In the letter to his congregation in Rome, Paul took some time explaining what living with an awareness of God’s presence ought to look like. This section in chapter 12, for example, is often published in Bibles with the subheading “Love in Action.” You’d think that followers of Christ would know what living in Love was supposed to look like, but apparently they didn’t; certainly not in Paul’s experience. Evidently, we’ve forgotten as well. Just look at the headlines of your local newspaper, or turn on CNN, if you don’t believe me.
Living a Christian life is counter-cultural. If we take this passage from Romans as an example, Paul lists more than a dozen things that Christians ought to be doing which are frowned upon by the predominant culture. Honor others above yourself. Don’t take revenge. Feed your enemy. These ideas weren’t new in Paul’s time, but they were questionable from the viewpoint of Roman culture.
These values are questionable in our culture as well. We live in a time in which greed, celebrity, profit, and fear are the highest cultural values. In recent years, while wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen were raging and hundreds of thousands of families were fleeing the devastation and the bombs, governments world-wide closed their borders. World leaders cited the possibility of terrorist infiltration and lack of resources as reasons for refusing entry to the desperate people who were flocking to their borders, but often their motivations came down to apathy and fear.
There was very little compassion or hospitality offered; few leaders mourned with the masses who were mourning; even fewer were willing to associate with the refugees (“those of lower position”) and repay the evil done to them with blessings. It is a difficult thing to live by the values that Paul espoused, especially when we are dealing with migration on such a massive scale. It seems that our default setting is one of fear, protectionism, and exclusion. Apparently, we haven’t grown much spiritually since Paul’s time.
Things are not hopeless, however. Conversion and transformation are possible, though they happen slowly, like a little bit of yeast added to a large batch of bread dough. Very rarely does the Holy Spirit transform the hearts of millions of people all at once. It usually happens person by person, one at a time, which is why Paul says “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” And yes, everyone means everyone—even your ex.
So we can take this letter to the Romans as personal instruction for how we each are to live. Each one of us has the power to transform our little corner of the world. A few months ago, I picked up a hitchhiker on a very lonely stretch of highway, heading towards the town I live in. (I know, right?! This went against everything my mother ever taught me!) I had never picked up a hitchhiker in my life before this, but something nudged me to pull off the road and offer him a ride. Jake ended up staying with us for the night. That’s right—I picked up a total stranger, brought him to my house, offered him a shower and a couple of meals, and let him stay the night. It kind of went against “all common sense,” but it was what God called me to do. I offered hospitality, shared what I had with someone in need, and put someone else’s needs ahead of my own. And I have to tell you, it felt great!
We just don’t seem to have much trouble rejoicing with those who rejoice—like the crowds cheering for the winning team at the Super Bowl—but putting aside our own agendas and feelings for the benefit of someone else (someone less fortunate) is more difficult. Granted, some people just seem to naturally live this way (think Mother Teresa) but for most of us it takes more than a passing acknowledgement of Jesus’ example to really love one another.
Paul knew that it would take a deliberate effort on our part to live in God’s love and overcome evil with good. But he also told us how to accomplish this—Paul says “be faithful in prayer”. When your life is one long uninterrupted conversation with God, you become accustomed to listening for God’s little nudges, and act accordingly. That is how transformation occurs, and is meant to occur.