When I first moved from Canada to South Carolina, I had just gotten out of the Canadian Armed Forces after spending almost 6 years in uniform. (And by just gotten out, I mean that I was officially released one day and flew down here the next.) One of the things about being the military, which may seem obvious but is worth stating for what I want to look at here, is that you give up a lot of who you are. We looked at the issue of our appearance a few weeks ago, and that is one of the more visible areas where this is true. Being at the Royal Military College of Canada, where regulations cover after-hours appearances as well, I didn’t have a lot of say at all in that area of my life. This is one of the things that I found, as a military member, you learn to adjust to and to live with. There came a point in those 6 years where I don’t remember even dwelling much on that lack of say in much of who I was.
What I do remember is the contrast between that last day in the military and those first few days out of it. I went from having very little say in areas of my life to having a lot of say in most areas of my life. In many ways, I had to get to know myself all over again. When you throw into the mix the other part of the transition, from one country and culture to another country and culture, the process got even more complicated. I had been the product of one culture, and now while I was in essence reinventing myself, I found myself dealing with what is in many ways a completely different culture. There are a lot of traditions and expectations when one lives in the South, and some of these I’ve adopted while others I’ve resisted and while likely continue to resist. All this is to emphasize that it was a very lengthy, very involved process for me to get to know myself again and at the same time find a me that I can live with. There has been a lot of conflict and frustration and tears, both on my part and on the part of those around me, and at times the whole process has felt like a battle with no end.
I’ve brought you in to this chapter in my life in hopes that you’ll understand my reaction when I read Scripture passages like Romans 12:1, where the Apostle Paul tells us, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” (I know the King James Version is kind of old school, but I love how it translates this particular verse.) As one might expect, the term “bodies” used here in the original Greek refers to our physical bodies; however, it can also, depending on the context, symbolically refer to everything we are. It’s referring to yourself, for lack of a better phrase. Everything that makes you who you, well, you. “Present” is somewhat of a military term, meaning to make something available to someone for a particular service. If you’ve ever been in the military, think of when a leader asks for volunteers to step forward. If you step forward, you’re “presenting” yourself in the sense that Paul has in mind here. “Sacrifice,” the other important term as far as we’re concerned right now, basically means what it says. Presenting yourself in this way will cost you.
My reaction to this passage, where Paul is, in essence, pleading with us to put all of who we are at God’s disposal for whatever service He sees fit, is one of rejection. (I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who feels this way, either.) I spent so much time and effort figuring myself out again that to give it up feels like dying. (Before going on here, let me also just state that I’m NOT referring here to giving up who you are just to fit in with those around you, or to conform to the expectations of the society or culture in which you find yourself. As I’ve discussed before, the you who you are matters, and I would NEVER tell you to give that up just to conform or fit in.) And yet giving myself up to Him is exactly what Jesus, through Paul, is asking of me and you.
We need to address two other details here before coming to some sort of conclusion on this subject. The first is the term “beseech.” The Greek word which the King James translates as “beseech” has the sense of someone who’s already done something pleading with another to do the same. Think of when you were younger, and you went to a public swimming pool. Maybe you were afraid of going into the deep end, and so your dad jumped in to show you that it was OK and then tried to coax you to join him out there in the water. That’s the sense here. This act of presenting is something Paul’s already done, and that gives me a little comfort in the midst of this request. This is not a shot in the dark we’re dealing with here. (It’s also comforting to note that Paul is not writing to unbelievers here. In using the term “brethren,” he addresses those who already know Jesus. The request Paul makes is therefore done in the context of a relationship.)
The second detail is the question of why. Why would Jesus ask this of us, and why on earth would we say yes? To answer the first why, we need to look at Psalm 37:4, which says, “Delight thyself also in the Lord: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.” Notice the steps there? First you get Him, and then you get the desires of your heart. This is not to say that the so-called prosperity Gospel is right and once you become a Christian you get wealth and happiness forever, but rather to point out that the end of knowing yourself and figuring yourself out, like I had to do, is not just to have yourself. If all you have is yourself, then you’ll never be truly satisfied because your were made to be a part of so much more. We were made for Him, and anything less just won’t do. Jesus knows this, and so this request is there to get us away from what we think will satisfy us to what will really satisfy us.
The answer to the second why question comes from the preceding eleven chapters of Romans. Paul says in 12:1, “I beseech you therefore…” and any time you see “therefore,” it’s significant. One of the keys to understanding the New Testament letters is to follow the author’s train of thought. From beginning to end, Paul and the other writers have a message to get across, and each paragraph follows on from the ones before it. When Paul says “therefore,” what he’s saying is basically “in light of what I’ve already told you, now consider ______.” This particular “therefore” is a big one, for as I’ve said it refers to everything Paul has already covered. In short, Paul makes his request in light of everything Jesus has already done for us. Jesus has brought us from death to life, redeemed us and, as Paul tells us in Romans 7, paid the full price for our sin once and for all. At the cross Jesus gave us everything, and in view of that, describing this act of presenting as our “reasonable service” doesn’t seem like too far of a stretch.
What it comes down to, in the end, is the question of who gets you? To whom do you belong? The way this comes to us is neither a demand nor a commandment, but rather a request made in the context of a relationship, and done through the words of one who’s already taken the leap and implores us to do likewise. I’m not saying it’s an easy decision; it can and does feel like death to present yourself in this way. I am saying it’s worth it in the end.