The writer is the former president of Louisville Seminary. He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.
As we celebrate Easter, it’s important to remember that 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, but how this happens is a mystery.
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.
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.
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.