When I first heard the words “You must be born again” (John 3:7) as a 15-year-old Jewish girl, I believed Jesus was offering me a clean slate before a holy God. His gift of moral innocence would reboot every area of my life. Surely I’d become a new and vastly improved me.
After journeying with Jesus for the last 40-plus years, I still believe this is true—in part. But I am discovering that when Jesus tells us we must be born again, He is also inviting us to live every moment of our life in relation to Him with the same kind of dependence a baby has on its mother.
Now 58 years old, I’ve heard a lot of sermons over the last four decades about the importance of maintaining the same kind of “first love” fervor new believers often experience when they come to faith in Christ. That passion can be a beautiful thing indeed. But we often contrast this passion with our idea of what its opposite is: a dried-out husk. That contrast sets up a false dichotomy. Being born again doesn’t simply mean a single decision-based new beginning; it also points to a life lived in continual willing surrender to God.
Poet Christian Wiman notes, “There is no way to ‘return to the faith of your childhood,’ not really, not unless you’ve just woken up from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma ... That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means, of course, that even the staunchest faith of life is a life of great change.”
A vivid illustration of this reality is found in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. There is an alcove containing four canvases, each 4 feet by 6 feet, known collectively as The Voyage of Life series. Painted by Thomas Cole in 1842, these dream-like images depict a person’s journey through the four seasons of life. The first two pictures, “Childhood” and “Youth,” depict a young person confidently sailing forth on placid seas toward bright, dreamy castles and endless possibilities. Even in this challenging and complex world, most of us sail into adulthood with lots of passion and a good amount of untested ambition. Like many other young Christians, I channeled my ambitions into my faith, preferring the drama of big spiritual adventures over ordinary faithfulness.
Like many other young Christians, I channeled my ambitions into my faith, preferring the drama of big spiritual adventures over ordinary faithfulness.
The third painting in Cole’s series offers a powerful commentary on the next stage of the journey. At first glance, the piece entitled “Manhood” doesn’t appear to belong to the same group of pictures. The blue skies and cotton-candy castles have vanished. A frightened man is depicted in the middle of a fierce storm, piloting his boat through rocks and shoals. His hands are clasped in desperate prayer, and it is evident he feels entirely abandoned. In this painting, the light comes from the heavens where an angel looks down on him with care. There is no way to return to his bright, shiny childhood faith. But his posture of prayer reminds me he still maintains a connection with God, even in the storms of life.
Dependence looks different as we move through each stage of our life. With my 59th birthday approaching, I look to my past and see financial and vocational setbacks, serious chronic health challenges, the deaths of my parents and a few friends, and some painful relational losses. No matter how I try to remember the way I felt about God, the world, and myself when I first came to faith, I cannot recreate it.
Nor should I try. I am no longer the innocent young teen sailing into adulthood, with no life experience but plenty of hope and ambition. Right now, I have more in common with the aging man in the storm-tossed boat: These days I, too, find my hands more readily clasped in supplication. Living a born-again life here and now means relying on my Savior as the storm rages around me. It sounds like praying, “Father, Your kingdom come, Your will be done—even here in the midst of this storm that is turning my world upside down—as it is in heaven.”
Cole’s final painting in the series, “Old Age,” shows the man in what remains of his now battered boat. The water is still, and though the skies are still roiling with dark clouds, the frail figure is reaching up in a posture of childlike dependence toward a single shaft of white light breaking through the darkness. Like him, I cannot return to the beginning of my journey. I know now that being born again, as I move toward my own old age, means I can’t rely on my skill and experience to pilot my weather-beaten vessel. It means that in the darkness, I need to trust God to save me—to refine me and continue guiding me home.
Art by ISTOCK