Good, Pleasing, Perfect
November 4, 2006
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” – Romans 12:2
Bible translators handle the last phrase of verse 2 in various ways. Here are a few examples:
“That you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (KJV).
“That you may discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God” (HCSB).
“Then you will know how to do everything that is good and pleasing to him” (CEV).
“Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (NLT).
“Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (NIV).
“That by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”(ESV).
The phrase itself seems simple enough, but the commentators disagree on exactly what Paul has in mind. Here are a few observations that will point us in the right direction:
- This phrase comes at the end of Paul’s call to present our bodies as living sacrifices to the Lord, to become non-conformists to the ways of the world, and to be continually transformed by the renewing of our minds. Knowing/testing/discerning/approving the will of God for our lives comes as the logical result of doing everything Paul has just told us to do in Romans 12:1-2.
- Often we focus on the “will of God” as if it were something we “discover” in a secret compartment, hidden away by God, separated from the rest of our lives. So we search and we worry and we fret and we pray and we struggle and we discuss and we read books (including a couple I have written on the topic) and we start and stop and halt and fidget and fumble and we make our lists and we stay up late at night worrying about things we can’t control anyway. These things are not wrong in themselves, and some of them may be quite helpful, but it is a mistake to think about “knowing God’s will” as if it is somehow separated from our ongoing walk with the Lord. Knowing God’s will is really just a subset of knowing God. That’s the whole message of Proverbs 3:5-6 in one sentence. The more you pursue knowing God deeply, the more likely you are to end up exactly where God wants you to end up.
- Said another way, as long as you refuse to present your body as a living sacrifice, and as long as you insist on following the ways of the world, you can forget about knowing God’s will for your life. It’s not going to happen. You can’t divorce this last phrase from everything that has gone before. There is a moral implication to the will of God that goes far beyond questions such as, Should I get married? Where should I go to college? Should I buy a new house? Should I move to Denver or to St. Paul? Those questions are purely secondary when it comes to the will of God. And yet we tend to spend our days obsessing about those secondary issues.
- Part of the challenge of the text stems from the Greek word translated “prove,” “discern,” “know,” “test,” “approve.” All of those are good translations. The Greek word was used to describe the process of examining gold ore to determine if it was genuine or not. In its positive sense, it means to put something to the test in order to demonstrate that it is genuine. There are different words for testing in the New Testament. There is a completely different word that means to test in order to prove something is false. Sometimes you see car commercials where one manufacturer tries to prove that his cars are better than the competition. Think of it this way:A) The other Greek word is what happens when Ford tests Chevrolets.
B) The Greek word in Romans 12:2 is what happens when Ford tests Ford cars.In the first case, the purpose of the test is to (hopefully) prove that the competition fails the test. In the second case, the purpose of the test is to prove that your cars pass the test with flying colors. Romans 12:2 is all about the second case. It’s not about “discovering” God’s will as much as it is “proving” or “approving” that God’s will is always good, acceptable and perfect. Psalm 18:30 contains a similar idea: “This God–his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true.” Eugene Peterson offers this colorful paraphrase: “What a God! His road stretches straight and smooth. Every GOD-direction is road-tested. Everyone who runs toward him makes it.”
- Paul uses three words that describe the “will of God.” First, God’s will is good. That means that doing things God’s way will always prove to be for our ultimate benefit. Consider the Ten Commandments. It is good that we have no other gods before God, it is good that we do not worship idols, it is good that we honor our parents, it is good that we do not murder, it is good that we do not commit adultery, it is good that we do not lie, it is good that we do not cover, and so on. But there are times when the world pulls us in the direction of idolatry, disobedience, hatred and sexual immorality. There are times when lying seems like fun and when stealing seems okay. Remember that sin does bring pleasure for a short time. If sin were always immediately unpleasant, we’d all sin a lot less than we do. Sin often brings short-term pleasure. When Eve saw the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, she saw that “the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). All those things were true. So she took the fruit and ate it, and gave it to Adam and he ate it, with disastrous consequences that continue to this very day. Sin always looks good at first. It seems fun and alluring and exciting. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12). All Satan’s apples have worms. But God’s will and his way and his path are always good for us. Second, God’s will is acceptable. The word means that which is well pleasing to God. It means to live in such a way that God says at the end, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” But it also means that living God’s way will also be pleasing to us personally. Not easy, because carrying a cross is not an easy thing to do. But in the end, those who live for Christ will be happier than those who don’t. It’s really as simple as that. Third, God’s will is perfect. The word means something that is complete or whole, something that has reached its intended destination. If you live for God, you will come to the end of your life satisfied. We can summarize it this way:If you live for the world, you will have the world’s reward, which will satisfy you for only a short time.If you live for God, you will demonstrate to yourself and those who know you that that God’s way is always good, pleasing and ultimately perfect.
