At some point each day, most people who have a mirror look into one. And most people who have one likely have access to many. For instance, you may have one mirror in your bedroom, and another one in a bathroom. You might have certain decorations that provide a mirror-like effect. The back of a sun visor in a car has a mirror, and women often have one in their purse, etc.
Mirrors can be helpful because they provide an indication of how we look. A mirror can help us to know whether or not we have something stuck in our teeth or merely need to comb our hair. They can help us know how well certain pieces of clothing fit (or don’t fit).
But what if a mirror allowed us to look at our spiritual condition? What if instead of seeing a bit of meat stuck in our teeth, we could see sin hanging from our ears or mouth? What if instead of seeing how well our hair is groomed, we could see how messed up our life is compared to what God wants for us? What if instead of seeing how well our clothes fit, we could have a visual representation of how well our life fits according to God’s design?
The reality is that we do have a mirror to help us do that. The problem is that most people look at an actual mirror far more often than they look at the mirror God has given us to see the areas we need correcting. This metaphorical mirror is the Bible.
Of course, some parts of the Bible allow for more introspection than others. Some parts are stories from which we can glean some truth if we look closely – like leaning into the mirror to see something small. But other parts of the Bible are like very direct and provide imperatives on how we should live. We can spot these issues from afar, but the question is do we pay attention? Romans 12.1-2 provides a couple of easily identifiable issues for us to consider, even as Paul turns his attention in the letter towards addressing many issues that a spiritual mirror might expose.
Ultimately, the latter half of Romans is about living life in the Spirit, but much of the last four chapters has still been theoretical and theological. Beginning in Romans 12, Paul is about to become practical.
As Paul transitions his writing, he does so having laid a strong foundation for why we should not only hear his words, but should act upon them as if we saw something in a mirror that needs correcting. That reason is the mercy of God. Because of God’s mercy, we should sacrifice ourselves to Him and begin to think like Him and in doing so, we will find that what He desires from us is really the best for us.
So, why is it difficult to make that sacrifice and correct our mindset? Well, in addition to the two commands Paul gives us in today’s verses, he also includes two words that can help us understand the challenge we face. Let’s look at Romans 12.1-2 to understand these challenges and then consider what we might do about each one.
We Are to Sacrifice Ourselves
Why are we to sacrifice ourselves? Because God has shown mercy on us. Of course, a part of that mercy is evident in that through faith in Jesus, we do not have to pay for our own sins.
However, as I said above, knowing what to do and actually doing them are two different matters. If the Bible clearly says we are to sacrifice ourselves, then why don’t we do it?
Well, let’s break down this idea a bit.
First off, one common idea for the challenge is that we are living sacrifices. I have understood the passage this way in the past, and I think the idea has some merit, but I now understand it differently, and I think better. But let’s run with this idea for a moment. The argument is, if we are a living sacrifice, then we will not be willing to be on the altar to be sacrificed. That is, if you put a dead animal on the altar to be sacrificed, it is not a big deal. The animal is dead. It cannot move. And thus, the job is easy. But if the animal is alive then it would be more difficult to keep the animal there. In this instance, we are the animal. And people are generally averse to sacrifice.
What’s more, we don’t understand sacrifice like the people of yesteryear did. We can read about it. We can study it. But we have not seen it in practice. A sacrifice meant blood everywhere. It would smell. It would stain. And it was non-stop. The ancient Israelites understood this as did the Jews and Greeks in Paul’s day (e.g. Paul writes elsewhere about meat being sacrificed to idols, cf. 1 Cor 9). But apart from watching something on tv without the smell and the persistent sounds and stains, most everyone who hears my words is oblivious to this practice – including myself. Paul’s words would have created a troubling image for someone reading these words in the first century as they considered themselves being on the alter.
Although that imagery is real, I now question the notion of the living sacrifice being the challenge – at least as I have defined it above. I do so for two reasons. One is historical, and the other relates to our faith. One thing I had not really considered was that, historically, all sacrifices were living when sacrificed. Of course, this might require the sacrifice to be physically restrained in some way, but logically, can something be sacrificed if it is already dead? No. So, all of the OT sacrifices were living. For Paul to say that we should be a living sacrifice in the way I described it above would have made the people question if Paul even knew what a real sacrifice was. They might have responded with something like, “Of course we would be alive when placed on the alter! What other type of sacrifice is there? Is Paul an idiot?”
But the second reason is what really convinces me. It is a choice in translation that I believe prevents us from capturing what Paul is really saying. The word sacrifice is described by three adjectives – living, holy, and acceptable. But by putting the word living before sacrifice, we change the understanding a bit. What if the wording said, “to present your bodies as a sacrifice – living, holy, and acceptable.”? The words are the same, but the order is different and thus it changes how we process the words a bit. In this form, it means that we are a sacrifice and as a sacrifice we are to live, we are to be holy, and, as such, we will be acceptable to God.
Paul wrote in Romans 6 that all believers are united with Christ in death (6.3-4, 5-7). But being dead with Christ is to be alive with God (6.11). Thus, we choose to be sacrificed while alive, so that we can then truly live for God as holy and acceptable offerings to Him. Notice Paul does not say we bring a sacrifice (i.e. an offering) to God; we are the sacrifice being offered.
