By James M. Stanton
“I appeal to you, brothers, by the mercies of God to present yourselves as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1).
You couldn’t find a biblical verse that more clearly contrasts the Christian life with life in the world — life as the world outside the Christian faith understands it. In this one verse, Paul sums up the essence of the Christian understanding of the person, of God, and the person’s responsibility to God.
To get a better picture of what Paul is saying here in this short passage, perhaps we should look first at what the world has to say.
What the world has to say is easy. It is summed up in one word: self. I Googled self just to see where it might lead. I found 737 million linked pages; 737 million!
The typical message runs something like this: You are special. You need to get to know who you are. You need to express yourself. You need to love yourself. You need to take command of yourself. You need to let yourself be happy. You owe it to yourself.
Some sound very “spiritual.” When God made you, they say, he put a little spark of himself in you. It is like a seed planted deep in your soul. You keep this little seed hidden. You need to open yourself up to the light of new understanding and let this light warm that little seed. Let that little seed begin to grow. Let it find its way out of the hiddenness and into the light of day. Don’t be afraid to be yourself. You have a right to be yourself. God didn’t make junk!
Here are some titles: “How to Get What You Want.” “3 Steps to Happiness.” “Get Rid of Worry, Anxiety and Stress.” “8 Keys to Happiness.” “Being All You Can Be.” “10 Spiritual Rules for Happiness.” “How to be a Friend to Yourself.” “Finding Yourself through Yoga.” “The Zen Guide to Self-realization.” “Letting You be You.” And “24 Days to Happiness.”
That’s 737 million articles! Obviously we have a problem. Actually we have lots of problems. And the solution to these problems, according to the world around us, is to be found in the self: what we do with it, how we manage it, how we care for it, how we express it.
But did you ever stop to think that may the problem is the self? Maybe the problem is not paying too little attention to that inner thing we call a self, but is in paying too much attention to it?
What is a “self,” after all? We all think we have one. We all think we are one. That part of us that thinks, feels, loves, desires, wishes and wills is what we call “self.” It is as natural for us to think that we are a “self” and to see this “self” as having rights, prerogatives, perspectives, and reality as it is to expect the sun to come up in the morning. To raise the question whether this is so — whether there is a self, or what it is — is so strange as to seem absurd.
It may come as a shock to discover that the self as an autonomous center of activity and a “person” with individual rights is a relatively modern invention. In many ancient societies — and in some cultures living today — there are no words for the “self” as we think about it. Who a person is is determined by his or her place in the family or the clan or the tribe. It is the larger world of relationships that gives life and that shapes it. Meaning comes, not from within the individual, but from being and doing in relation to others.
So what does Paul have to say? Paul, the Christian, tells us that real life — real personhood, real freedom — comes from knowing God. Rather than building up one’s own life through the exercise of the self, Paul says we must bring our lives to God and offer them as a sacrifice — a living sacrifice!
Pursuing the self is a dead-end street. And the reason for this is not hard to find. God made us for himself. We are his creatures. And the whole meaning of our lives is found in being what God created us to be. It is not found deep down inside me. It is found “out there,” so to speak — it is found in God and God’s will. In another place, Paul writes: “Your life lies hid with Christ in God” (Col 3.3).
Think about this. We all readily enough think that God gave us life. God created us. Who we are, then, is known to God. We might say, God conceived us in his mind before, or as, we were conceived in the womb. So only God knows who we are and can be. We can only get there, however, by drawing closer to God. We can only know who we are by giving up all claim to who we think we are. Trying to find and be ourselves is heading in the wrong direction. Coming to God and laying down our lives is coming home!
How does Paul see God? Paul makes his appeal to us to do this “by the mercies of God.” Paul is saying that God has opened the door to home because of his love for us and because of his mercy toward us. God has given us himself, in Jesus. Jesus shows us what God is like. Jesus shows us how to live. Jesus shows us the way home — and Jesus is the way home. By giving ourselves to Jesus, we are giving ourselves to God; and by following Jesus, we come to real life and real freedom.
Paul says in the next verse, “Do not be conformed to this world” — that is, don’t think like the world around you wants you to think. Then he adds, “But be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” In other words, start thinking the way God wants you to think. Get over this preoccupation with yourself. Instead, “Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.” As Jesus taught, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything you so desperately strive for will be yours as well” (Matt. 6:33).
One measure of our problem is that we have 737 million articles on the self. On the other hand, Googling “God,” we come up with a little more than half that number. It is no wonder that the world seems lost — it is looking for solutions in all the wrong places!
You must reverse this, my brothers and sisters. If you rely upon yourselves, you will fail. Selves don’t get along with each other very well. But you are the body of Christ. Proclaim him. Follow him. Live in him. Glorify him. And his Holy Spirit will not only bring you home, but build you into a holy house that will grow and give new life to others.
“I appeal to you brothers and sisters by the mercies of God to present yourselves as a living sacrifice.”
The Rt. Rev. James M. Stanton served as Bishop of Dallas from 1993 to 2014.