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Lord, Please Change Me! – Romans 12:2

September 2011 – Suppose you could change anything about yourself, where would you start? Lots of us would start on the outside. Would you be . . .

Skinnier?
Taller?
Shorter?
Better looking?

Would you change . . .

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Your eyes?
Your hair?
Your teeth?
Your legs?
Your bulges?

If you could wave a magic wand and change your outward appearance, would it be a light touch-up or an extreme makeover? Would we even recognize you?

I think we all go through periods where we desperately want to change our outward appearance. Teenagers live in a state of constant fear that they don’t look good enough and so they tinker with this and try that and experiment with this fad or that fashion or this t-shirt or that hat or whatever the latest hip-hop artist happens to be wearing. But when we grow older, we get smarter. Or do we? We spend hours trying to find just the right dress or just the right shirt or just the right pair of pants so that we will fit in with whatever crowd we’re trying to impress. And we diet obsessively and work out, which is good for our health but can be a losing battle because after we lose that weight and finally look good, it tends to come creeping back again. Finally you reach the stage in life where it’s easier to simply try to cover it up than to lose it. And in extreme cases, we may just give up altogether and stop caring about how we look.

People change slowly, if they change at all

But as hard as it is to change on the outside, it seems infinitely harder to change on the inside. If there is anything we know about human nature, it is that people change slowly, if they change at all. Think about the struggles of your own life. What would you change about yourself on the inside if you could?

Would it be an impatient spirit?
Would it be a critical tongue?
Would it be envy of those around you?
Would it be a spirit of discontentment?
Would it be lingering resentment?
Would it be lust you can’t conquer?
Would it be financial mismanagement?
Would it be a guilty conscience?
Would it be an inability to work with others?
Would it be overbearing stubbornness?
Would it be a judgmental spirit?
Would it be a quick temper?
Would it be profound discouragement?
Would it be an inability to appreciate life?
Would it be an ungrateful spirit?
Would it be a disorganized life?
Would it be an inability to say no?
Would it be a mean streak you can’t seem to get rid of?

What would you change about yourself if you could? 

We all want to change something, but we don’t know how to do it and we don’t know where to begin. We all dream of being something different and better than the person we are today. Advertisers know this. That’s why your email inbox is crammed with ads promising that you can lose weight now, make money overnight, learn a new language and become a better lover. I received one the other day that said, “Watch unwanted pounds melt away.” I like that metaphor. It sounds like fun. Take this pill or eat this supplement or drink this super-duper energy drink, and Presto! Those unwanted pounds will just melt away. What could be easier?

Change is hard, isn’t it? Go to any bookstore and you will see an entire wall of self-help books. Helping people change is big business nowadays. But when we get up in the morning and look in the mirror, all we see is the same old person looking back at us. That’s why we move, change jobs, get a facelift, buy a new car, start a new career, find a new boyfriend, go to a new church, join a chess club, start working out, buy a new outfit, and on and on it goes. It’s not as if those things are wrong in themselves. Sometimes we need to make outward changes. But it’s not the outward stuff that trips us up. It’s the stuff on the inside that we can’t seem to fix.

That brings me to my text, one of the better-known verses in the New Testament:

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” (Romans 12:2).

A few days ago I gave this message to the first-year students at Word of Life Bible Institute in Hudson, Florida. The night before, Don Lough, Jr., the Executive Director of Word of Life Fellowship, told the students that it wasn’t enough merely to know Bible knowledge, though that is certainly important. “We’re all about transformation,” Don said.

That’s exactly as it should be.

“We’re all about transformation.”

I’m all for Bible knowledge. As I write these words, I’m preparing to teach those same students the book of James. Before this week is up, I’ll give ten lectures and two quizzes. After I’m gone, they will take a final exam. The week after that someone else will come and teach another book. It’s like that for the next nine months. Week after week new teachers come to lecture on different books of the Bible. I’ll be back here in November to teach the book of Daniel.

It’s a great idea. Take a year and learn the Bible.

But knowledge alone will not save us and knowledge alone will certainly not change us. You’ve got to do something with the knowledge you have. Otherwise all you end up with is a computer full of notes and outlines.

Not Summer Camp

I told the students that while I was happy to see them, they needed to know that this is not summer camp. Camp is fun and so is the Bible Institute, but truth be told, this is college work and they need to approach it that way.

Knowledge alone will not save us and knowledge alone will certainly not change us.  

