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What does it mean to be born again?

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The search for God is a staple of human history. The Bible and the history of Christianity are filled with stories of people who have powerful experiences of a divine presence in their lives and how their lives are transformed. But how this happens is a mystery.

The third chapter of the Gospel of John is famous for its depiction of the heart of Christianity. There Jesus declares, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (3:16).

Jesus’ well-known description of himself and God’s love comes in the midst of a fascinating story (John 3:1-21). A Pharisee by the name of Nicodemus came to Jesus secretly during the night. Nicodemus wanted to know more about Jesus: "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God."

Jesus tells him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Here the translations differ. It might be "born from above," but it could also be "born anew," "born of the Spirit," or the widely used phrase, "born again." Whatever the translation, the meaning is clear. A relationship with God means a new birth; it means change; it means becoming a different person.

Nicodemus is puzzled by Jesus’ words. He asks, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?"

Jesus replies, "Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."

This story captures the compelling drama of what it means to find God. It means a rebirth ("You must be born from above"), but how this happens is a mystery ("The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes").

Christians throughout the ages have usually described the experience of finding God as conversion. This English word suggests the act of "turning around," moving from one place to another. Interestingly, the word for "conversion" does not appear often in the Bible. Instead, the Bible contains words that capture the root meaning of conversion — "to turn," "to turn to," "to turn away from," "to return," "to turn toward," or "to turn around."

The experience of conversion can be a single event that is sudden, dramatic and powerful. Or it can be a series of experiences spanning a lifetime.

The philosopher William James called this the difference between "the once-born" and "the twice-born." The once-born are people who go "from strength to strength." They live without knowing despair or deep alienation from God. They never know a time when they did not live without a knowledge and love of God. Their experience of God is like a pebble thrown into a lake — ripples that gradually expand their awareness of God’s presence in their lives.

On the other hand, "the twice-born" know the depths of pain, the devastation of being utterly alone, the overwhelming burden of guilt and shame. Finding God for the twice-born means a life-changing experience. These people "hit bottom" and emerge from darkness into light. They find new worth in God’s mercy and forgiveness. They find new life in God’s love.

My book, Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories, contains 60 accounts of both the once-born and the twice-born. When they are examined closely, the distinction is blurred. The experience of twice-born people looks more like a process of discovery, rather than an emotional turning point. The experience of once-born people often has more drama than one might expect.

Nearly all these stories reveal a fascinating pattern. An individual is confronted by God. Then the individual resists. Eventually the person surrenders. What follows is an experience of joy and a new life of mission and service.

Despite this pattern, the experience of conversion or finding God can take various forms. It can be emotional (John Wesley’s heart being "strangely warmed"), intellectual (C.S. Lewis’ gradual conviction of God’s existence), aesthetic (Jonathan Edwards’ awareness of God in the beauty of nature), or moral (Albert Schweitzer’s and Mother Teresa’s decision to devote their lives to the poor).

The 17th-century pastor Richard Baxter summed up the astonishing variety of experiences of God by acknowledging that he did not know the time of his conversion. Upon reflection, he wrote, "I perceived that education is God’s ordinary way for the conveyance of his grace. I understood at last that God breaketh not all men’s hearts alike."

But the issue remains. Can people change? This question lies at the heart of virtually every area of human knowledge — from science to philosophy to literature to criminology. Answering that question has enormous implications for how individuals live their lives and how societies organize their governments and their laws.

The lives of people who find God is a powerful and eloquent testimony to the fact that people can change, and they can change when they discover, in the words of St. Augustine’s prayer, that "our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee."

Festo Kivengere, an Anglican bishop who became known as "the Billy Graham of Africa," spent his life telling people about the God he found in his youth. He was renowned as a storyteller — for all ages. In one of his favourite stories, a little girl sat watching her mother working in the kitchen. She asked her mother, "What does God do all day long?" For a while her mother was stumped, but then she said, "Darling, I’ll tell you what God does all day long. He spends his whole day mending broken things."

Throughout the centuries and in various ways, people do find God. But when you look more closely, it’s more a matter of God finding them — because God spends his whole day mending broken things.

John M. Mulder is the former president of Louisville Seminary. His most recent book is Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories.

—The Free Lance-Star

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