I’m sure all three of my regular readers are familiar with Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus, but let me reproduce part of the text anyway.
Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ (John 3:3-4)
I’d never really given these particular verses too much thought. On the rare occasions I did, I’d always supposed Nicodemus asked his questions out of confused ignorance, as though he thought Jesus was being literalistic. But presumably Nicodemus was reasonably intelligent, and presumably he thought Jesus was, too, so I don’t think this angle works for me any more. At this point in the conversation, I believe Nicodemus and Jesus are simply enjoying the opening stages of their conversation, like two mates down the pub beginning to discuss something serious but with good humour. So while Nicodemus’s questions seem literalistic, I suspect he’s just pushing Jesus to explain himself a little more.
Questions of literalism aside, I think there’s something in this conversation that I’m only beginning to appreciate as I hit mid-life. I’ve come to a point in my life where I realise I have a lot of behavioural traits and negative thought patterns that need to be addressed; the thought patterns especially, as these are affecting my perspective on a range of things, including family and local church life. But these are traits and patterns that have developed since I emerged into this world forty years ago. Thus the need to be born again – literally, if not literalistically – is crucial; it’s only by being born again that a person can begin once more to learn how to be human.
But what happens when someone is born again before s/he has actually had a chance to mature as a human? In my case, I came to faith – was born again – a month after turning thirteen. I started to grow as a Christian while I was still learning to grow as a human. And while I am grateful for the biblical instruction I received from my Sunday School teacher, who recognised my desire to understand the Christian faith, I cannot help but wonder how things might have been different for me if I’d been taught not just Scripture, faith, and petitionary prayer, but to integrate these good and vital things with spiritual practices such as self-reflection and stillness. Is it feasible for a child or a teenager to be taught these practices? I cannot say for sure; I’m inclined to answer this question affirmatively. But even if it’s not feasible, then I suspect adults can still model these practices for younger people so that reflection and stillness become a natural part of discipleship even for the youngest generations. (How often are our church services little more than a crèche for adult Christians? ‘More, Lord!’ ‘O, Lord, I want your blessings now!’ ‘Let’s now move into a time of unrestrained noise!’)
My point, I suppose, is that the growth of the age to come can and must shape the growth of a human life even in the present evil age. If I’d learnt how to still myself before God; if I’d learnt how to reflect on my emotions, perhaps by praying the Psalms; if I’d learnt how to process my teenage and adult angst in ways shaped by the whole body of Christ and not just my physically maturing body, then (how) would I be different now? To be sure, this is an unanswerable question, but one that recognises the importance of Jesus’s imperative: ‘You must be born again.’ (John 3:7)