A New Way of Thinking
You can learn a lot about life by closely observing the natural world. In fact, the great British theologian and pastor John Stott was an avid bird watcher. He traveled around the world JUST to catch a glimpse of birds he hadn’t seen yet. And he wrote a great book that I have a copy of called “The Birds Our Teachers.” Talks all about the things different birds and their habits can teach us about life and faith. I love to attract and feed birds and watch birds at our feeders. I also love to watch fish. I spent many years as an aquarium keeper and am starting to get back into that now that the kids are older. Scripture itself often points us to the natural world for examples of how to act, or how not to act. One of the most famous examples of that is found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest” (6:6-8). We can learn a lot by carefully observing what is happening around us, on a walk or a hike, while out camping, even in our yards. There’s probably something we can learn from the mice in our basements. Well, research published in January of 2006 showed that worker ants sacrifice both time and efficiency in order to teach other ants how to find food – a practice that is beneficial for the society as a whole.
There’s a species of ant in Europe called the Rock Ant. When a female rock ant goes out to find food, she will often choose another ant to accompany her. If the second ant doesn’t know the way to the food source, the leader will teach her through a process called “tandem running.” As the teacher runs along the path to food, the student follows behind and will often stop to locate landmarks – creating a gap between herself and the leader. So the teacher will stop and wait. And when the student is ready, she will run forward and tap her teacher on her back legs.
This process is extremely beneficial for the student. Ants participating in tandem running located a food source in an average of 201 seconds, while ants searching for food on their own took an average of 310 seconds (a 35 percent difference). However, the process is detrimental to the teachers. Research indicated that the lead ants traveled up to four times faster when they were not accompanied by a student.
So why do the leaders sacrifice their time and efficiency to teach others? According to study leader Nigel Franks, “They are very closely related nest mates and their society as a whole will benefit.” This occurs as the students gradually learn their way and are able to teach other ants, which increases the efficiency of the entire population. Researchers also observed that some teacher-ants would simply carry a follower on their backs and drop them off at the food source. This technique was three times faster than tandem running. However, the carried ants were not able to remember how to get back to the food source – probably because they were upside down and backwards.[i] More efficient, yes. It allowed that individual teacher ant to get much more done HERSELF. But the overall process was hindered because the younger ant she had carried to the food source couldn’t make her way back and forth on her own. The ants that took the time to help others got less done themselves, but the whole nest benefitted because as a whole, they got much more done.
As we continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans, we come today to Romans 12:3-8. In this passage, Paul begins to give examples of the renewed mind and consecrated bodies offered as living sacrifices to God that he describes in Vv. 1-2. What he’s saying is, “This is what it looks like when your mind is renewed by Christ. This is how you start to think.” Turn with me to Romans 12:3-8.
Part of the renewal of our minds in Christ that leads to our transformation, our growth TOWARD Christlikeness as we follow Christ, is that we begin to THINK DIFFERENTLY about ourselves. In V. 2, which we looked at last week, Paul says “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” And then in V. 3, he says, “everyone among you should not THINK of himself more highly than he ought to THINK, but should THINK about herself, about himself, with sober judgment.” The word Paul chose to use for “thinking” here is a word that points more toward the direction of your thinking than just your thinking itself. He isn’t talking about the content of a particular thought. He’s talking about your overall view of yourself. As our minds are renewed, we begin to think differently about ourselves.
Now remember, this transformation, this renewal, is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, it will be happening every second of every minute of every hour of every day that you are alive as a follower of Christ. It will happen until the second you die. Even the most mature follower of Christ is still being transformed, is still having her mind, his mind, renewed. It is a process, but it IS moving forward. As followers of Christ, we are not supposed to be stagnant. So as that process moves forward, as we study and meditate on God’s Word, as we gather together for worship and encouragement, as we serve God in the world, in other words, as we follow Christ, we begin to take on a different view of ourselves.