- There is a paradox in all of this that we must not miss. The way of the world often seems much more exciting than the way of the Lord. We see the bright lights and we hear the call of the wild and we think, “I’m tired of living by the Book. I’m going to throw off my restraints and have a good time.” And like the Prodigal Son, we have a blast while our money lasts. Only at the end do we end up eating with the pigs. The world has plenty to offer the Christian, at least for a short time. But when you drink at the world’s fountain, you are drinking polluted water that cannot satisfy the soul. God’s way is slower and often harder. We must strive every day to prove to ourselves and to others that God’s way is best. It will not be easy at first. But we have the promise of Proverbs 4:18 that “the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” Follow hard after God and his ways and you will have increasing joy, increasing light and increasing clarity.Ten years ago we took a family vacation that included a visit to Kentucky. While passing through the tiny town of Corbin, Kentucky, we saw a sign that read, “Visit the original Kentucky Fried Chicken.” We went there and found out that it was a regular KFC, but besides being a restaurant, it was also a museum. Back in 1940 a man named Harlan Sanders bought a dilapidated restaurant and built a motel that was very advanced for that day. The number one recipe in the restaurant at the motel was his fried chicken made from 11 herbs and spices. Sixteen years later, at the age of 66, he started a restaurant devoted solely to his secret recipe—Kentucky Fried Chicken, a name that has now spread around the world. When we were in Beijing last January, we saw KFC restaurants everywhere. In that original restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky, there is a sign that explains Colonel Harlan Sanders’ philosophy. Titled “The Hard Way,” it goes like this:It is comparatively easy to prosper by trickery, the violation of confidence, oppression of the weak, sharp practices, cutting corners, all those methods we are so prone to palliate and condone as business shrewdness. It is difficult to prosper by the keeping of promises, the deliverance of value and goods and services and denouncing the so-called shrewdness with sound merit and good ethics. The easy way is efficacious and speedy, the hard way arduous and long. But as the clock ticks away, the easy way becomes harder, and the hard way becomes easier. As the calendar records the years, it becomes increasingly evident that the easy way rests upon a hazardous foundation of shifting sands, whereas the hard way builds solidly a foundation of confidence that cannot be swept away. Thus we builded.
That is exactly what Paul wants us to understand. When you take the easy way of the world, it turns out hard, but when you take the hard path of following God’s will, it always ultimately turns out to be the only easy way there is. We must all learn this lesson for ourselves. I can preach it and write it, but that will not prove the matter to you. I can even tell you of my own experience, which might encourage you, but still you must prove this truth in your own life. “The will of God … can be known only by trial” (Robert Candlish).
- You can never prove that God’s will is good, pleasing and perfect except in the crucible of hard times and tough decisions. When all is going well, the way of the world and the way of the Lord may seem to be equally right. But we prove that God’s way is best when we stand at the crossroads of life and make what seems to the world to be a foolish choice. Only in those moments can the wisdom of the Lord be clearly seen.
“We Are Brothers”
And that brings me to the story of Abraham and Lot in Genesis 13. It happens just as he and Sarah return from their ill-fated trip to Egypt to escape the famine. While there, he had lied to save his life. The lie worked for awhile until God intervened. Then Abraham was forced to leave the country after having been publicly humiliated by the Pharaoh. But he left a much richer man than he came. In spite of his sin, God had blessed him with great wealth in Egypt. And it is his great wealth that will now bring him great trouble. I think it’s important to remember that if Abraham hadn’t gone to Egypt in the first place, he wouldn’t have this problem now. It’s his compromise and deceit that made him and Lot so rich that they could no longer live together.
The Bible tells us that the land could not support both of them. Evidently the Canaanites and the Perizzites controlled most the region, which meant that Abraham and Lot had to live in the neglected areas. That would have been no problem when they were middle class herdsmen, but now that they have moved up the ladder, they both need some breathing room. In this case the problem is having too much money. The herdsmen didn’t start quarreling until the flocks got too big. When they were both middle-class shepherds, everyone was happy. Sometimes you simply can’t live together in peace. Obviously, we ought to do everything possible to solve our problems, but sometimes our best just isn’t good enough. This side of heaven we aren’t always going to see things eye to eye. In that case, it is better to separate than to go on fighting continually. That’s what happened to Abraham and Lot.
“Then Abram said to Lot, ’Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herdsmen and my herdsmen,’” (v. 8). He makes his appeal based on common kinship. “For we are brothers” (v. 8 NIV). Most of our problems in the church would be solved if we would just remember those four little words. “For we are brothers.” We tend to forget that in the heat of battle, don’t we? Somehow brothers become adversaries, and friends become enemies.
Two Men, Two Choices
Abraham’s solution is the only one that will work under the circumstances: “Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left” (v. 9). There’s no need to quarrel because Canaan is big enough for both of them. But in the end, they couldn’t stay together. So Abraham offers Lot his unrestricted choice of the land.
By human standards, this makes no sense. Why did he do such a thing?
A. He wanted to solve the problem peacefully.
B. He was willing to lose in the short run in order to keep the peace in the long run.
C. He believed that God would take care of him no matter what happened.
So now Lot can choose any part of the Promised Land. North, South, East, West—it doesn’t matter. It’s like winning the coin toss at the Super Bowl. The choice is his. At this point the writer of Genesis makes it painfully clear what was motivating his decision: “Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord” (v. 10). It seemed to Lot that the Jordan valley was like Eden come to life before his very eyes. As he gazed, he saw lush fields for his cattle, plenty of room for vineyards, vast open areas for homesteading, and above all else, he saw that there was plenty of water. If you’ve ever been to the Holy Land, you know that water is more precious than oil. Lot makes his choice based on the availability of water. As he and Abraham part company, Lot moves toward Sodom while Abraham moved toward Hebron. One man went east, the other west.
