Jonathan Morris: My favorite Bible verse

The practice of picking a favorite Bible verse goes against every theological bone in my body, for two reasons. First, because Sacred Scripture is best understood as a whole. Second, because focusing on a favorite passage risks distracting us from passages that are less pleasant to our ears, but perhaps more needed. I cringe, for example, when I hear politicians or even pastors quote a favorite line or two of the Bible to justify an action or prove their point. Popular verses like “judge not lest you be judged”—while true—are often appropriated to shut down rational, moral discourse. Theological musings aside, I do have favorite Scripture verses. The one I’ll share with you here has been material for deep reflection as I traversed through major life change this past year. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). This verse is about discernment. It’s about getting our mind and heart in the right place to know in which direction we should go when we face real-life decisions. The author of this verse, Paul of Tarsus, is writing to the early Christian community in Rome. He knows they have already committed to following the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but they are living in a hedonistic society and they struggle to know and do what is right. The first part of this verse is a warning that what we think or feel isn’t always right. Paul tells the Romans that our minds are warped by worldly ways of thinking. If this was true in the times of Paul (the Epistle to the Romans was written circa AD 55), it is even truer today. We are brainwashed by the daily onslaught of commercial and social media. To counter this, Paul encourages us to allow God’s grace and truth to seep into our minds and renew it. As he puts it: “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” “Transformation” is a strong word. The original Greek word for transformation is “metanoia,” meaning existential conversion. This spiritual conversion is not about changing our behavior out of shame or guilt. Conversion is a decision of the will to turn away from sin, do an about face, and walk toward God who is calling. The second part of this verse is even more inspiring and challenging. Paul says that once we have taken the step toward “metanoia” or “conversion” we still need to test things out to see what God really wants of us. He says “so that you may test what the will of God is, that which is good, and acceptable, and perfect.” Paul is being brutally honest that it’s not always easy to know what we should do when we are faced with an uncertain future. Paul tells the Romans to test things out. In other words, if we think we know what we should do, but aren’t sure, we should go ahead and give it a try. I have found this very simple spiritual advice by Paul to be profoundly helpful. Here’s one final reflection on this verse. Paul’s exhortation to the Romans to take seriously the renewal of their minds in order to discern God’s will for their lives, suggests that he believes their decisions are important. He is honoring the significance—the power—of human activity. Other ancient spiritual teachers, before and after Paul, placed so much emphasis on God’s power that human choice was dismissed as insignificant. But in his letter to the Romans, Paul doesn’t belittle the real struggle of discernment. He doesn’t say, for example, “just leave it all in God’s hands”. Christians believe deeply in a personal, providential God, a divine being who cares about and, in varied ways intervenes in human affairs. But, mysteriously, this all-loving and all-powerful God has willed that this Divine Providence be subject, in part, to our free-will agency. In other words, our choices matter, and discernment is the way to get it right.

Agreed.  Thanks to Jonathan Morris for his inspired insight.  Jonathan is a former Catholic priest who stepped down from that “calling,” but who is still very active with his faith.

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