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Many writers, both secular and religious, have decried the lack of intimacy and community in our contemporary culture. Few of them, however, ...
Many writers, both secular and religious, have decried the lack of intimacy and community in our contemporary culture. Few of them, however, offer practical suggestions for counteracting the isolation and alienation felt by so many people today. But Marva Dawn does this—and more—in Truly the Community. Through an intensive study of Romans 12, Dawn offers specific guidance for building vital Christian community life.
To all observers, my buying a three-story, five-bedroom house seemed insane. Ten years ago, however, that home provided an excellent means for me to pursue God's will.
My belief that it was God's will to buy the house was not simplistic. As I agonized over the need in Olympia, Washington, for a home for women in crisis, the Board of Christians Equipped for Ministry, under which I work, wrestled with me to discover God's guidance. Though now the particulars of my professional and personal situation have totally changed since the making of that decision, I could certainly see throughout the time that I owned the big house that God had led us in making the decision.
Probably one of the most frequently asked questions in Christian circles is the plea, "How do I know the will of God?" The topic is much too large for us to pursue thoroughly here, but the issue is relevant for our search for love and Hilarity in a loveless and dispirited world. We can at least begin to overview some of the questions and a few of the answers.
Though we are studying Romans 12 in very small segments to learn about finding glad Hilarity in the Christian community, we must not lose sight of the connections between concepts. The phrase we are considering here must be carefully linked to the focus of the previous chapter: we are "able to test and approve what God's will is" primarily because we are in the process of becoming transformed by the renewing of our minds.
We are totally dependent upon the Holy Spirit's inspiration to discover and act on God's will. Conforming to anyone else's system won't enable us to find his will (although one of the greatest blessings of the Christian community is that the corporate work of all who share in the process can give us helpful clarity). Rather, we learn God's desires and purposes when we let him transform us from the inside out. Furthermore, we recall that God does his transforming work through the renewing of our minds. He teaches us about himself and his will through objective means. We don't discover it only subjectively, with our emotions, but also rationally, with our minds.
This contradicts at the outset a terrible heresy that confuses many Christians who are earnestly searching for God's will. Some think that God reveals it by some sort of hocus-pocus from the sky, that we must uncover some mystical or dramatic way to know his will. Misunderstandings about signs (to be discussed later in this chapter) often lead to such misconceptions. Let us not forget this vital connection: our ability to test and approve the will of God comes directly out of his work to transform us by renewing our minds.
The link is underscored by the Greek structure of this sentence. Paul uses a Greek idiom to indicate purpose and thereby stresses that an outcome of the Spirit's transforming renewal of our minds is the consequent constant checking of God's will. The present continuing tense of the infinitive in the idiom emphasizes that the action is a process. Paul urges us and our communities to be constantly approving the Lord's will, to be continually matching up our attitudes with the reality of God's purposes.
The image here in Romans 12:2 challenges us to engage in a thorough process of testing. The wide divergence of translations of the verb hint at the breadth of the concept of this verb. The standard definition of "prove" (KJV and NASV) is paraphrased to "prove in practice" (JBP) or to "learn from your own experience" (LB); sometimes the translations emphasize that our proving makes us "able to know" (TEV) or to "discover" (JB) or "to discern" (NEB) or "to test and approve" (NIV) what God's will is.
For Paul's readers the Greek verb, dokimazo, signified, first of all, "to try to learn the genuineness of something by examination and testing, often through actual use." Paul uses the verb in this way in 1 Corinthians 3:13 and 11:28; 2 Corinthians 8:8, 22, and 13:5; and 1 Thessalonians 2:4. From this first meaning, the word came to connote the results of the examination, even as gold is proven. This is how 1 Peter 1:7 (NIV) uses the verb: "These [trials] have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed" (emphasis added).
Furthermore, the result of the examination might be that the person doing the testing regards something as being "worthwhile" or "appropriate," "genuine" or "good." This seems to be the primary sense in which Paul uses the verb in other places in the letter to the Romans. We gain insight into Paul's use of the verb in chapter 12 and its implications for finding God's will when we see his progression of thought in the whole book.