I just looked at the schedule and it’s pretty rigorous. All the students attend the same classes Tuesday-Friday from 8 AM-1 PM. Then they have assigned service areas plus they can try out for various ministry teams. They have study hours at night plus verses to memorize. With all the different classes and papers and assignments, it all adds up to a heavy load.

“Buckle up,” I said. It’s not easy and it’s not supposed to be easy. If it were easy, anyone could do it.

Here’s my key point. Most of us change very slowly, if we change at all. And few of us make any lasting changes except under pressure and as a result of personal pain. There is no growth without struggle. As high school coaches have been telling us for years, “No pain, no gain.”

Long-held habits can be changed, but it won’t happen overnight. Patterns of sin can be broken, but it will take more than a quick prayer at the end of a worship service. You can see significant growth in your spiritual life, but it won’t come without a cost.

As long as your life is going well, why should you change? Living together in close proximity over a period of months means that whatever is in your heart will come out sooner or later. If you’ve got a tendency to cut corners, your friends will spot it. If you fudge on the truth, if you are a chronic excuse-maker, if you have a critical spirit, if you have a root of bitterness, or if you are just a difficult person to be around, all of it is bound to come out eventually.

Patterns of sin can be broken, but it will take more than a quick prayer at the end of a worship service. 

That’s one angular benefit of life together in the local church or in a community like a Christian college or a Bible institute. It’s “angular” in that the revealing of weakness always involves personal pain. But the benefit comes from seeing the truth about yourself, warts and all.

Now at last you can do something about it. That “something” is what Romans 12:2 is all about. It tells us that we can be transformed when our minds are renewed. How does that happen?

1) We must be transfigured on the inside.

Note the word “transfigured.” The Greek word for “transformed” in Romans 12:2 is related to the English word metamorphosis. You will recall from 7th-grade science class that metamorphosis is the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly and a tadpole becomes a frog. It’s a gradual change on the inside that produces a total transformation on the outside. I used the word “transfigure” because this same Greek word is used for the transfiguration of Christ when the true glory of Christ began to shine through his humanity and “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:2-3). The word means to be changed or transformed from one thing to another. Think of it this way. When Jesus was transfigured, he did not cease to be Jesus. He was still who he had been moments before, but for a brief time, the curtain was pulled back, so to speak, and James, Peter and John saw as much of the true divinity of Christ as any man can see and still live. In that moment they saw the “real Jesus,” the true Son of God from heaven. He did not cease to be a man, but his true identity was revealed to them as “true God of true God.”

When Jesus was transfigured, he did not cease to be Jesus. 

Consider what happens when a caterpillar enters the cocoon, only to emerge later as a butterfly. The caterpillar doesn’t change its basic nature. Metamorphosis reveals what was always there in the genes of the caterpillar.

Caterpillars can’t fly.
But they were born to fly.
How do you solve this conundrum?
Metamorphosis!

When the caterpillar has been changed into a butterfly, it becomes what God always intended it to be.

Now just study a caterpillar for a moment. Better yet, take a half-dozen and put them on a table and let them crawl around. Now suppose you knew nothing about metamorphosis. If someone said, “Those crawly things will turn into butterflies one days,” you would think it was a joke. You can’t tell by looking at a caterpillar that one day it will fly. It seems impossible.

Up to Your Elbows in Flour

During his message the night before I spoke, Don Lough commented that during his student days at the Bible Institute in New York, his particular assignment was to be in the kitchen by 5:30 AM to help make bread for breakfast. “A lot of times I ended up with flour up to my elbows,” he said. He was tired all the time. It wasn’t glamorous work. So I added the obvious comment. “You never know how someone will turn out. One day you’re up to your elbows in flour, the next you’re the head of the worldwide ministry of Word of Life.” And so it goes.

When the apostle John said that “now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known” (1 John 3:2), he was talking about our future when we are with the Lord in heaven. But it is also true in this life. God is in the transformation business, and you can’t tell who will end where or what plans God has for you and me tomorrow.

You can’t tell who will end where or what plans God has for you and me tomorrow. 

God is determined that we will all be like Jesus in the end. Romans 8:29 says that we are "predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”

In the year 1464 a sculptor named Agostino di Duccio began working on a huge piece of flawed marble. Intending to produce a magnificent sculpture of an Old Testament prophet for a cathedral in Florence, Italy, he labored for two years and then stopped. In 1476 Antonio Rossellino started to work on the same piece of marble and in time abandoned it also.