You can’t dance with the devil without paying the devil’s price.
Who got the better of this deal? From outward appearances, it certainly looked like Lot won. After all, he got the best land and Abraham had to take what was left. But the Bible says that Lot “pitched his tents near Sodom.”
Ed Dobson points out three mistakes that Lot made:
1. He chose himself over others.
2. He chose his occupation over his family.
3. He chose the immediate over the future.
Moral compromise often begins with a tiny step in the wrong direction.
You can’t compromise with evil and come away clean. You can’t sleep in the sewer without getting dirty. You can’t dance with the devil without paying the devil’s price. By choosing to live near Sodom, Lot was exposing himself and his family to gross moral evil. I’m sure if you asked him beforehand, he would have defended himself by saying that he never intended to make friends with the men of Sodom. He only lived there because that’s where the best land was. Either he was ignorant of the sin of Sodom or he just didn’t care. But if he didn’t know, he should have known because the men of Sodom reveled in their perversity.
Moral compromise often begins with a tiny step in the wrong direction. No one ever intends to fall into sin. But it happens so subtly that before we know it, our lives are entangled in a web of deceit and iniquity. James 1:14-15 graphically pictures the steps to spiritual death: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”. Mark the progression carefully. Temptation leads to desire that leads to sin that leads to death. Where did Lot go wrong? He made his choice based only on what he could see at the moment. Because he couldn’t “see” the evil of Sodom, it didn’t bother him at all. Because his eyes were filled with the desire for the lush fields of the Jordan Valley, he made the wrong choice and paid for it dearly. Later on, he would lose everything he had and barely escape with his own life when God finally judged Sodom.
He Just Said No
A few years ago I did a radio interview that involved several former gang members who had become followers of Jesus Christ. I listened as the young men shared how they met Jesus Christ personally. These guys had done it all and seen it all. They spoke about the life they had lived before Christ and then how He had miraculously transformed them and given them a brand-new direction. They were on fire for Jesus. One of them told me that just one day earlier someone had approached him and asked if he wanted to help cut and sell $10,000 of cocaine. The man would put up the money if he would help sell it on the street. He said that he could easily sell that much in a month or two and clear $50,000 at least. When I asked him how much he could make in a year selling drugs, he paused and thought about it carefully. Conservatively, he could make $200,000, but $300,000 wouldn’t be out of the question. He was only 18 years old, and in those 18 years he had experienced more of life than most people see in 80 years. He had seen everything that you can see on the streets, and he had done most of it. But then he met Jesus Christ, and his life was radically transformed. When I met him, he was studying to be an electronic specialist. He was praying for a Christian wife and for the chance to raise a family for the Lord.
So he just said no. That’s all. He just said no. Sure, the money looked good and he knew exactly how to sell the cocaine. But he didn’t have to pray about it. He just said no.
Why? Because Sodom may look good today but tomorrow it’s going up in flames.
God Speaks Again
I find it most interesting that God does not speak until after Lot has departed. Why is that important? Because the Lord has nothing to say to a compromising believer. You can have Sodom or you can have the Lord, but you can’t have them both. So now the Lord comes back to Abraham and reassures him once again. “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” (vv. 14-17).
Abraham must have been amazed when he heard this. God now speaks to the very point of his need. First, he promises to give Abraham all the land. Second, he promises to give Abraham descendants so numerous that no one could ever count them all. Third, he encouraged Abraham to go take a prayer walk through Canaan and survey the land the Lord was giving him. Think about this. Lot has chosen the best land, but God promises to give all of it to Abraham. He and Sarah have no children, but God promises a descendants like the dust of the earth. The wicked Canaanites control the land, but God is giving it to Abraham.
God Honors Those Who Honor Him
What is the significance of all this? God honors those who yield their rights because they believe in God’s promises. If you’re looking for a big application, here it is. Because Abraham didn’t demand his own way, God gave him back everything he lost and then some. Who “won”? Did Lot win? I think it’s fair to point out that as this story ends, you might argue that Lot did in fact win. After all, he’s got the best land. But Abraham’s got the Lord.
That reminds me of something that Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa used to say: “When the white man came to Africa, we had the land and he had the Bible. But now we have the Bible and he has the land. We shall see who got the better deal.” That’s exactly what Genesis 13 is teaching us and that’s what Paul wants us to understand in Romans 12:1-2. You may win in the eyes of the world but end up losing everything.
“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
– Mark 8:36
Lot won in the short run, but his victory didn’t last long. Abraham won in the long run. He got all the land anyway, and he also ended up with the Lord. He proved by his life that God’s will is always good and pleasing and perfect. The same will be true for us as well. We may not win in the short run, but in the long run those who live for Christ will find themselves on the victory side. They will prove to themselves and for all the world to see that God’s will is good and pleasing and perfect. Amen.