Last weekend I was at a conference for Christian college students. The theme was Loving God With All Your Mind (one of the components of loving the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength, though I'm not sure these are as separable as some have tried to make them sound, but I don't think the people running this conference were guilty of making that mistake). The speaker was my friend and mentor Greg Ganssle, whose footsteps I've been following for a while (I seem to be ending up right where he's just left with my major life moves, two years after his departure. If the trend continues, I'll be in New Haven just as he goes elsewhere, but since he's made a 25-year commitment to the Rivendell Institute I might be in Syracuse for another 16 years).
Anyway, Greg talked about Romans 12:1-2, focusing on four parts of the two verses, and the part that struck me the most was in his first talk on the mercies of God. He said that we can't really offer God anything, and all we can really do is to respond to the mercy and grace God has shown us. Thus anything we do to serve God is pretty much unmotivated unless we grasp the depths of God's mercies. Grasping the mercies of God leads to loving God, submitting to his will, and being faithful over the long run. Not grasping them leads more to legalism or apathy. None of this was new to me. In fact, I've seen it evidenced fairly well in my own life. This leaves me with a big problem. Philosophers and other intellectuals don't tend to be very good at the heart issues involved with grasping the mercies of God. How do you bring yourself to be so taken by what God has done that it drives everything else in your life? Greg gave some practical examples of what he, as an intellectual, does to develop these spiritual affections. How do you choose to taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34)? The basic outline of what follows is Greg's, as are many of the examples, though some of the elaborations are mine.
1. Meditate on God's works in creation. Read the first two chapters of Genesis, and notice the goodness of God's original creation. It may be twisted due to the fall, but if it weren't still basically good then God wouldn't have considered it worth redeeming. Science helps us open up the hidden secrets of the universe God made. We can see God's own image, twisted as it often is, in human beings, who are valuable enough to God to send his Son to die for us so that we wouldn't be lost forever. We're relational, as God is relational (Father-Son-Spirit). There's an emphasis in scripture on unity because God is unified. This is a call to be like God. We create music, art, film because God is creator and we're made in his image. See God's goodness in people in your life, in good food, in good thinking, in the amazing creativity of our fellow human beings, in sexual union, in nature, in the blessings he gives to the whole world continuously. "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." (Phil 4:8, ESV)
2. Meditate on redemption. Creation is all twisted up, but God didn't want to leave it that way. He entered our world to save us. This can seem really theoretical, but one way to turn it from that is to remember that it's not just forgiveness from objective guilt. This involves adoption into the family of the maker of the universe. The "adoption as sons" image defies gender-neutral translation, because being a son and being a daughter involved very different notions regarding inheritance, and the biblical authors refer to all, whether male or female, as sons. He will embrace his children as his own. This is true restoration, true reconciliation with the one all of us had made ourselves enemies of. He made the greatest sacrifice of love to bring us to be called friends of God. To me, that has more significance than the simple abstract picture people might present if they just give the legal aspects of the atonement (which are no less real -- just less moving to me). Practice the discipline of thinking on these things.
3. Practice giving thanks. This isn't an emotional response. Like the other items in this list, it's a discipline that takes continued work, but the result of deliberate thinking about things to be thankful for will be genuine feelings of thankfulness. You'll begin to see God's mercies everywhere, even with small things. Starting small is fine, though it will lead to the bigger things. As your mind wanders, thank God for the things your mind has wandered to, though be disciplined enough to continue thanking him. When you think hard about what to be thankful for, you will see God's mercies in people's lives. Thanksgiving opens the way to seeing what God has already been doing. There's a reason many of the psalms involve the speaker addressing his own soul. We need to talk to ourselves, to remind ourselves of these things, telling ourselves of God and what to praise him and thank him for.
4. Think about Jesus' encounters with everyday people. Look at how Jesus responds to people. When Jesus wept, it couldn't have been simply because he'd lost his friend Lazarus, because he was about to resurrect him. More likely is that he was simply weeping over the twisted creation since the fall that involves the constant curse of death. Death is an affront to the mercies of God. Jesus knew the price he would pay to remove that curse, and he wept over all this. No part of creation is outside the scope of his mercies. Consider the outcasts, the scum of the Jewish society of the time, who were continually the recipients not just of his ministry but of his compassion and care, looking to their deepest needs despite the criticism he would receive over it. He touched lepers before healing them, which would make him unclean according to the Torah. He didn't have to touch him to heal him, but he did anyway. This was a human being with value, made in God's image, and Jesus treated him so. He touches us who are untouchable.
It's hard not to overflow with the sense of the depths of God's mercy after reflecting on these things. This is no mere intellectual exercise, but it takes great strength of mind to fix one's thoughts on these things, to direct oneself to meditating on the things that will lead to a deeper sense of God's mercies. I would argue that it's a spiritual discipline, and Greg's thoughts on this (and his example) have given me greater hope that an intellectual can move beyond abstract theological musings and into a deep appreciation for the things of God, including a heart response to his incredible mercy and grace to all of us far beyond what we can ask or imagine (Eph 3:20).
In light of his mercies, present yourselves as sacrifices, living, holy, and acceptable/pleasing to God (Rom 12:1).