Saturday, 15 August 2015

On the Need to be Born Again

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.

This is why the imagery of being born again is so resonant for me. I’m no child psychologist, but it seems to me that from their very first breath, babies are in the process of learning what it means to live in the world, and are instantly and constantly confronted with various limits or boundaries, environmental and genetic, that continually shape who they are and who they will become. The same applies to the (new) Christian: when a person is ‘born again’, s/he is birthed anew into a world – one might say into a new creation – in which s/he has to learn new limits and boundaries shaped this time by the environment of the age to come and the seed of Abraham, Jesus. (The imagery of being born again also resonates with the New Testament’s language of adoption. Within the Greco–Roman context, adoption involved a person being taken from one family and engrafted into another. The adopted person would be expected to forego all previous family ties and live as a member of the new family.) When the bad habits and negative thought patterns of the present evil age are so ingrained in a person, the only hope is to be born again and start from scratch. Or, more appropriately, it’s only when a person is born again that s/he recognises the bad habits and negative thought patterns of the present evil age that are so ingrained.

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)


  1. "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!"

    Amen to that o_O If being a follower of Christ doesn't change me from the inside out then what's the point?

  2. Absolutely fascinating piece and raises some very important questions - to which I have no adequate answers.

    I think that's a very good question about how effectively one can be 'born again' before one has fully emerged as an adult human being in the first place. My own concern is that sometimes our churches may be in danger of encouraging us to bypass necessary but less acceptable elements of our human development in a short-cut to sainthood (for example, the need to 'rebel' and individuate rather than conforming to standards set by authority).

    I also very strongly identify with the midlife feeling of needing to start again freed from all the negative crap and unhelpful ways I've taken on board over 40+ years of developing as a flawed human being in this messy world.

    Personally I think everyone should have some form of secular counselling / talking therapy as part of their training in becoming fully human...

    As an aside, how 'evil' do you believe this present age to be, and evil in what sense? - in 20 words ;)

    1. As you probably know, the phrase 'present evil age' is Paul's (Gal. 1:4). I use the phrase - as I believe Paul did - in contrast to the age to come / eternal life / etc. I guess I would imbue the word 'evil' with connotations of fallenness or unfulfilment (is that a word?) or untransformedness (ditto?), but I don't think we'd disagree that there is genuine evil in the world. Probably.

      Sorry - that's longer than twenty words.

    2. Guessed it was Paul but might not have been able to pinpoint the ref without the help of Bible Gateway. I'd definitely agree that there's genuine evil in the world (and in me), but I struggle to make any meaningful sense of what it really is, how it arises and how it has to be dealt with. But I'd probably go with something like your connotations of unfulfilment and untransformedness.

    3. I guess it could be argued that if you're able to make meaningful sense of evil, or of how it arises, or how it has to be dealt with, then it's not genuine evil.