Reclaiming being “born again”
Evangelists have made the idea of being “born again,” first mentioned in John 3 in an intimate conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a common phrase for converting to Christianity. In fact, it’s become so common place that it’s hard to understand the gravity of it all. I am amazed because the phrase itself is about being born “from above” (that is N.T. Wright’s preferred translation), about a total change in character. It’s a revolution on the inside and outside. The entire world needs to be reborn.
Jesus is blowing Nicodemus’ mind! He is asking him to completely change! I don’t think the metaphor is lost on Nicodemus either, as if he actually thinks he needs to crawl back into his mother’s womb and be born again. He is wondering about the possibility of a man of his age, stature, and experience becoming a different person. Is it possible to do that? My answer is a resounding yes. And it needs to be resounding because the world needs to be changed completely. The evidence of this change is so abundant among us that I think the idea that we need to be reborn, born from above, born again (whatever phrase you like) is just as important as ever. But it’s also just as impractical, or crazy, really.
Reducing it down to individuality
But the problem is, so much of the Christian dialogue around the transforming power of Jesus comes down to making better individual choices and to sin less. We’ve been accused about being “soft on sin,” Circle of Hope that is, and that’s because we don’t see sin as just a matter of individual choices. We also don’t see righteousness as just a matter of individual choices. Nor do we see our salvation as a matter of individual belief. Our faith is not just an augmentation on our American life. The great mistake of American Christianity is “tacking on” Christianity to American life. I think we see this abundantly clear in both ‘left’ and ‘right’ groups too. Fundamentalist Evangelicals are known for their allegiance to the GOP. But I think there are plenty of “liberal” Christians, so to speak, that hitch their wagon to the horse committed to making the political apparatus better and I don’t think that’s as revolutionary as what Jesus had in mind. I’ll leave it at that, since I’ve written plenty on this subject, so you can read it for yourself (here, for example).
Following Jesus isn’t just about minimizing wrong action or even maximizing good action. I don’t think sin is just an individual action. I certainly think some actions are sinful, explicitly, but stopping doing them, as if you could if you tried, isn’t what saves you anyway. In fact, it’s the transformation that being reborn causes that even gives us the proclivity to change and to stop doing wrong, and start living right.
Sin is the water we swim in
More than individual action, sin is a condition that holds the world captive and control it. We need to be liberated from that sin. And that’s exactly what the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus does. The ultimate consequence of sin is death and Jesus defeats death. He defeats the disease of sin, the condition that enslaves us. Despite that victory, we’re still living in sinful waters. We still need to swim against the tide. We still act in sinful ways and defend or deny our sinful lifestyle.
That instinct to protect and defend is the antithesis of being born again. It’s more deeply seating your “this world” birth. The redemption and transformation that Jesus calls us to is something that might feel “other worldy.” And it is in a sense. It is like being born in another world and from another Mother. We all have a path for redemption and transformation. It is a path that is so humble, we rarely see it done, especially in public.
The judge could’ve showed us another way
I was hoping that Brett Kavanaugh would show us how to do that last week. In his hearing to become a Supreme Court Justice, Kavanaugh showed little remorse, compassion, or understanding at the plight of Ford, who was accusing him of sexual assault. His demeanor and unrepentant posture is exactly the opposite of what being born again is. It’s just the stuff the world is made from.
If he wanted to be born again, he would own up to what he did, and tell us how sorry he was and how he was going to change. Furthermore, let’s say he didn’t do anything wrong, he might actually demonstrate compassion and understanding at the evident suffering of Ford, while also being sympathetic to the plight of women everyone, whose lives and stories were represented by Ford.
Sure, he might have lost his job, but what good is it to gain the whole world, but forfeit your soul? Show us something different! The judge just showed us a bad example, once again, of how to change, grow, and lead. He took no responsibility, denied he ever had a drinking problem, and lied repeatedly about history and his past. At the very least, he could’ve been honest. Instead, he was just defensive. And no, his defensive posture doesn’t get him anywhere and it doesn’t teach us anything different.
For Kavanaugh though, it was a Nicodemus moment that he failed, and I hope he doesn’t continue to fail at it. I hope that he can be born again. But he, like Nicodemus, sits on high courts, has built a life for himself, and Jesus is asking him to let it go for something better. The New Testament is full of examples of this sort of posture. Jesus confronts people, who are fully of glory and worldly affirmation, and asks them to let it go for his sake. It’s a hard thing to do. It is hard to be born again. But it is worth it.
Men need to be born again
I want to hone in on where I think some rebirth needs to happen. I think we all need it. The mechanisms and the forms of the world are inadequate for transformation. Even making the most of our oppression isn’t the kind of rebirth Jesus is talking about. We aren’t trying to build new power structures to compete against the ruling ones. That power struggle is the fabric of society, and it is a sinful fabric. I am sympathetic to it, Jesus is bringing something different than an equal distribution of power.
Men, in particular, are having their sins thrown back at them. It’s normal to be defensive, but don’t think defensiveness gets us anywhere. Again, our sin is not just a product of individual actions, though it expresses itself that way, it’s the water we swim in. It’s a condition that we are born into. We need to be born again. It starts with repentance, moves toward redemption, and ends with transformation.
Three steps for transformation
I think we have to start by taking responsibility for our actions. Admit what we did. Don’t excuse. Own it. That’s the first step of the apology. I got too angry. I drank too much. I believed the lies the world told me about sex and power. I mistreated women. I had sex with no intention of loving someone. I forced her hand. I did the wrong thing. It’s painful to admit that, but I believe it’s where we need to start.
Make a plan
A good apology isn’t enough though. Some guys are expert apologizers but the apology doesn’t transform us. Asking for forgiveness is important. Reconciliation can happen. But reconciliation alone isn’t good enough. In order to repent, to be born again, we have to talk about how we’re going to change. This is where accountability within community based on agreements comes into play. How are you going to change? What will be different this time? Make a plan. Make it with your pastor or your cell leader. Both put limits on yourself and set new goals. Tell people about it. Talk about your process and how you’re growing and how you want to grow.
Harvest your fruit
And then show fruit of your repentance. How did you grow? How did you change? What’s the evidence of it? The best thing we can do is show how we’ve changed. Produce something positive. Serve on a team, act self-sacrificially, council other guys, bring a friend to a Sunday meeting, tell your story. There are lots of ways to show the fruit of our repentance.
The world needs to change. It needs to be reborn and it needs to transform. Our public leaders aren’t showing us how to; but Jesus is. There is a way to let go of who we were and move into something new. It will be a struggle. The condition of the world, the sin we swim in, is a condition that is hard to get rid of. We’re all struggling with a sin addiction, so we can’t keep each other safe from conflict. But we can get better. We can better at doing the right thing and we can better at loving and forgiving too. Our rebirth might be not fully realized until the age to come, but I believe it starts now.
You don’t have to hold on to your past success, your stature, or even your aspirations. You can be a different person. It might feel as impractical to you as it did for Nicodemus. So it’ll take a miracle. The Good News is that Jesus already did that miracle, and now, in our Body, we have a chance to express it and live into it.