Pastor's Blog

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?

In my journey back from the brink of unbelief, I wrestled with three key things:  difficult Christian doctrines, making sense of tragedy, and making sense of evangelical Christians that expressed anything but love for me as a pastor.

According to evangelicalism, the Christian Church is a body of people who have tasted the patient, kind, and loving forgiveness of God when they believe in Jesus.  Each is given the Holy Spirit who empowers all of us together to show the same forgiveness, patience, kindness, love, and understanding, with one another.  The Church is the first taste of heaven itself, a little glimpse of the full inheritance that is coming.  This is what the Bible calls “the new testament” (or the new covenant).  It is God’s promise of blessing, His most powerful work in a dark and evil world.

When I trusted Christ, I believed God’s Word that this is what He is doing in the world and in people.  I trusted that He would do what He promised.  That’s what I expected to experience and lead as an evangelical pastor.  That was my vision – a growing community that would hear God’s truth from the Bible and respond to it – a community that was continually learning to practice selflessness, forgiveness, and mutual care for one another. 

But over the first twenty years of pastoral service I grew more and more disillusioned every year, shocked at the amount of abuse directed at me – not by atheists, secularists, and unbelievers – but by evangelical believers. 

I'm not talking about little tiffs or annoyances.
I’m talking about receiving verbal and emotional abuse.  I'm talking about extremely angry people yelling uncontrollably at me, sending me hostile emails, and leaving voice mails threatening to do me harm.
I’m talking about people refusing to try to reason things out, refusing to try to understand misunderstandings, refusing to hear two sides of a story, and insisting on believing the worst about me and the church I was called to serve.
I’m talking about people who smiled and feigned friendship and support to my face who then turned around, stabbed me in the back, and slandered me to others.  I would rather be threatened with bodily harm a hundred times than betrayed once by a friend.  Judas is the worst of the worst.

You may say I was naïve not to expect treatment like this.  I did expect it – but not from believers, and most certainly not from people who had been evangelical Christians for many years.  The more I experienced mistreatment, the more I questioned and doubted God’s promises or the reality of His new covenant “plan”.  If His Spirit wasn’t powerful enough to change hearts like He said He would, how could I (or why should I) believe in the promise of the new covenant?  And if the promise of the new covenant wasn’t true – what is left of Christianity?  What is there to believe in?

That thinking had led me toward unbelief and atheism.  When I started the trek back from the brink of unbelief, I knew that if I was going to be a Christian (and a pastor) I had to develop a different understanding of the new covenant, of the work of the Holy Spirit, and of the church.  If I didn’t, it would be just a matter of time before I headed once again down the road of disillusionment, disappointment, and unbelief.  You have to be able to believe what you believe, right?

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