Few passages of scripture have received as much attention, both verbal and written, as Romans 12:2. In just a few words, Paul sets out the process that serves as the foundation of the entire edifice of Christian spiritual formation. Recognizing the importance of the mind in the process of change, the Great Apostle does not equivocate:
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (Romans 12:2 NLT)
In this short passage, Paul describes a theme that he returns to again and again in his letters to the various churches. Juxtaposing the world’s wisdom and God’s wisdom, Paul drives home the point that it is vital that the spiritual aspirant learn to rely on God’s revealed wisdom rather than humankind’s acquired understanding. For a good illustration of this aspect of Paul’s teaching, I refer the reader to the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians.
Romans 12:2, in spite of its brevity, covers a wide range of subject matter – all centered on the importance of renewing the mind in spiritual formation in general and discovering God’s “good and pleasing and perfect” will. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the following fundamental principle: God’s revelatory wisdom is transformative in nature.
Ron McIntosh, in his book The Greatest Secret,” has an excellent section on the significance of cognitive renewal in Paul’s system of spiritual development. The author especially focuses, both directly and in more subtle ways, on how the process of renewing the mind is a life-changing endeavor.
McIntosh describes how the word transformed is really a combination of two elements. The first, the prefix “trans,” literally means “over, beyond, and above.” It implies transcending something – in essence, rising above something. The second part of the word, “formed,” means a “way or pattern of doing something.” When this compound is put back together, it means:
…….thinking over, above, and beyond the world’s system. The way you cross over to God’s system of provision is by being transformed by his truth.
When I first read this section of McIntosh’s book (I have since read it many times) I immediately thought of the first two chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In those verses, Paul draws a clear distinction between the world’s way of thinking and God’s methods. For example:
The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction. But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. As the scriptures say:
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.
So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it is all nonsense.
But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s strength is stronger than the greatest of human strength. (1 Cor. 1: 18-25 NLT).
Paul’s repeated assertions that we humans must recognize that in the search for truth in general and personal transformation in particular, our wisdom must be abandoned in favor of God’s wisdom is tough to swallow. This is especially so for those of us who fancy ourselves as being, like Yogi, smarter than the average bear. Few of us may be willing to admit that deep in our heart of hearts we have such a grand view of ourselves but the fact is, many of us are so inclined. I know that in my own case, I operated for many years under the erroneous assumption that I had many things “figured out” and, in those rare cases that I didn’t, I was close enough to make an educated guess.
The truth of the matter is, and I say this with complete candor, I didn’t know squat! I will add to this with brutal honesty, when came to matters of the intellect, I was fairly small potatoes. It was only when I experientially and without reservation understood this reality that I began to make transformational progress in matters of the spirit.
The point I am making here, and it is a cardinal lesson on the spiritual path, is that formation in the path of Christ begins and ends with humility. Again, from a personal perspective, I didn’t begin to make any significant progress until I became more humble and, if the truth now be told, the longer I am on this sacred journey, I increasingly realize the less I know.
Paul continues his message to the Corinthian church:
Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers as important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. (1 Cor. 1:26-29 NLT).
The central idea here is simply this: if we hope to make progress in the arena of spiritual formation, we must begin by understanding that we are a lot dumber than we think we are. It is only when we get this fundamental concept deep down in our belly that true progress can begin. If we think we have it all figured out, we are not teachable. It is hard to accept a gift when your hands are full and it is equally difficult for the Holy Spirit to impart divine wisdom when your mind is overflowing with your own assumptions.
The anonymous author of the 14th century spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, describes the process of increasing spiritual illumination. The wise author makes the cogent observation that before we can gain even a glimpse of the true nature of the Divine we must first pass through a “cloud of forgetting.” In this aspect of the spiritual journey we let go of, we “forget” all our conceptual impressions of God in order to witness God in his true nature, beyond conceptual knowledge and any kind of human definition. In short, we witness the Divine in all his naked splendor. It should be noted, too, that this vision of God is something granted by God and is a pure act of grace and not of our effort. In this act of grace, we are given “revelatory knowledge” as opposed to human understanding.
…..to be continued
© L.D. Turner 2011/All Rights Reserved