“Just be yourself!” This is a message often heard in today’s society. “Be authentic, be genuine, don’t let anybody tell you that you need to change!” The Christian message seems to be the exact opposite with the instruction “be transformed” (Romans 12:2), a call to repentance, and testimonies of changed lives. It seems like acceptance of who you are clashes with needing change. Which is the better path? Romans 12:9-21 will help us figure this out.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:9-21 (NRSV)
At first glance this might seem like a list of unrelated life-instructions. However, there are some common threads which will help us navigate the tension between self-acceptance and the need to change. Let us take a look:
THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT CHARACTER.
Notice that there is no call to change one’s personality in Romans 12. A change in character is what is called for. This is not a change in identity, so that you are no longer authentically you, but a change in character, so that you are a better you. I am, and have always been, a quiet, shy person. The Lord did not ask me to become a naturally outgoing person when He called me to follow Christ.
We want to be careful here not to mix up personality traits with character traits and so miss an opportunity for growth. For example, many people describe themselves as being impatient people, as if impatience were a mark of their personality and something that cannot change. However, anything that is listed as a fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22,23) is something God can and will help us change. As we sort out which of our “quirks” are personality traits that make us unique, and which are sins that keep us from being like Christ, let us remember that being a Christian is not a call away from authenticity, but a call to character.
THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT OUR MINDS BEING RENEWED (BUT NOT REMOVED) BY THE HOLY SPIRIT.
In Romans 12:9-21, Paul is fleshing out 12:1,2:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:1,2 (NRSV emaphsis mine)
The word behind “renew” has the idea of “making new again”. It is not a complete replacement, but rather a renovation. To renovate a home is a very different thing from demolishing it to build a completely different home. Take, for example, the apostles Peter and Paul. There is nothing to make us suspect that their personalities changed from before they knew Christ to after. We do see them change in very important ways, but they are still very much Peter and Paul. They are still very unique individuals. Discipleship in the Christian life is not like assimilation into the Borg in Star Trek, but rather becoming more like Jesus in our character.
THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT RESPONDING TO THE TEACHING OF JESUS.
Romans 12:9-21 feels familiar. These are things that Jesus taught about, and demonstrated in his own life. It begins with love in verse 9: “Let love be genuine”. It includes non-retaliation, putting into practice turning the other cheek, which Jesus both taught and demonstrated. Someone might point out here that Jesus taught that we should deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and follow. Does that not mean giving up our individuality? In calling us to pick up our cross and follow, Jesus was not calling upon us to give up our identity as being unique in the universe, but to give up a desire to be the centre of the universe. In doing so, you will still be very much you, with all your quirks that make you interesting and unique. But you will be a better you.
THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT CHOOSING GOOD OVER EVIL
All of Romans 12:9-21 is framed by the the opportunity to choose good over evil as reflected in verses 9 and 21: “. . . hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good . . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”. This is where “just be yourself” does not actually work. Such a sentiment must always be qualified. In watching the Emmy’s recently I did not hear anyone say anything like “Isn’t it wonderful how Donald Trump is comfortable in his own skin? Isn’t it great that he is just being himself?”. No one is saying that about Kim Jong-un either. At the end of the day, all people want everyone else to be good and not evil. All people want others, if they insist on being themselves, to be their better selves. Unfortunately, most people want to go with their own definitions of good and evil. However, the Christian life leads us to God’s definitions of good and evil, plus God’s empowerment to choose to do good rather than evil.
THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT BEING COUNTER-CULTURAL.
Romans 12:2 does not say “no longer be conformed to your own identity” but “do not be conformed to this age”. Simply put, be yourself, but be your better self, and so stick out like a sore thumb. Those who live the kinds of lives that reflect Romans 12:9-21 will surely do so.
THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS ABOUT BEING SALT AND LIGHT IN SOCIETY.
While there is disagreement on how to get there, people naturally long for a better society. Romans 12:9-12 gives some very practical ways of getting there. Just imagine the impact if people were to live like these verses describe. The effect of a renewed mind is much better than the effect of being conformed to the current age. As our relationship with Christ leads to our minds being renewed, people will take notice. How could anyone not respond positively to genuine love (verse 9), hospitality (verse 13), being blessed instead of being cursed (verse 14), care for the downtrodden (verse 15), non-retaliation (verses 17 and following), and being with people who are peaceable (verse 18)? We should note here that we are to think on “what is noble in the sight of all” (verse17). The world is watching, even longing for, a changed people to show the way.
Society does not actually say “just be yourself”, it says “be yourself, unless we don’t like you, or there is something about you we think should change”. Jesus says I love you, no matter what you are currently like. I have already demonstrated that love by bearing the cross for you”. Now that is true acceptance, and by Someone whose acceptance of us really matters! When you experience acceptance by God, get ready to be changed, not that you are no longer you, but that you are a better you. Not only are you transformed by the renewing of your mind, but the world around you will begin changing for the better too. So be yourself! But be a God-filled changing-in-great-ways self!