READ : Romans 12:1-2
So our goal should be nothing short of total transformation beginning with our thinking and continuing with our actions throughout the whole of our lives until our entire life glorifies God. And it all starts with the virtue of prudence.
Have you ever made a really dumb decision? It hurts, doesn’t it – especially when we have to live with painful consequences in the full knowledge that they’re our own stupid fault. Think how nice it would be if we had the ability to recognize bad choices ahead of time and avoid them, or to always know which was the right decision to make in any situation.
Well, there is such an ability. It’s called prudence. Prudence is the wisdom to make good decisions. It’s the insight, when confronted with a difficult choice, to recognize the right one. For the ancients this was the most basic of virtues. It was impossible to be good without being prudent, they thought, for how could you choose to do the right thing if you didn’t have the ability to recognize it?
But the modern understanding of prudence has changed somewhat. We tend to identify being prudent with being cautious and non-committal. Instead of being the basis of courageous acts of character and virtue, prudence seems to us almost to be the opposite. If you’re prudent, you won’t get yourself into situations where you have to be courageous because that could get you hurt. Conversely, those who are courageous often seem to be imprudent – like the man who dives into the ocean to try to save a drowning child, only to lose his own life. As the saying goes, “Discretion (a synonym for prudence) is the better part of valor.” A prudent person is not a risk-taker. Prudence equals self-protection.
I think this gradual shift in our understanding of the meaning of prudence is the result of a basic change in our understanding of right and wrong. Our culture has largely embraced a radical redefinition of what constitutes “the good.” We still understand prudence to be the ability to make right decisions, to recognize and choose the good, but we have come to define that good in terms of our own well-being or self-interest. We no longer seek to know what’s right, period. We ask instead, “What’s right for me?” We don’t pursue absolute good, regardless of the consequences. We pursue our own individual goods, those actions which promote our own physical and material well-being.
But Christians believe in absolute good. Just as there is truth that is always true, in all times and places, for all people, so there is good beyond all self-interest. What is right is not just what I think is right, or even what opinion polls say is right; it’s what God has defined as right. Christians believe that objective good is that which conforms to the will of God. The good is what God wills, and what God wills is good. The will of God has been revealed in his law – both the written law in the Bible and the unwritten law in human nature that we call conscience. Furthermore, Christians believe that it’s possible to identify the will of God in specific situations. We can learn to recognize and choose what is right and good. That’s what we mean by the virtue of prudence.
An Appeal to Know and Live God’s Will
In the opening verses of the twelfth chapter of Romans the apostle Paul issues a ringing exhortation to all Christian believers.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.
The substance of this appeal in the letter to the Romans is both comprehensive and far-reaching. Paul urges us to present our bodies as living sacrifices. That is, we must offer up to God every part of ourselves – our mouths and the words they speak, our minds and the thoughts they think, our hands and the deeds they do, our feet and the places they go. It’s interesting that Paul doesn’t urge us to give just our souls to God, or even our hearts, but our bodies. All of us, our entire being, our physical as well as our spiritual nature, is to be devoted to God. And we are to become living sacrifices, offered just as completely as any Old Testament animal, but alive and active, not slaughtered and burned on the altar. What this all amounts to is a call to total holy living, the whole person in thought, word and action responding to God in ways that are pleasing to him.
How to Develop Prudence
So in Romans 12:1 we have the primary appeal of the gospel: that Christians offer themselves entirely as living sacrifices to God, leading lives that are holy to his glory. And we are told the grounds upon which the appeal is based, namely, gratitude for the mercy of God’s saving grace, and a sense of fitness about this ultimate form of worship. Then in the next verse , verse 2, we are told how such a living sacrifice can be accomplished. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
It all comes down to learning how to know and do God’s will. Notice that this is where the apostle’s exhortation leads: “. . . so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” He’s talking about developing the virtue of prudence, in the Christian sense of that term. How do you discern, learn to recognize and identify and choose “what is good and acceptable and perfect” – that is to say, the will of God?
The answer to that question has both a positive and a negative. Negatively, we must stop being conformed to the world’s way of thinking. We have to resist the popular assumptions of our own culture.
Choosing the good is not a high priority in today’s world. Holiness isn’t considered glamorous or exciting. You can get plenty of advice on how to be happy, successful, beautiful, sexy, thin, healthy, or rich. But you won’t hear a lot about how to be good. To choose that means to choose against the mindset and interests of our own culture. And that mindset is very powerful. J. B. Phillips, the English pastor who published the first modern English translation of the New Testament, famously rendered this phrase from Romans 12:2 this way: “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.” That suggests the image of a huge press exerting tons of pressure to bend or mold us into an ungodly form. The pressure is constant and unremitting, and yet often unnoticed because it has always been operating on us.
The world – especially as it functions through the popular media – is shaping our thinking right now, and has been ever since we were born. For example, it tells us that what we have is more important than what we are. Have you ever noticed how the media’s answer to almost any problem, no matter what the problem, is to buy something?
But the Bible says that godliness with contentment is great gain. The world says that what we feel is more important than what we do, and that we have to do whatever we feel. “Don’t worry about what others say is right. Never mind a bunch of rules. You have to do what’s right for you!” But Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear my words and do them.” Nothing about whether we feel like it or not, or even whether we agree with those words or not! So the first step in learning to discern God’s will is to stop being conformed to and shaped by the world’s value system.
Next, and positively, we are to “be transformed by the renewing of (our) minds.” The verb “to be transformed” is in the passive voice, reminding us that we cannot transform ourselves. We are not strong enough on our own to resist the world’s pressure, and change our thinking and behavior. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet we must share in it too, desiring it, responding to the Spirit as he teaches us, submitting our minds to be transformed. Only then will we be able to know and choose God’s will. The will of God is not arbitrary or pointless. It’s not a set of rules for the sake of rules. No, says Paul, it is “good, acceptable and perfect.” The will of God is for our blessing and benefit. Prudence is all about a new way of thinking and choosing based on this will, on God’s value system. And this right thinking will lead to right living.
Prudence – this transformation in our thinking that enables us to discern God’s will and choose the good – begins with a right relationship with God. The Bible says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It grows through prayer. “If any of you is lacking in wisdom,” urges the letter of James, “ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (James 1:5). It is guided by scripture. The psalmist said that God’s word was a lamp to his feet and a light to his path (Psalm 119:105). Whenever you come to a difficult decision or a tough choice, a careful study of scripture, along with the good advice and counsel of wise friends, will shed light on your situation and help you choose the right way.
So our goal should be nothing short of total transformation, beginning with our thinking and continuing with our actions throughout the whole of our lives, until our entire life glorifies God. And it all starts with the virtue of prudence. Invite the Lord to begin sharing in every choice, every decision you make, and you’ll be amazed at how wise you will become!