In third-grade art class we were asked to complete the following: circle, square, triangle; circle, square…but what comes next? The human eye is naturally inclined to recognize patterns. The human mind is likewise naturally inclined to complete them. Middle school algebra revealed the pattern of the number line, one that continues after zero into negative infinity. Even as we proceed into adulthood, the weight of the world’s limited time, influence, and moments make us increasingly aware that each breath draws us closer to the end of a pattern we dread to see completed.
It is fairly evident patterns exist. It is only natural to recognize them. In fact, as image-bearers of God we possess a keen desire to see things through to completion. However, it is essential to understand that some patterns exist outside of God’s original design: patterns of subjectively defined lifestyles, systems of thought, and human government. These are the patterns of The World. It is tempting to not only acknowledge these patterns, but accept them as naturally occurring, good, and perfect. “Circle, square, triangle; circle, square… complete the pattern,” The World says with a smile. What can our human minds do but blurt out “triangle?”
We must recognize, however, that The World does not just ask us to identify what comes next, but prompts us to “complete the pattern;” to not only say “triangle,” but to be conformed to its shape and become a part of its sequence. The World seeks to conform us to itself.
In 1 John 5:19, the statement “we are children of God” clearly hangs in tension with the following claim that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” John argues that those saved through Christ no longer belong to The World. As Jesus affirmed in John 15:19, this separateness speaks to the reality that He chose “us out of the world.” This distinction is further supported in Romans 8:7-8, where Paul notes how “the mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God.” Throughout all of scripture, the perfect nature and patterns of God openly oppose the patterns of the world.
What does Scripture have to say about these patterns? How do we respond to them? How can we detect them? Throughout the book of Romans the apostle Paul reminds us that our salvation is a gift made possible only through the atoning sacrifice of Christ. The law cannot save us–obedience to it is a simply our response to His grace. In Romans 12, Paul discusses how Christians should desire God’s perfection. Romans 12:2 speaks directly about how Christians should respond to The World: “Do not conform to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
Before unpacking this verse, one must establish the difference between the patterns of this world and the perfect pattern of God. The patterns of this world are sequences of man-made ideals. They promise self-discovery and self-actualization. They all follow the same rhetorical question: What is your skin color? What is your sex? What are your core values? So, we answer. Then a more open-ended question: how does that make you feel? Do you feel trapped? So, we start to wonder if we do. We consider all the times we have been hurt by broken people in a broken world and identify with those feelings. We become victims of circumstance in our minds. Self doubt consumes: Did God really say He loves you? Did God really say He created you to be a woman? A man? Did God really say you have to believe that? Maybe He didn’t?
We think on our own, drifting into untruth.
God would want me to be comfortable in my own skin. That’s just how He created me.
And so, we “discover ourselves.” Instead of facing these legitimate questions with the truth, we acquire an identity conforming to the pattern of The World.
These patterns require us to conform to its straight line rather than to Christ (Rom. 8:29). Circle: who are you? Square: how are you? Triangle: did God really say? In one fell swoop, we complete the sequence within ourselves. We are content for a while until The World with all its insidiousness introduces a new pattern and forces us to conform again. Conformed “has to do with conformation that is malleable—that can change from day to day or year to year.” There will always be a new agenda, trend, or movement which elevates human individuality above all else (John 3:30). However, this identity is never secure. It will always be subjected to the ever-changing desires of The World.
What must we do to avoid this type of conformity? In the second part of Romans 12:2, Paul says that we must “be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s].” It “involves transformation at the core of one’s being” and a focus on our identity in Christ. It is a pursuit to transform our very being in accordance with the pattern of God–something new and holy.
The patterns of God’s world will not come to completion until He commands them to do so. They are circular, as eternal as He. The sun rises and the sun sets, only to rise and set again as the Earth rotates on its axis. The year begins with the cold of winter and gradually warms, only to cool again. The leaves fall and grow. So follows His intended pattern of transformation in the life of the Christian. We start with a recognition of sin and move toward repentance; then, in faith, find forgiveness in the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Next, our will seeks to conform to God’s with an obedient and thankful heart. What is different about this pattern? God does not call us to complete it. When Jesus gave up His spirit on the cross (John 19:28-30), the curtain was torn, and the loop was closed. We now have the ability to recognize God’s good and perfect pattern and enter into an eternal relationship with Him.
In contrast, conformity to The World opposes this kind of transformation. It promises us personal fulfillment and idealistic cookie-cutter identities of sexuality, gender, and political affiliation. To exalt these self-determined categories at the core of our humanity diametrically opposes our identity in Christ.
Because the reality of God so opposes the patterns of The World, Paul reminds believers to be transformed in their minds. This mind-renewal occurs as we bend and surrender to God’s already-completed and never-ending will. While the world calls us to find ourselves as shapes in patterns with an end, God gently calls us to lose ourselves to no end. We must never forget that He was the first to call us “very good” (Genesis 1:31), not because we completed a pattern, but simply because He completed us.
We are unique shapes with unique purposes in His kingdom. Let us resist the temptation to fall into line and embrace our calling to be transformed, lose our edges, and strive for His eternal perfection.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not proport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.