Pastor's Blog

I was always told that spiritual rebirth was an amazing miracle.  Well, it may be a work of God – but when born-again people are vindictive and cruel, you start asking yourself what happened to the miracle that God supposedly did in their lives.  At least I wondered that.  It made me question whether there was a God who worked at all (as I’ve recounted in previous blogs).  When I returned from my flirtation with atheism I decided to remove the word “miracle” from my vocabulary.  Not because I don’t believe in the biblical miracles (I do) and not because I believe God can’t do miracles (He can).  I see “miracle” as a very technical term for a very extraordinary occurrence that cannot be too easily explained by an appeal to nature.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything in that category.

That doesn’t mean God doesn’t work in the world.  There is a whole other category of divine working that seems overlooked and forgotten, called “providence”, and I sing its praises.  Evangelicals seem to think that unless a thing is miraculous, God can’t be in it or behind it.  But God is constantly working in, through, and behind completely ordinary circumstances.  Why wouldn’t He be?  He is involved in our lives and our world every day.  He just doesn’t do miracles every day.

Years ago, a three-month-old boy from our church was afflicted with two different types of leukemia.  The doctors at Children’s Hospital called it a death sentence.  The little boy endured numerous chemotherapy treatments, but the cancer kept returning.  As a last-ditch effort, the child received a bone-marrow transplant from his father.  We laid hands on the child, anointed him with oil, and prayed for God to intervene.  The bone marrow transplant was successful and that boy is now a young man.

This was a wonderful divine providence.  A miracle would have been an instantaneous recovery when we prayed so that the bone marrow transplant would have been unnecessary.  But God providentially worked in and through the transplant.  Without it, the boy probably would have died. 

The transplant didn’t negate or demean the work of God.  It does if you only find God in the miraculous.  But does God only work in miracles?  I rejoice that He sees fit to use ordinary means and encourage people to use them, and to then thank God AND THE DOCTORS when they work!

Some providences are ordinary.  You pray “Give us this day our daily bread” and then the prayer is answered with a trip to the grocery store – although finding bread or toilet paper during this coronavirus panic may verge on the miraculous!

Some providences are coincidences that seem too coincidental.  My wife and I attended a Bible conference at our alma mater one year.  It just happened to be the same time that I was wrestling through the hurt and anger of betrayal by a friend.  In the first session we attended, the speaker (whom we did not know) spoke on “Washing Judas’ Feet”.  The sermon was about loving those that betray you.  I couldn’t believe it.  If no one else had been in that room, the message would have been for me.  God was at work in an amazing providence in my life.  But there was no miracle there.

When the church was small and we were trying to raise money (either for the purchase of the 13 acre plot or for the down payment on the building;  I don’t remember which) I challenged our small congregation to raise, in one offering, over $10,000.  There was a visitor there that Sunday who heard my challenge.  He returned the next week and before the service handed me an envelope.  With a stern face he said, “This is for you to read after the service.”  I opened the envelope after the service and found a check for over $10,000.  I saw that as a providential work of God, but not a miracle.  I’d have thought differently if the envelope contained a letter telling me to go catch a fish and use the money I found in its mouth as a down payment, and then had a successful fishing expedition. 

I’m big on providence – God working in ordinary ways.  I look for him there and am happy to find Him.  Of course, any time He’s willing to do a miracle, He’s sovereign.  He can do what He likes.  I’d rejoice to see it, but my faith doesn’t need Him to do so.  Raising Jesus from the dead is the only miracle I need.

I’ll probably talk about this a little more next time…

The evangelical circles in which I travel always presented being born again as a sudden radical change of heart generated by the power of the Holy Spirit – a miracle.  But if the Holy Spirit makes such powerful miraculous changes, why are so many mature Christians such persistent troublemakers?  Why, as a pastor, had I experienced so much anger and even hatred from professing Christians – not only to me personally, but to God’s Word itself?  (And I am not the only pastor to experience this!)

Back in the 90’s, I knew if I was going to remain an evangelical Christian, I had to adjust some of my beliefs.  Regarding rebirth -- either a good many people who professed Christianity were self-deceived or the new birth wasn’t the splashy extravagant event many cracked it up to be.  I went with this second option.

When you’re born again, what happens to you?  What changes when the Spirit gives you a new heart and writes God’s law inside you?  What does the old has passing away and all things becoming new look like and feel like? 

Here are some of the things I am sure of. 
New birth doesn’t mean we stop sinning and it doesn’t mean we stop being tempted. 
It doesn’t mean we automatically recognize all the sin in ourselves.
It doesn’t mean we automatically recognize and fight temptation. 
It doesn’t mean we automatically understand what God wants.

