
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed . . . Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree.” (Matt. 13:31f. ) The transformation of the mustard seed illustrates what happens in the kingdom of God. Though the essence of the tree is potential within the seed, one must start with the seed in order to get to the plant or tree. When it comes to kingdom life, change is of the essence and in the essence.
Jesus’ parable of the yeast yields a similar kingdom reality: everything that is “infected” by the yeast changes and grows.
Paul is not PRE-scribing change or transformation to becoming a Christian, he’s DE-scribing the Christian life in reference to the changes that must have had to have taken place. I believe that this is the way it is. Paul, in effect, is saying that when new life comes to you in connection with your relationship with Christ you will change. It’s what happens. It is evidence that new life is really, truly there. If A, then most definitely B! If not B, then it’s fair for folks to question A.
When some come along and demand not B (“We don’t have to change!”), I question the validity of A (their new life). While some may condemn this as “judging others,” I see it merely as discerning the fruit.
Jesus said, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them . . . Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:15, 20f.)
Now we don’t pursue change. Nor do we make it our goal. Nor do we demand it of others. Transformation, however, is not a without effort. We pursue and we encourage the imitation of Christ, encourage the imitation of Christ, humility. We want to become like Jesus in every way. The change comes, therefore, in connection to Christ. No one can get too close or be too connected to Christ. Instead, the closer he gets to him, the more he becomes like him. And that affects us to the core of our being. Even our sexual identity.
Now change is a threat to the secular world. They become uncomfortable around changes. They’re thrown off-kilter. And who can blame them? We’re the same way. We resist change. We love sameness. We can predict it, we can bank on it, we can get used to it. With change, none of these conveniences are affordable. And this simply illustrates one of the great differences between kingdom life and principles, and the kingdoms of this world. In the kingdom of heaven, change is valued. In the world, change is to be avoided.
This seems ironic, doesn’t it? Especially with current language pitting conservative against liberal, condemning evangelical Christians as right-wing extremist “conservatives.” In light of this, a Christian ought to be the most liberal of them all —loving and promoting change in his own life and in the lives of those around him. We’re bucking the trend here, people! And that’s bound to illicit opposition.