May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer.
Can anyone explain this to me? When I am driving along the highway, the posted speed limit is 80 km/hr. It is good weather, so this is the speed I travel at. But all the other cars on the road are doing at least 90 km/h. Slowly the speed of my car creeps up to match the other traffic. When I realize that I am going more quickly than the law allows, I slow down a bit. And then I feel guilty.
Either way, I am trying to conform. I can abide by the law of the land, which I agree is appropriate and good. Or I can follow the custom of the majority. Me, I compromise and do a couple of kilometres over the speed limit, not enough to get caught or be unsafe. I think I still have a complex from getting pulled over during a driving lesson because a police officer had never before seen anyone actually do 30 around a curve as posted.
When we comply with rules or custom, we are conforming. Sometimes this is a good thing. Sometimes this is not. St. Paul, in his letter to the Roman Church, appeals to Christians not to be conformed to the age that they live in. The Greek word he uses literally translates as living under a schemata. If we are to assimilate, to fashion our lives, according to what the world thinks is important, then we become shackled by values that are not rooted in the gospel.
The world runs after many things that lead to unhealthy life. Youth especially are vulnerable because they are at a stage in life where they are just forming an identity, so what others think of them is very important. They seek respect and admiration from more than just their family, and that means listening to outside voices in social media and groups they want to belong to.
A newsblog on “Waking Times” lists some of the results of youth being pressured to conform. Because young people are targeted at an early age to get credit in order to live beyond their means, it is easy for adults to slide into debt. Materialism and consumerism stem from buying what is not needed but what we have been convinced we want. Partying and experimenting in order to fit in with the crowd or to escape from a stressful reality opens the door to addiction. A need for acceptance can also lead to young people being willing to objectify others and themselves or to allow physical personal boundaries to be crossed. And if fitting in and doing just enough to get by is the norm, why would youth risk either failure or ridicule by standing out? A culture of mediocrity, dependence, and victimization does not bode well for the next generation.
This may seem very different from being taught a central group of values to which a group asks an individual to adhere to. There are family norms, cultural expectations, and religious tenets, and you may argue that in these cases it is right to ask someone to conform. It is important to bring honour to your family, to respect your culture, and to live out faithfully your belief system. But when St. Paul speaks about conformity, he is not saying that it is good to lose face. Rather, his core message is that we should not be ashamed at standing firm. We are not to be enslaved by another system which tells us who is honourable and who is not, who is acceptable and who is not. We are set free by Christ from this bondage. No longer should our choices be crippled by what others will think of us.
In any culture, there are limitations on how much a group can influence an individual to conform. Instead of seeking a new way to bring about a reconciliation, there is an impasse. What happens when there is a code of silence, and an issue cannot be discussed outside a family? Do you pretend it doesn’t exist? What happens when someone offends and the group’s response is to shun or cut off contact? God has a way to overcome this!
Our only criteria is what God thinks of us. We are worthy in God’s eyes because we strive to do God’s will. But our worth does not depend on what we are able to accomplish. It depends on God’s grace. This is an important lesson for us as Christians today. We are often consumed by worry about our institution. We talk about sustainability and ability to survive. But the institution that has grown up around the proclamation of the gospel is not here on earth to be accepted and esteemed by worldly powers. The Church is the means to achieve God’s mission, not an end in itself. The Holy Spirit is always changing us into what God wants. We are not human beings so much as human becomings!
It is necessary to constantly discern what is good and holy and acceptable. We don’t do this by the standards of the world, but by the will of God. And we are reminded that all gifts needed for the work are provided, and all are needed. We should be careful not to judge which are most important by what the world sees. A CEO may be more powerful, but without the person who processes the cheques or cleans the toilets a corporation will come to a halt.
Paul’s list of the gifts for ministry are not a ranking system. All are ministry, or as he calls it, ‘diakonia’ (now, where have we heard that word before? Why, personified in the work of a deacon!). The ambiguity in the word ‘ministry’ covers a wide range of ways to help carry out the will of God. We can do it through prophesy, teaching, serving, exhortation, giving, leading, showing compassion. Do not think of yourself or another as being superior or inferior in terms of knowledge, faith or ability. It is all gift, and will be given to us by grace.
In all of these functions, there is a necessary step. We cannot blindly follow. We must first wrestle with the Holy Spirit in discernment of how to risk in faith. It may mean falling short to someone who does not understand our calling. It may mean losing face in the sight of the world. But really what is happening is that we are being set free to be what God wants us to be. There is no shame in that. For Christians, we gain honour because we are transformed in Christ.
One of my favourite bumper stickers goes like this: “God gave you a mind, and God expects you to use it”. So do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you too may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect. Amen.