Then what is being born again?  I don’t believe that in most cases being given new life is a flashy, splashy event.  Nor do I believe it is noticeable in its immediate effects.  I liken it to the planting of a tiny seed in the dirt of my soul – a particle of truth, packed with potential energy, power, and life.  That seed germinates slowly and imperceptibly.   It grows in fits and spurts.  Sometimes it languishes, starved or parched, seeming barely alive. 

But it is still there – perhaps temporarily dormant, awaiting the right conditions – but very much alive.  The greatest power of this new life is not radical change but persistence.  It endures.

The change the new birth makes is not so much a radical change of behavior (it may do that) but a change in the ability to perceive God’s truth.  I didn’t say agree, accept, or approve the truth -- often we don’t agree, accept, or approve;  but we do hear the truth.  We may be resistant, but we are no longer deaf.  New birth doesn’t give me an overwhelming willingness to do ;  just the ability to hear.  Once we hear it, even if our hearts resist it, the truth begins to steadily push its way into the recesses of our hearts.  Sometimes it takes root easily and immediately;  sometimes the soil is harder or drier, and it takes longer to take root. It may take additional watering or hoeing or removal of weeds.  But it’s there, slowly taking root, slowly growing, slowly influencing our soul.

The work of the Spirit – the growth of new life within us – takes time.  More time in some than in others.  If that is the truth, then the best way to live as a Christian (and as a pastor) is with lots of patience, and that means fewer expectations of others, more expectation of myself, and lots of waiting.  Spiritual life rarely involves revolution.  Change comes in moments, quiet and unseen, yet incredibly potent. 

And that, apparently, was a change God wanted in me.  It took obstinate people and persecution to work it.  But here I am, humbled and changed.

 I’ll close with an insightful observation made by my favorite Christian writer, C. S. Lewis:  “Isn’t it amazing how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different?”

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me with Roman Catholicism was a priest who called me an obscene name in catechetical class (Sunday school) because he didn’t like my answer to a question he posed.  That was the last Catholic service I attended.  My parents didn’t use language like that and neither did I;  I was taught it wasn’t pleasing to God.  How could a priest address me that way?

I came to evangelicalism looking for something more than mindless repetitive ritual.  Evangelicals said that faith was not about religion but was a personal relationship with Jesus.  It was about being born again -- the Spirit of God entering your soul and your life and making you a new person.  The old passes away and all things become new.  The Holy Spirit changes your heart, your understanding, and your perspective.  You see and understand sin and want to turn from it.  You see the wisdom and rightness of what God says; you agree with it and want it in your life.  The Spirit gives you the power to change. 

Being born again is what the New Testament (or new covenant ) is all about.  The Old Testament (or old covenant) – the law of Moses -- was a temporary arrangement between God and man, a set of signs pointing to the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus that would bring forgiveness and end all need for sacrifices.  That old covenant would give way to the new.  God’s law would be inscribed on the hearts of believers, not tablets of stone.  People would be changed from the inside out by the power of the Holy Spirit within them, moving them to obedience.  I believed with all my heart that Jesus had brought the new covenant to change hearts and lives and save the world from sin. 

But I had more and more trouble squaring the promised new covenant with my experiences as a Christian pastor.  I expected persecution and cruelty from unbelievers, but I received far more of both from professing born again believers.  I understood that people aren’t perfect and that we all still sin, but I couldn’t believe how hardened hearts could be – how unwilling to listen or entertain different perspectives and how cruel people could be – willing to lie, slander, and defame another rather than say that they were weak or had made a mistake and needed to make changes.

When I sought insight from other pastors, I was told my mistake was thinking Christianity had anything to do with moral behavior.  Christianity, they said, was about relationship with God, not moral behavior.  One pastor told me he didn’t bother confronting sin, even adultery, in his congregation.  Why cause an uproar when you know these people asked Jesus into their hearts in elementary school?  They were going to heaven;  adultery didn’t really matter in the long run.  If I was smart, I was told, I would stop worrying about challenging sin.  That was too discouraging a message.  Give people comfort and the reassurance of forgiveness and heaven, not constant reminders of their failures and shortcomings.

I struggled with counsel like this.  If this was the best God could do – if this was the heart-softening power of the Spirit of God, the life-transforming new birth, the world-changing new covenant – well, it looked pathetically meager to me.  It didn’t seem much different from the priest who cussed me out. 

Is this all there was to Christianity?  Was there even anything there???  Was God even there?  My head kept fighting but my heart started to give up and drift away.  I had expected a lot more of God.  I thought He was bigger and more powerful than that.  If this is all there was, the promises of the new covenant rang hollow and false.  Could I in good conscience even preach a faith like this?

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