Paul first uses the verb dokimazo in Romans 1:28 in an idiomatic expression describing the refusal of those with depraved minds to acknowledge God. In contrast, in 2:18 he repeats the verb in his criticism of those who know God's will and "approve" of what is superior because they have been instructed by God's laws, but who yet fail to keep the law perfectly and do not trust the gospel for salvation. Romans 12:2, then, offers a great contrast to the preceding two groups, for now Paul is writing about the Christian community—those who are testing and approving of God's will as they are transformed by the renewal of their minds. Finally, Paul uses the verb again in 14:22, where he proclaims the well-being of the one "who does not condemn himself in what he approves"—that is, one who has the proper understanding of the relationship between weak and strong Christians and of matters of conscience within the Christian community.
In Philippians 1:10 Paul uses this same verb to emphasize the process of finding out "the things that are excellent" so that his readers may "be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ." Thus, this word's whole field of meaning—to "test," to "regard as worthwhile," and "to judge as good"—seems to be implied when Paul chooses the verb for the process of Romans 12:2. He asserts that as we experience our transformation by the Holy Spirit's renewing of our minds, we will be enabled thereby to examine and accept for our own lives what the will of God is. The New International Version includes both of these options in its translation of the verb as "test and approve."
The two paraphrases noted above, the Living Bible and Phillips' Modern English, place a significant emphasis upon experience and practice, which are included in the meaning of this verb. To approve God's will implies living it out. When we test it thoroughly, we discover that to live in the center of God's gracious will is the only way to be truly satisfied. After all, because he created the shape into which we are being transformed, he must know what is best for us. We will experience the Hilarity of true freedom only when we live according to the shape of our design.
However, we cannot rely merely on experience without the prior renewing of our minds. The order must be kept straight. With grief I watched several friends make terrible mistakes because they "felt" that God was leading them to do certain things, and no persuasion could move them from those feelings. We must remember that feelings are not reliable sources for wisdom; they can be too easily deceived, especially if we are highly emotional persons or if we are coming from intense pain or struggles that affect our emotional judgment.
This is the major danger in misunderstanding "signs." Any outcome of a sign can be twisted to fit our own emotional needs. Surely our prior expectations affect the way we observe the evidences of signs.
Gideon's use of the fleece for signs to know Yahweh's will is often held up as a good model. However, we must read carefully the entire story of God's call to him in Judges 6. By means of the rational statements God had given, Gideon should have been able to accept Yahweh's will and to act upon it. However, he needed some further confirmation, and God, in his tender love, did what he asked regarding the fleece in order to help him become more sure that to go into battle against the Midianites was really his assignment.
In the same way, by intelligent processes, in which the Holy Spirit is a powerful influence (but in which also our brains are actively at work and in which the whole community takes part), we discern what God would have us do in a particular situation. If signs are added, they provide excellent confirmations of what God is already teaching us. However, signs are too flimsy and too easily misconstrued for them to be the primary means by which we choose what to believe about the will of God.
In the example with which this chapter began, a rational process of Scripture study, prayer, and observation of the needs in the Olympia community led to the decision to purchase a big house in which we could minister to lonely and depressed women. After that decision had been reached, it was confirmed by many signs—the closing of the deal on the house, the truly miraculous gathering of the money that I needed for the down payment. Eventually a Catholic Worker house, Bread and Roses, was founded to meet the needs we had observed. In the meanwhile our year-long crisis ministry helped me to understand those needs better and to discover my role, not as a house director meeting them directly, but as a teacher calling attention to them. God's guidance throughout the whole process was confirmed by the wonderful developments of the situation.
Furthermore, we must recognize that much of our difficulty in finding the Lord's will arises from the panic that engulfs us as we search for it. We get desperate, thinking that we are going to fail and mess up our lives forever.
Characteristically, this symptom of panic emerges because we put ourselves under such performance principles. We act as though our decisions will affect adversely the way God feels about us and how he will treat us, as if the failure to find his will might cut us off from him forever.
We must go back again and again to the Hilarious truth of who God is. He has already recorded his approval of us, as Chapters 1 and 3 emphasized. We are never condemned because Christ Jesus has secured for us our relationship with God. His cross also secures for us his loving presence and empowerment in our constant struggle to live out the implications of that relationship.
