Do not conform to the world

Romans 12:1–21

One of the most powerful principles of advertising is, create powerful emotions. Advertisers seek to create a powerful emotion that urges you to buy whatever it is they are selling. One way they do this is by convincing you that you will be inferior to others if you don’t own or use what they sell. For example, people who own an iPhone are superior to those who don’t.

We experience peer pressure. We race to keep up with the Joneses, those imaginary neighbours who we must copy to be as good as they are. If Mr Jones buys a new Tesla car, we should buy a new Tesla car so as not to be left out of the group. There is intense pressure to not be different or to stand out.

We have a saying in Britain, “Don’t stick your head above the parapet.” Or sometimes we say, “Keep your head down.” If you stick your head above the parapet, it will be knocked off.

Don’t stand out. Don’t rock the boat. Blend in with the other people around you. In Japan they say, deru kugi wa utareru; “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Koreans say, 모난돌이 정 맞는다; “The angular stone will feel the mason’s chisel.”

People don’t want to have their heads knocked off. People don’t want to be hammered down. They don’t want their sharp corners taken off with a chisel. People want an easy life. They see the way to an easy life as going along and not standing out.

We buy and wear the clothes that are in fashion. We watch popular films and television shows. We visit popular holiday destinations and eat at popular restaurants. If everyone started to dye their hair white with green stripes, we would dye our hair white with green stripes.

We conform. We fit in.

Paul says in Romans 12:2, don’t try to fit in.

Don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age. Do not conform. Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world. Do not be conformed to this world. Don’t go along and be like everyone else.

Paul says that we should be ready to stick our heads over the parapet. He says we should be the nail that sticks up. We should be the sharp stone that feels the chisel’s bite.

This is not a new teaching. Paul, a Pharisee, knows all too well Leviticus 18:2,3. This is where God is talking to Moses, giving him lists of laws and regulations.

“I am the Lord your God. So do not act like the people in Egypt, where you used to live, or like the people of Canaan, where I am taking you. You must not imitate their way of life.”

This is an instruction for a way of life. Our way of life as followers of Jesus is to be nonconformist. Resist the urge to imitate. It’s a hard urge to resist because we are natural imitators. It’s hard to live as a Christian in a sinful world.

Some Christians respond to Paul’s instruction by carefully doing everything differently than the people they live among. You will find them refusing to use anything powered by electricity. They reject cars and travel only by horse. They will wear clothes that are deliberately different. They will refuse to serve in the military or send their children to state school. In some cases they will even speak their own language.

If you look at only that, then you are in danger of misjudging these faithful Christians. They will tell you that the main point is to have a different heart. A different mind. A different spirit.

God does not want us to be odd or strange. His instruction to us to refuse to conform is not an order to be different just for the sake of being different. The instruction has a second part, and has no meaning on its own.

Instead of being conformed, we must be transformed. Let God transform you. You probably remember when Jesus was transformed on the summit of a mountain. You can read it in Matthew 17:2. “Jesus’ appearance was transformed so that his face shone like the sun.”

It’s the same word. Paul says it’s an inner transformation. “Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.”

We are given a choice. Think the same way as the people of the world, or allow God to change the way you think. We are expected to stand out for being different in the way we think. And of course the way we think will decide how we act. We will bear different fruit. Paul gives us that example in Galatians 5:19–22. “When you follow the desires of your sinful nature”, he says, then a list of bad fruit follows. These sins are the evil ways of the wicked world. Envy, jealousy, selfish ambition etc.

“But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love” etc.

The transformation that God makes in our lives is an entire transformation of our character and of our conduct. We refuse to think about things the way other people think. That is our refusal to copy or to be conformed. We choose to think about things the way God teaches us.

We no longer choose our clothes or where to live because of envy or jealousy. We decide where to live based on love and kindness and goodness.

A nonconforming disciple won’t act self-righteously and condescendingly towards other people. We will show them the love of Christ. It means that people will see an attractive difference in our lives and the holy attitude that we have. People who follow Jesus should live a life that reflects how Jesus lived. Jesus was kind and easy to talk to. We can be nonconformist without being weird and unlikeable.

Jesus says that when we have been transformed then we’ll be righteous and “the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s Kingdom.” (Matthew 13:43)

There is a great need in our world today – as there was in the time of Jesus – for people to stop going along with the crowd. We need to pause and look at our lives. What are the things that we do just because those are the things people do? Of those things, which ones should we stop doing and which ones is it good to continue doing?

These questions are pressing in relation to politics, economics, ecology. Why do you still eat beef? Are you asking God to transform your thinking about what you eat? Why do you use plastic bags? Why do you purchase water in bottles? What do you think about the issues of today – abortion, divorce, plastic surgery, marriage, war, poverty, government corruption.

All around us are moral problems. How long have Christians neglected the problem of the abuse of women? Have we been conformed to the ways of the world instead of being transformed?

The Christian alternative to immoral behaviours is not a new list of moral behaviours. It is the triumphant power and transformation of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. We are to allow God to gives us a new way of thinking, and it is hard. Think for example how hard it was for Lord Shaftesbury to convince Christian people that slavery was evil. In America they fought a war over the idea. And yet today there is more slavery in this world than ever before.

We have to first give our bodies as a living sacrifice, as it says in verse one. We make that sacrifice. We no longer seek the pleasure of the flesh. We reject the ways of the world. We embrace a new way of thinking as God transforms us.

Don’t try to transform yourself. Don’t try to adopt moral behaviour or follow new laws. That is not what the Bible says. It says stop all those things. Give up all of your efforts, they are wrong. Don’t conform, but instead let God transform you.

God will transform you. He promises he will do this. You do have a part to play in this. You must let go of all worldly things. You must sacrifice your body and your way of thinking so that God can change you. You and me, all of us are in this together. We help each other.

Amen 아멘

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About Pastor Simon

Pastor at Jinju International Christian Fellowship. Formerly of Eastbourne, East Sussex, UK. I am Simon Warner of Jinju Church. We speak English at Jinju Church, South Korea.
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