You see, sin replaces God with self. It places the self at the center of everything. That’s our default state. I don’t need God. I don’t want God. I can be good enough on my own. I can do enough good on my own. And most of us CAN do a lot of good on our own. But we can’t be perfect, and that’s the standard. And why did God make perfection the standard? He didn’t. Perfection is the standard not because God decreed it but because God himself IS perfect, in his nature and in his character. Sin cannot exist in God’s presence not because God decreed it but because God’s holiness and righteousness will consume it. Sin simply CANNOT exist in God’s presence. So what God does in Christ is he applies Christ’s righteousness to us, even though as human beings we still make mistakes, we still sin, we still fall short sometimes. And it all goes back to our inherited natural condition, of sin, of replacing God with self.
But as our minds are renewed, we begin to see ourselves differently. “With sober judgment,” Paul says. We begin to view ourselves accurately. With humility. Humility isn’t an attitude that says, “I’m nothing. I’m a worm.” That certainly isn’t what God says about you are how God views you. God sent Jesus, the Son, to die a brutal death on a Roman cross for you and for me. What does that say about you? Certainly not that you have no value, that you don’t matter, that you’re a worm. The life and death of Jesus are heaven shouting “YOU MATTER! YOU ARE LOVED! YOUR LIFE HAS MEANING!” That “I’m nothing, I’m a worm” attitude isn’t actually humility at all. It is false humility, which is actually a form of pride. It’s still focused on the self, just negatively instead of positively.
Of course, the opposite of that is also a problem. And that’s pride as we usually think about pride. It’s all about me. We’ve kind of done gone off the deep end in that direction in the church in America in recent years. It’s become all about celebrity pastors and rock star worship leaders. The uniquely American disease, and every culture has their own distortions of reality, the American disease of radical individualism has kind of taken us in that direction. But the truth is, the church has always struggled with this in some way, because it hits close to the heart of sin.
The early church had its superstars too. One was Paul. Another was Peter. Another was a man name Apollos. In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul is speaking to divisions in the Corinthian church when he says, “It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:11-13). As our minds are renewed, we begin to view ourselves accurately, neither to highly, nor too low. We know that we are deeply loved by God and are recipients of his grace, and so are the others following Jesus on this journey with us.
In 1994 Thurman Thomas, head bowed with his hands covering his face, sat on the Buffalo bench following his team’s fourth straight Super Bowl loss. His three fumbles had helped seal the awful fate of his Buffalo Bills. Suddenly, standing before him was the Dallas Cowboys’ star running back, Emmitt Smith. Just named MVP for Super Bowl XXVIII, Smith was carrying his small goddaughter. Smith looked down at her and said, “I want you to meet the greatest running back in the NFL, Mr. Thurman Thomas.” Thurman Thomas was a great, great running back who had played a really bad game. Emmitt Smith was a great, great running back who had played a really good game. But Emmitt wanted to make sure his goddaughter got the chance to meet Thurman Thomas, his opponent and the man he considered to be the greatest running back in the NFL, in spite of his own accomplishments on the field.
Now, look at Vv. 4-8. Paul lists a few spiritual gifts – prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, giving, leadership, and mercy. This isn’t a complete list. I don’t think there IS a complete list of all of the spiritual gifts God gives to his people. None of the lists of spiritual gifts in the Bible claim to be comprehensive, and there’s no evidence that they are. Paul’s point is, as you take on an accurate view of yourself, deeply loved by God, you are set free to serve God with the gifts he has given you.
You see, you are a unique combination of personality and gifts and body type and life experiences and passions and abilities, and all of those things together make you, well, you. Uniquely you. You see, you are special, unique, different than everyone else. In Psalm 139, David exclaims, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” These aren’t the words of a worm, a nobody, a nothing. They’re the words of someone who knows who they are as God’s unique creation. This is the view God wants you to take of yourself. You are formed and knitted together by God. Have you ever watched someone knit something? There’s an intimacy and a careful attention in it. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, a wonderful work of God.