What kind of God do we have? Does he sit up in heaven arbitrarily choosing to keep us in the dark? Does he hide his purposes from us to make us grope through a gigantic guessing game with cosmic implications? Hardly! That's not the kind of God the Scriptures show ours to be. Rather, he reveals himself to us as a God who really wants us to know him, who indeed created us for intimacy with himself. Certainly, then, he would make it possible for us to know the best way to maintain that relationship with him (see Chapter 7).
God wants us to know his will. If we start with that fact, we will be set free from the panic of trying to find it. We will trust that in his time he will make his will known to us by both objective and subjective means. Perhaps we will discover it only at the time that we must know, but we can believe him for his revelation. It will not come a moment too late.
The prophet Habakkuk in his search for answers to questions about the justice of God records this comforting assurance from Yahweh:
"For the vision is yet for the appointed time;
It hastens toward the goal, and it will not fail.
Though it tarries, wait for it;
For it will certainly come, it will not delay."
The vision in Habakkuk's time concerned specifically the ending of injustice in Israel by means of the Babylonian captivity. We can be assured that not only that event but all things within the plan of God come in their appointed times—never too late or too early. Just at the right moment when we need to know, we will know—provided we are open to God's action in our lives and his renewing of our minds. Then we can approve it for our own lives and live it out with confidence and Hilarity.
The passage from Habakkuk has been especially comforting to me because of the vivid image it contains. The second line of the text says literally in the Hebrew that the vision "pants after its own fulfillment." Just as a dog pants in eager anticipation of a time of play, so the purposes of God are eager to be accomplished and will surely be culminated. We need not panic as we wait for God's timing, for his revelation, for the effecting of his will.
Finally, one terribly overlooked aspect of testing and approving the will of God is that we do that within the framework of the Christian community and not alone. I first learned about searching together with other Christians for the will of God from members of a Mennonite congregation to which I belonged while working on my doctoral program in South Bend, Indiana. Confronted with a difficult decision, I asked my pastor for counsel, and he called a "meeting to discern the Spirit." Having never experienced that before, I was overwhelmed by the graciousness of several congregational members who spent an evening asking me questions to help me think, sorting things out and praying with me. By the end of the evening, God's will had become much more clear.
Myron and I experienced a similar, lovely enfolding in the Christian community when we were deciding whether to marry. We asked many friends—even some that we thought would disagree with the idea—to pray for us and for God's will in the matter. We urged them to ask us questions to help us think things through more clearly and requested that they share with us any messages that the Spirit led them to give. We spent two weeks gathering their input and found ourselves immensely surrounded by love and caring, wisdom and profound searching. Every person responded favorably and supportively, so we knew that our future marriage would have immense prayer support. In the counsel of the Christian community, we believed that we knew more clearly what the will of God was for our friendship and future.
I will never again make a major decision alone. Certainly God's will can be more clearly perceived when many hearts are attuned to the Holy Spirit. One of my major goals in seeking to strengthen the Christian community is to bring back to other denominations this gift of mutual decision making and mutual searching for God's will—so that we may discover the Hilarity of testing and approving it together.
Moreover, as we discover God's will within the community, we find greater motivation to pursue it. Ultimately, we do have a choice. God doesn't cram his will down our throats. But you know as well as I do that his will always turns out to be the best for us. To that concept we will turn in the following chapter. Meanwhile, we can delight today in the strong assurance that God does indeed want us to know his will. Therefore, we can trust that in appropriate ways—especially within the framework of the Christian community—he will enable us to discover it and to be transformed to approve it.
- Does our Christian community seek God's will together? How could we develop the practice?
- How have we experienced God's guidance by the renewing of our minds?
- What means does God use to renew our minds?
- How have we as individuals or corporately misunderstood his will by depending on signs that were too much influenced by our own emotional perceptions—or, conversely, by being too rational and ignoring the Spirit?
- What protection do we have against formulating misconceptions of God's will in our minds—or in our emotions?
- How does it help us to know that God does want us to know his will?
- How have we experienced the Hilarity of living out God's will in the sense of approving it?
Resources on Romans
Resources on Prayer
Resources on Peacemaking and Justice Building
Resources on Community
Other Resources Cited