In 1501 a 26-year-old sculptor named Michelangelo was offered a considerable sum of money to produce something worthwhile from that enormous block of marble called “the giant.” As he began his work, he saw a major flaw near the bottom that had stymied other sculptors, including (it is said) Leonardo da Vinci. He decided to turn that part of the stone into a broken tree stump that would support the right leg. The rest he worked on for four years until he had produced the incomparable “David.” Today the seventeen-foot-tall statue stands on display at the Accademia Gallery in Florence where people come from around the world to view it. More than a masterpiece, it is one of the greatest works of art ever produced. It has been said that there is no statue more perfect.

How did he do it? Here is the answer in his own words:

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

All of us are works-in-progress. 

Said in more colloquial terms, “I cut away everything that didn’t look like David.”

Now apply this to the spiritual life. All of us are works-in-progress. We’re not finished, not glorified, not perfected, not completed. We’re all “under construction.” If you’ve ever visited a construction zone, you know that it is noisy and looks messy. While the hammering and sawing continues, it’s hard to imagine what the final result will be. But God never stops working on us because there is so much work that needs to be done.

*If you concentrate on your weakness, you will lose your confidence.
*If you concentrate on God’s faithfulness, you will grow in confidence.

What makes us think that God will ever finish the job? In my mind’s eye, I picture God as a sculptor working with a rough piece of marble. He’s working on a big chunk named “Ray Pritchard.” It’s a hard job because the chunk is badly marred, misshapen, discolored, and cracked in odd places. It’s about the worst piece of marble a sculptor could ever find. But God is undeterred and he works patiently at his job, chipping away the bad parts, chiseling an image into the hard stone, stopping occasionally to polish here and there. One day he finally finishes one section of the statue. The next morning when he returns to the studio that section is messed up. “I thought I finished that yesterday,” he says, “Who’s been messing with my statue?”

It turns out that I’m the culprit. I’m my own worst enemy. What I thought would improve things has only messed them up.But God is faithful. He patiently picks up his chisel and goes back to work. He’s chipping away everything that doesn’t look like Jesus. In my case, it’s evident that he has a long way to go. But I am encouraged by the certain knowledge that he won’t quit half-way through a project. What God starts, he finishes. You can take that to the bank.

2) We must reprogram our minds.

Sometimes I think we get “squishy” about the spiritual life. By that I mean that we think in purely emotional terms. If only we can “feel” the presence of the Lord, then we know we are moving in the right direction. As important as feelings are, and they do matter greatly, Paul here put the emphasis on the renewing of the mind.

I’m my own worst enemy. 

How do we get the “renewed” mind Paul speaks of in Romans 12:2? My answer is actually simple though it is the work of a lifetime. Desire must be combined with discipline. Here’s a little equation I learned from Dr. Charles Ryrie in 1972 when he spoke to the summer counselors at Word of Life Island. He put the following equation on the blackboard:

T + HH = SG

Time plus Habits of Holiness equals Spiritual Growth. That seems as solid to me now as it did 39 years ago. The transformation of the mind takes time, and it takes a determination to develop those habits of holiness. If I were going to add anything, it would be this:

T + HH + GE= SG

GE stands for Godly Encouragement. I doubt that anyone will grow spiritually without being around others who can encourage you to make wise choices on a daily basis.

T + HH = SG 

I told the students to “choose your friends wisely” because you will become like your friends and your friends will become like you. The right friends make it easier for you to grow in the Lord and the wrong friends make it much harder.

Romans 12:2 teaches us about spiritual metamorphosis. God intends that we will slowly but surely be transformed into the image of Christ

It will not happen by accident.
It does not happen overnight.
It cannot happen without the Holy Spirit.
It happens when we make a personal commitment.
It happens with the godly encouragement of other Christians.
It happens as we become what God made us to be.
It happens as we behold the glory of Jesus Christ.

“This is how the mind is renewed-by steadfastly gazing at the glories of Christ for what they really are” (John Piper). We must pursue the Lord so that we may know him better and better. Then and only then will you be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

I now say to all who read these words what I said to the students. You are embarking on a great adventure. It won’t be easy and it won’t always be fun. It can be nerve-wracking to have your weaknesses exposed under pressure. But there is no other way to get better and no other way to grow in Christ.

Last December during a visit to the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina, we saw the spot where Ruth Graham is buried. Engraved on her tombstone are these words:

“End of construction. Thank you for your patience.”

Shhhh. Do you hear the faint sound of hammering and sawing on the inside? Quiet. When God is finally finished, you will be like Jesus.        

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