Paul himself echoes these words in Ephesians 2:10. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” YOU are God’s workmanship. God’s craftsmanship. Uniquely and carefully crafted by God. And you have something to offer to the body of Christ. Marilyn is God’s workmanship. Lenda is God’s workmanship. Randy is God’s workmanship. Ryan is God’s workmanship. Bob is God’s workmanship. Eddie is God’s workmanship, and has something unique to offer that only he can offer. You are NOT a worm.
But you also aren’t a unicorn. You are uniquely you, but you are a part of a team. A team so united that Scripture refers to it as a body. And no one part is more important than the others. You see, Christ is the head. The one irreplaceable part. In Colossians 1:18 Paul says, “And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” The life of the body and the mission, the intention of the body flow from the head. We together are the body of Christ, and he is the head. He ALONE is the head. It isn’t Jesus AND this celebrity pastor, or Jesus AND this rock star worship leader. It is Jesus. Simply Jesus. And we, together, are parts of the body. Some SEEM more important than others because we live in a broken world and we as human beings celebrate some gifts more than others. The great speakers, the great singers, the dynamic personalities, those with great strength and physical prowess and sometimes just plain old, culturally conditioned good looks.
There’s something I want you to notice about the list of gifts Paul places here. The first one is prophecy. Now, let’s be honest, when we think about the gift of prophecy, which isn’t always, or even usually, foretelling the future. It’s more forthtelling, helping the body of Christ to see what God is doing in confusing times. Think about the Old Testament prophets. There were prophets throughout the Old Testament, but when were they most active and when were their works most recorded? In the times leading up to and during the fall of Jerusalem and the exile in Assyria and Babylon, and then during the time of rebuilding, which didn’t exactly go smoothly. When we think of the gift of prophecy, we usually think of someone who is super-spiritual right? Like a really faithful, seasoned follower of Christ, right? Either that or someone who is deluded and arrogant and THINKS they’re a prophet. We place a high value on that gift.
What is the gift that Paul mentions next? Serving. Behind the scenes. Unseen. Uncelebrated. Unnoticed. Paul places them side by side. WE might value certain gifts and personalities more than others, but God doesn’t, and every part of the body is necessary for the body to be what it is supposed to be and do what it is supposed to do.
Now, look at V. 8. We are to throw our whole selves into it, with zeal and cheerfulness. Not grudging. Joyfully. As living sacrifices.
I will have lived and ministered here in northern Michigan for 25 years this coming August. I moved up here out of college in 1996, met Becky, and it was all over. I wasn’t going anywhere unless she was, and her roots here run deep. Really deep. Back to the first settlers deep. I’ve been up here for a long time. But a lot of my sports allegiances have stayed in Ohio, with the exception of the Tigers and the Red Wings. So I root for the Cincinnati Bengals. I know, you’ve probably never seen a Bengals fan before. We’re rare, but we exist. So this year, our quarterback was this hot young recruit out of LSU, Joe Burrow. Great quarterback. Has the potential to be truly great. Won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship last year at LSU.
And although the team wasn’t winning early in the season, we also weren’t getting blown out. We were in almost every game. Most were decided by less than a touchdown. We were in it, and things were coming together as Burrow got used to the speed and intensity of football in the NFL. And then he got hurt. Ended his season. He got hurt because our offensive line is terrible. They couldn’t protect him. Until he got hurt, he was the most hit quarterback in the NFL. Great quarterbacks can’t throw the ball when they’re lying flat on their backs wondering what time zone they’re in. For a great quarterback to be great, he needs a great offensive line. No one knows who those guys are. The only time their names are called is when they commit a penalty. But their job is just as important as that of the quarterback and wide receivers.
We are a team, a body. A body made up of individuals who are fearfully and wonderfully crafted together by God, brought together by our common sinfulness, our common need of Christ, and our common salvation in Christ. No part is more significant, more important, than any other. Let us pray.
[i] Bjorn Carey, “Ant School: The First Formal Classroom Found in Nature,” Foxnews.com (1-13-06)