So, how can we do that? Well, in this context, I truly believe that the idea is unity. We not only sacrifice our wants and desires before God, but we yield to one another as well. Listen to Paul’s words carefully again. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Present your bodies (plural) as a living sacrifice (singular). Yes, each person needs to sacrifice himself or herself to effectuate this idea, but Paul is saying that all persons collectively are to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the greater body. I will say more about this next week, but the issue here is that both Jew and Gentile need to stop promoting themselves and consider the other side as well.
In today’s church, the issue remains. It may not be Jew and Gentile, but it can be racial differences just the same. Or it can be political differences. Or it can be minor theological differences that spin out of control. And, often times, the issue is that different people have different personal preferences, and those preferences cause us to wound others rather than to love them.
The only way to prevent this notion is to sacrifice yourself – daily. And then live – holy, and acceptably before God which includes loving Him AND your neighbor, whomever they might be.
We Are to Renew Our Minds
The second part of the equation is that we are to renew our minds. To renew our minds means we must replace what is there with information that is not there. Of course, it is more than that, but it cannot be less than that. And the idea here is a constant renewing. It is a continual renewing. When we think about salvation, most people limit that idea to what is called justification – the moment when someone is declared not guilty – that is the moment when they are saved. But salvation is more than a moment, it is a lifetime. As I stated above, we are to be a sacrifice that is living. Thus, we need to be continually growing. And that means continually renewing our mind by learning more about God and learning to be more like God.
The word mind here is not in isolation. Just a few lines above, in Romans 11.34, Paul asked who has known the mind of the Lord? The answer of course is no one. I discussed that idea last week as it relates to the book of Job. Well, now Paul is saying that we need to make our mind more like God’s. Of course, our mind is finite, so we can never know all there is to know, and even if we could, we could not comprehend it. But as we seek to live as God wants us to live, and we know more about who God is and what He has done, our mind will begin to reorient itself to the things of God. That is what it means to have our mind renewed. We will never be able to counsel God (11.34), but we can better discern how He is counseling us.
The alternative mindset is to follow the world. But the word for world here is better represented as age. That is, we are not to follow the pattern of this age. We are not to allow the happenings and circumstances nor the shifts in attitudes and beliefs (for the good or bad) to dominate our thinking. Our thinking must be set on things above (Colossians 3.2), focusing on what God wants us to do. And to maintain that focus will require us to have our minds continually renewed – by Him.
As our mind is renewed, notice the result. We will be able to better know God and what He wants from us. We will know His will and know that His will is good and acceptable for us. Many people do not believe that. Many people cannot fathom that God’s will is acceptable. That is, they don’t want to accept God’s will. Why? Because they do not really know God! They have false perceptions about God, about who God is, about what God has done, and about what God wants from them.
Why is this true? I would say two primary reasons are involved. First, it is because they have not heard about God, or at least the truth about God. As Paul wrote in Romans 10, faith comes by hearing. To hear means that someone has to speak – and what is spoken must be the truth. So, if people have not heard (or heard properly) about God, then they cannot begin to know Him. And if they do not know Him, then they cannot have their minds renewed which further means, they cannot know what God wants from them.
But a second reason exists. And that second reason is related to the first reason I just shared. It could even be the cause of the reason. They are definitely correlated, but which is the cause of the other is a bit like considering the chicken and the egg. (FWIW, I believe God created the chicken and that egg came later!)
To have the mind renewed is to know God. And to know God is to have the mind renewed. And these ideas are contrary to something Paul has already covered early in the letter. Those who are unrighteous and ungodly (Romans 1.18) will eventually find that they are given over to a debased mind because they will not acknowledge God (1.28). To be debased is to be reduced in quality and value. That is, to reject God, or even to not acknowledge God is to eventually have a mind that lacks the capacity to know God. However, on the other hand, a mind that knows God and yields to God will be continually renewed in order to know Him better. It is a choice each of us has to make for ourselves.
And that leads me back to the mirror. Remember, a mirror is meant to reflect the reality of what is truly there. If we look in the mirror, we can only see what is present. But as we look in the mirror, we may find something about us that needs to be adjusted and corrected. But if we look in the mirror and see something that needs to be corrected and do not make the correction, well, we either don’t care or we are fools. Either way, my question would be, if you are not going to make the change, then why look in the mirror?
Part of the problem is that some people spend so much time in front of the mirror that they lose out on living life. That is true of a reflective mirror, but it is also true of the Bible, which is our spiritual mirror, as I mentioned earlier. We can read the Bible (i.e. look in the mirror), we can know what to do (e.g. fix our hair), but if we do not do it, then we are fools. Or, as James says, we are deceiving ourselves. Read James 1.22-24. But the blessing is not how we look, it is in what we do (James 1.25).
In order to do, and even to know what to do, we must die to ourselves (sacrifice ourselves) and have our mind renewed.
What’s Next?: We are moving away from our “Who’s your one (plus one)?” idea this week. Instead, our focus is going to be on sacrifice and renewal. As I write this, I am considering how this applies to me, and my first thought is defensive. That means yours may be too. But here is the question:
What is in your life that you need to discard to allow you to be a sacrifice who is living for God? Your first thought might be that you are doing plenty and all is good. If that is your thought, I encourage you to take a closer look at the mirror. If we stand far enough from the mirror, we may look ok, but when we look up close, we will see blemishes and other issues that need care or adjusting. Likewise, if we think we are ok with God, then we are not looking closely enough. We have not had our minds renewed enough to see that latest issue that He wants to correct in us. Take time to pray about that question, write down any thoughts, and then make an action plan to remove them.