By Cathy Norman Peterson
As a kid, my brother attended a backyard Bible school one summer led by Aunt Clara, one of the kind, older women who taught Sunday school in our church. One day she told the children a story about a man who was planning to make a decision to follow Christ. “I’ll do it this afternoon,” he vowed. But before he could pray the prayer—he drowned in a boating accident. As my brother tells it, Aunt Clara scared the hell right out of him.
Conversion stories are by necessity dramatic, or so it seems sometimes. In 1976 all the adults in my life seemed to be reading Chuck Colson’s autobiography, Born Again, which meant I grew up linking his name to a radical conversion story rather than his crimes at Watergate. His was a real-life version of Paul’s road to Damascus event. In my youth group the cool kids were the ones who could describe in vivid detail the life Jesus had saved them from—drugs, parties, promiscuity. Renouncing their sinful ways demonstrated to everyone else that they were truly born again. They’d repented, making that 180-degree turn away from sin. And if they could tell that conversion story in just a couple of minutes, all the better for drawing other new converts into the kingdom.
But I’d prayed the sinner’s prayer with my mother when I was very young, which meant I had no interesting past to tout. What had I been converted from? I had nothing from my “before” life with which to prove my new birth.
So instead, I focused on being good. I apologized to my sister when we fought, obeyed my parents, practiced the piano, and hung out with the good kids at school.
Except when I didn’t.
I still stole my sister’s clothes, argued with my parents when I didn’t want to practice, and sometimes acted meanly toward the friends I did have. Surely if I were a real convert, I’d be better.
“You must be born again.” I always heard Jesus’ words to Nicodemus with the emphasis on the “you.” Turn from your wicked ways, sinner! Repent! One of the verses I diligently memorized from the apostle Paul (in the NAS, because I learned that was the translation closest to the “real” text and at that time didn’t even notice the exclusive language) was 2 Corinthians 5:17: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” But those words also felt like a weight—more command than promise. I kept trying and trying to be a new creature, but my old self was still very much present. I spent many years trying to get it right—to be more disciplined, to repent more often, to be truly, truly born again.
In Anna Karenina, Constantin Levin is tormented by questions about faith off and on throughout the book. Finally, he relents and believes, and Tolstoy ends his tome with these words from his alter ego: “This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed….I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will still be the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness.”
Tolstoy captures the essence of new birth. It’s not the radical, unalterable change of two-minute testimonials and street evangelists. We continue to suffer and sin and struggle. We slide away, we doubt, we ignore God. And still, God’s mercy is new every morning. In Christ I do become something new. But I do not have to do my own birthing, or prove my belief. I am only born anew because God is the midwife.