When I was a teenager, I wore a lot of Christian t-shirts.
My favorite one had a Christian ichthus fish swimming against the current in the midst of various other fish swimming in the opposite direction. “Go against the flow,” it proclaimed. Here’s a picture of it I found on flickr.
The concept, of course, was that Christians should be “not of this world.” Romans 12:2 says, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It’s a solid Christian principle: Christians should be different.
As a teenager, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what it meant to be different from the world. In my mind, it meant that I shouldn’t curse, smoke, drink, or have premarital sex. It meant that I should avoid any kind of sin, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem to others. It meant that I should avoid unhealthy influences on my mind, from porn to violent movies to obscene music. And it meant that I should take a bold, public stand on controversial issues—including political issues—where the Christian point of view was different from a worldly one.
In general, I still think that most of these are good advice for Christians, though perhaps with a few modifications. I no longer think that Christians are obligated to abstain from all alcohol, for instance, but I still think it’s a good idea not to get drunk.
But as a teenager, I focused way too much on that last one—taking public stands on controversial issues—and I see a lot of Christians today doing the same thing. And to be frank, I don’t think that’s what Paul meant when he said we shouldn’t conform to the pattern of this world.
Let’s face it: The pattern of this world is chock full of people taking controversial stands on issues. Our world loves taking stands on issues. The worldly approach is to shout your point of view whenever possible and use any means necessary to make sure your team wins. And when Christians follow the same pattern, it doesn’t matter if the stand is different; we’re still following the same pattern.
What isn’t the pattern of the world is a position of humility. Of love. Of stopping to listen to the person you disagree with. Of compassion for your enemy.
Which is exactly what Paul talks about in Romans 12.
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world,” he says, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” And what does it look like to be transformed?
Yes, avoid sin and love God. But also:
- Rom. 12:3 – “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.”
- Rom. 12:10 – “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.”
- Rom. 12:13 – “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”
- Rom. 12:14 – “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”
- Rom. 12:16 – “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.”
- Rom. 12:17 – “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.”
- Rom. 12:18 – “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
In fact, the tone of this whole chapter—and, indeed, much of Paul’s letters—is that Christians should be models for humble service and love beyond what others deserve.
That’s what it means not to conform to the pattern of the world.
Because in the world at large, when you disagree with someone, you make them your enemy and you fight them. You shout your views and shout down theirs. You build a coalition to steamroll over them if you can. And if they show weakness, you exploit it. Your political party/activist group/sports team/whatever you’re part of has to win. That can only happen if the other guy loses, right?
And yet we Christians are called instead to be like Jesus: turning the other cheek, showing hospitality, giving more than is necessary, being humble, caring about the folks who oppose us and who may not ever love us back.
Others will call it madness. They jeered at Jesus and told him to take himself down off the cross if he could.
He didn’t. He let them crucify him.
And in the end, he won.