When I have taught Paul, I have repeatedly insisted that the listening community must hear the letters as directed to itself. One must read them with that intent and emphasis. When the epistle arrives as a simple historical document, Paul’s thoughts fail to find a waiting ear. When it seems like a missive that we read over the shoulder of the intended recipient, it can promote more curiosity and conversation than application.
Listen again to these words as Paul directs them to you and me:
Do not conform yourselves to this age
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,
that you may discern what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect.
The age on which Paul focuses our attention is not first century Rome, but 21st Century America. He insists that the Christian community not become one with the crowd, that its members not follow the majority position or value just because it is the majority opinion or value. No, we learn that we must transform our thinking by the renewal of our minds. This transformation only happens as we open ourselves to the instruction of the Gospel and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We confront the world in which we live with love and commitment. Embracing this resolve does not allow for easy decisions and can cause problems—and disagreements.
Paul wants his hearers to “discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” What does it mean to “discern the will of God?” In the Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that following the will of God for him involves suffering and death. Peter, however, does not “get it.” The apostle acts as a “satan” as he offers a temptation of avoidance rather than an encouragement to engagement. Peter’s solution to the story of Jesus’ mission points to the easy way—to side step the suffering and death of which Jesus speaks. He does not seek God’s way but the human evasion of a path fraught with challenge and difficulty. Jesus rejects this thinking, then turns to his disciples (and to us), and makes clear: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” This message of the cross flies in the face of the teaching of this age—or any age. Yet nothing expresses so succinctly the center of the Christian discernment of the will of God.
Paul’s guidance confronts me. I desire to heed his advice, but I feel the challenge and see the obstacles. Like much of Paul’s advice, no easy response presents itself.
First of all, I do not want to conform myself to this age.
Secondly, I want to transform myself by the renewal of my mind.
Thirdly, I want to discern the will of God for me and my communities.
And fourthly, I want to value what is good and pleasing and perfect.
Gospel and Christian values have a central place in the direction that we choose to pursue in our ministries. The message demands a hearing and a faithful response. I want to be transformed rather than to conform. It is no easy task. One can only hope for any measure of success by opening oneself to the Holy Spirit joined to a willingness to inquire and be led.
The Vincentian question “What must be done?” offers a good place to start our transformation.