I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.In fact, I like this quote so much that I believe I've talked about it on this blog before, but a reminder never hurts. So often, we believers emphasize action as the fundamental part of a faithful lifestyle. As children, we grow up learning that we are to obey our parents and not to lie to them, that we should read our Bible, and that we should never hit our brother or sister. As adults, we no longer need to be told not to hit our brother or sister, but the story is much the same: we should respect our superiors at work, attend church regularly, and be kind to our co-workers. All of these things are quite true, and quite important, of course. James demands that believers "be doers of the word, and not hearers only" (1:22). At the same time, it's easy to forget that doing Christian things, valuable as that is, is not at all the key part of the Christian lifestyle. The key part of a Christian lifestyle is the mind.
In Romans 12, Paul encourages us believers to be transformed - in other words, to act differently, to live life differently than we would if we were not believers. And, of course, living life differently includes things like kindness towards colleagues and not hitting our brothers or sisters. But Paul is not content simply to exhort the Roman believers to be transformed, to be different; he does not stop there. He goes on and demands that these believers seek "the renewing of [their minds]" - in other words, a new way of thinking that precedes and makes possible a new way of living. A 'renewing' of the mind implies that this new way of thinking is not simply an alternative way of thinking. After all, secular thinkers and writers do that all the time: Freud gave us a new way of thinking, and so did Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Neither are particularly good role models for believers. But we Christians are not to happily accept a new mind; ours is to be a renewed mind, one restored to its original strength and perfection, an original clarity of thought that has been lost in the thousands of years since the Fall. It is a clarity of thought that stems from the truth of God's word and Christ's Incarnation on this earth, a exchange of human patterns of thought and accepted beliefs for the ancient patterns of thought laid down in biblical history and revelation.
And here is the crucial part: to renew the mind to a place where biblical revelation and truth defines its thought is to take the first step towards that action which James demands and which we emphasize so much in the contemporary church today. A human being's actions are always, always driven by what they believe to be true, by the way they think. To give one example, modern educational theorists often recommend that teachers take a back-seat role to students, not so much asking the student to recognize facts and adopt positions of thought known to be true (the traditional pattern of education since Socrates, when teachers were after truth) but encouraging the students towards self-discovery and supporting those beliefs which the student prefers to hold, whether or not they are true. And contemporary teachers do not take this backseat role simply because they want to undermine students' future abilities, nor because they are lazy teachers. Teachers adopt this position because they genuinely believe that self-discovery is preferable to a truth which does not exist and cannot be known, and so their belief drives their educational practice. All of life - our professional career, and our personal beliefs and decisions - works this way: What we believe and think is the foundation for our actions.
Now for the practical part: Given the mind's importance in shaping behaviour, it is of the utmost importance that we believers accept only what is genuinely true and test all thoughts, all trends, all commonly-accepted ideas to make sure they are aligned with the Word of Christ. The apostle John commands us, "do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (I John 4:1). Normally, when we think of a false prophet, we think of someone like Brigham Young or Mohammed - someone, in other words, advocating a faith clearly opposed to the Gospel. But false prophets are much subtler than that: in biblical history, a prophet was simply someone who revealed truth (I should know; I wrote my Master's thesis on prophecy!). Anyhow, if prophets are those who reveal truth, then it follows that false prophecy is simply a seeming revelation of truth. And contemporary society, like all previous societies, are filled with false revelations.
I want to focus on just one false revelation in this blog post (my next post will cover an additional false revelation): the idea of carpe diem, or seizing the day, making the most of all opportunities. The Western fascination with carpe diem has been well-established ever since Andrew Marvell penned his famous poem, "To His Coy Mistress" and demanded an immediate sexual relationship with the poor woman he was wooing, citing the passage of time as his excuse:
But at my back I always hearTime's winged chariot hurrying nearAnd yonder all before us lieDeserts of vast eternity.
Although we readers condemn the sexual relationship, the poem is enjoyable, and the picture of Time and Death stealing up on us gives urgency to our actions, an urgency that we today call carpe diem. And this urgency is one that often determines even believers' behaviour.
For instance, I recently priced tickets to visit a friend living in Houston over Christmas break. I could get cheap tickets and squeeze the visit in between the end of finals and grading here at Kansas State University, and my planned departure for Prague on the 29th of December. Oh, and I'd also fit Christmas celebrations with my family in there somewhere too. I'd leave one day, stay the next in Houston, and return the third day. After all, I reasoned, one of us will get married or move even further away somebody; we'll have jobs and we won't be able to visit each other on anything like a regular basis anymore. I should take advantage of my freedom, take advantage of being only twenty-five and between jobs at this point and visit my friend. It sounded great, and then I remembered how much I actually have to do: grade literally hundreds of papers, give a final exam to my literature students and grade the exam, record all grades, move home, pack, get a hair cut and a cavity filled - and the list went on. And, above all, I have to prepare for teaching in Prague.
And then it occurred to me: carpe diem is not actually a biblical idea at all. Sure, we pretend it is sometimes and we cite verses such as Ephesians 5:15-17:
See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
The thing is, this verse has nothing to do with taking advantage of missed opportunities because Death and Time are creeping up on us. Certainly, we are meant to 'redeem' the time, to take advantage of it, but the reason given is far more serious: take advantage of the time, Paul tells is, because "the days are evil". In other words, encroaching Time is not even a consideration in biblical revelation. Encroaching evil is. Moreover, we believers are not simply taking advantage of time and pleasuring ourselves with time, wooing 17th-century women like Andrew Marvell or visiting friends halfway across the country like me. We believers are charged to redeem the time - in other words, to buy it back or restore it to its original purpose. Put all of this together, and the biblical charge is not to enjoy ourselves with time, but to make use of time for spiritual purposes, to use time in a way that allows us to grow closer to God and fulfill our God-given responsibilities.
And so I made a decision: I will not visit my friend in Houston, because (much as I want to see her) taking advantage of an opportunity is not a sufficiently good reason for all the added stress I would receive in return. Instead, I will take advantage of the opportunity for other, often-overlooked purposes: I will attend my home church, spend time with my family and sister (who is far away at college), and prepare more fully for my ministry opportunity in Prague this semester. I will put this time to good use, instead of simply using this time for my own pleasure. In the end, carpe diem is only a twisting of a genuine biblical concept: the redeeming of time to pursue those good things which God promises to those who love Him.
In other news: Plans are still underway to leave on-time for Prague at the end of December. Please keep me in your prayers, as I prepare to teach a lot of stories that I've never read and certainly never studied myself (such as Lord of the Flies). Also, please pray for safety traveling out and for a quick, non-delayed flight. I will be arriving in Prague about five days before schools starts again, if everything goes well, and I would prefer to have as much time as possible to get over jet lag and pull everything together for the first day of class.
And, of course, I promise to keep you updated with pictures and blog posts while I am there.