Lent: WEEK ONE: PREPARING TO GIVE OUR VERY BEST

Wednesday marked the start of 40acts: a 40-day challenge during Lent to transform our generosity. The passage that we’re going to be looking at alongside the challenge is Romans 12, a turning point in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The whole chapter is concerned with the way that we live, in the light of everything that Paul has expressed about our salvation in the previous 11 chapters.  

Romans 12:1 - 2 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. 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.

When a passage begins with a “therefore” we know that we need to read back before this in order to understand what this is about. We need a clear view of God and all his mercies to us before we launch into attempting all the instructions in the rest of the chapter.

Romans  chapter 11 speaks of the Jews and Gentiles both receiving the grace of God.

Romans 6:30-32 Just as you [Gentiles] were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they [Jews] have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

It is with this realisation that we are saved by the grace and mercy of God that sets the scene for our actions in Romans 12:1

Romans 12:1 - 2 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. 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.

There’s a danger of feeling overwhelmed when reading instructional passages like Romans 12, wondering how we can live up to it all. This is why we need a full understanding of our position before God.

We know from Romans 3:21-31 that our salvation is nothing to do with what we can ‘achieve’ by good works but is about what Jesus has achieved for us through his death. 

And this is reaffirmed in Romans 11:6 … it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

When God looks at us as believers he sees the purity of his son instead of our sinfulness.  There is nothing we can do to change or affect that.

This time is a chance to step back and reassess our motivations for living a Christian life.

When we lose focus on the gospel, it’s easy for other motives to slip in; we may be trying to gain approval with our busyness and activity, from God, or from other people.

We might need to step back and consider what our personal motives have become. These two verses in Romans 12: 1-2 show that God is concerned with our hearts – we have been assured in Romans 8 that we cannot lose our salvation, so any good that we do for him must come from a place of thanksgiving and love for him, rather than fear that we have to somehow prove ourselves worthy or avoid punishment. 

A busy life of service may look good to people from the outside, but God is concerned with our inner transformation – our transformed heart, the motives of our hearts.

An inward transformation of values and character produces a radical transformation of outward behaviour[1], not the other way round.

At the start of a challenge like 40acts, we need to examine our hearts. Do we really understand that Jesus is the very best gift we could receive? A pure heart firstly takes delight in the Lord, and in the grace that Paul describes. 

Only then are we able to complete the acts with love.

Sometimes seemingly good actions can come out of a bitter heart in any number of aspects: through competition, vanity, perfectionism, resentment, worry…

A true understanding of the character of God is the root of a devoted life, acknowledging that all we have comes from him – it’s all grace.

Our sin and death are dealt with. Our choice is whether we will give our very best in our living. Paul urges us to commit to an ongoing, daily putting-to-death of our old selves. Every day, not just what we do on a Sunday in church. It’s just as much about how we live the other six days of the week.

God is concerned with the details of our daily lives and something like 40acts can help to kick-start us and remind us that if we start with small actions eventually those behaviours becomes habitual.

God created us for love and not selfishness, for hospitality and not isolation, for generosity and not stinginess, for service and sacrifice, goodness and grace.[2]

How can we achieve this life of service to God without burning out? How can we even attempt to complete 40 generous acts for the next 40 days without collapsing from exhaustion?

The answer is found in Colossians 1:29, where Paul describes the strenuousness involved in his ministry. He does not strive on his own but with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in him.

Attempting self-improvement is a laborious and failure-ridden task, whether that’s trying to give something up or begin a new routine. It’s the power of God that effects true change – our faith gives us not just the motivation to do what is right but the power to do so.

It seems we naturally conform to the pattern of this world – it seems to be our default setting, but God calls us to continually renew our minds (v. 2). Although we are saved, left unchecked our natural tendency will still lead us to imitate the world that surrounds us.

There might be aspects of life where we haven’t even considered a different option, accepting the world’s view as the norm. Or there might be things that we even consider to be good which we need to change to live distinctively for God.

It’s good for us all to take a look at our current habits and inclinations and ask God to reveal any way in which idolatry has crept into our lives. This isn’t a one-time procedure – the act of renewing is continual, just as we need to be repeatedly filled with the Holy Spirit. To renew is to give fresh life to something, or to replace it: a consistent exchanging of worldly thoughts with the truth.

So how do we go about renewing our minds?

The mind can be an instrument for good or for evil, depending on what it has been fed.

[story of which wolf gets fed]

Our minds need to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and by the truth, and this is not purely an intellectual process. As we meditate on God’s Word, our minds will start to reorient.

This is what began change in the lives of the disciples – they were affected by the time they spent with Jesus and by observing his perfect life. With all their various backgrounds and temperaments, they each became confident in the gospel and did amazing work for the kingdom. 

The same transformation can happen to us when we find pleasure in Jesus. The incredible and unique truth about the Christian life is that this is not just an academic inputting of facts into our heads, but the result of a relationship with him where we listen, speak, ask and receive and grow to be more like him in the process.

If we are continually renewing our minds, we are in the best position to know where God is leading us and how to act day to day. 40acts is a good time to start putting this into practice. 

When Paul says to test and approve (v. 2), this doesn’t just mean pondering and praying inside our heads but experimenting and testing by action.

 

We learn by discerning what to do and then giving it a go, and when we ask God for opportunities and actually take them, we can trust that he will use our willingness for good.

God is in the business of transformation: take Paul who wrote this letter, converted from religious cruise missile seeking and destroying Christians to an apostle of Jesus, teaching about God’s grace, and dying for his faith.

Although we may say “I cannot change, I am set in my ways”, it is possible for every one of us to live more radically for Jesus. We might assume we could never make a significant difference for the gospel, but the Bible constantly tells us of transformed lives.  

Peter, who was ashamed of and rejected Jesus, eventually laid down his life for his faith...  Jonah, who ran away from God, eventually preached God’s message and converted thousands… Moses, who had committed murder, went on to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land and experience an amazingly close relationship with God… 

When we reflect on God’s Word, and our minds are renewed, we are able to accept his calling on our lives. Philippians 4:8– 9 tells us

Philippians 4:8-9 … whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Try to spend time reflecting on the first 11 chapters of Romans this week, feeding and enriching your mind with the goodness of the Word ready to take new challenge to put love into action.

Prayer

Dear Lord, forgive us for the times we have been preoccupied with our own agenda rather than seeking your will; when we have gone on in our own strength, and when we have failed to notice that we are accepting the world’s view rather than looking from your perspective. Help us to commit to an ongoing putting-to-death of our old selves so that we may show true worship in our daily tasks. Help us to live distinctively for God, and not be satisfied with doing only second best for him. Amen.



[1] Ronald Sider Just Generosity 11

 

[2] Marva Dawn Joy in Divine Wisdom: practices of discernment from other cultures and Christian traditions 138