We can feel quite stuck, with ourselves, as ourselves. We may lament our personality quirks, our habits and addictions, and our situations. Of course some of us may feel quite happy with ourselves, and perhaps we shouldn’t. What are we like to live with, be friends with, be married to, be a child of, or be a parent of? Whether our own self-perception, or how others perceive us, we may be stuck.
We often blame it on our past. “If you only knew what I have been through you would understand why I am the way I am!” We look to the past and we see events, and people, who have had a big influence on what we have become and what we are like. Having had such big influences and influencers on our lives, is there any hope for change?
There is good news. Jesus speaks of a change in us, a change so big he uses the idea of birth to refer to it:
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”John 3:3 (NLT)
In speaking with Nicodemus Jesus speaks about being “born again,” or as the phrase also means, “born from above.” Whichever way you translate it, and I think both meanings are in view here, Jesus is speaking of being in relationship with God in terms of being born. In other words, it is a big change. It is like a night and day difference. It is like coming out into the light having been stuck in the dark. It is like seeing things for the first time. It is like starting over.
Let’s take a look at what this means for us.
First, there is a big change in what influences us.
The family we grow up in, the society we grow up in, and the experiences we live through, all have a huge influence on us. In being a relationship with God through Jesus, in being a member of His Kingdom, we are born again, born from above. We start over, but this time God is to be our main influence and Influencer. It is starting over with God’s nurture.
We can think of some examples of how this can make a difference:
- If growing up you were constantly put down, now you start over with God telling you that you are created in His image, that he went to the cross for you in Jesus, that He has called, and is calling you, to follow Him.
- If you grew up with parents who were not there for you, you start over with God who is always there and always just a prayer away.
- If you grew up learning that you respond to the hatred with even more hatred, you now start over with a God who responds to hatred with love and grace in Jesus and calls us to do the same.
- If you grew up learning that it is every man, woman, and child for themselves, you now start over with a God who is for us and not against us, a Saviour who came “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).
- If you grew up with an alcoholic parent, now you start over with God Who is always level-headed, always responsible, always wise.
These are just some examples of what it looks like to have a fresh start, I’m sure you can think of others.
Who we have been is not who we are becoming in Jesus. We have been born again. We have a new influence that is forming us. We are born from above. We are under the influence of the teaching and example of Jesus, we are under the influence of the Holy Spirit.
Second, while there is a big change, there is more change to come.
When a baby is born, there is a big change for the baby. None of us can remember the day of our birth and personally, I am glad for that. I’m sure the experience was traumatic! But if we could experience birth and think about it, we might think, “wow this is all new! I can see!” Except that it is not all new. “These wee arms and legs still don’t work that great, and I’m so small compared to everyone else in the room.” There is a lot of growth to come.
Birth is a great analogy for the change God brings to us. There is a huge change, yet there is so much more change to come. Some people experience big changes in very specific ways. I can think of a friend who lost all desire to drink or do drugs the very day he turned to Jesus. Others still struggle. This should lead us to have patience with ourselves, and with others. Do we expect everyone to become a mature Christian the day of their rebirth? I’ve been born again for many years now and still have much growing up to do!
Third, the change in us will make us stand out as different.
When we are born again, we start over with a different upbringing in a very different culture. I grew up in British and Canadian culture, but in being born again, I’m now growing up in the Kingdom of God.
Where we grow up can cause us to; speak with a different accent, have different habits, customs, and tastes, plus hold a different perspective.
I spent my the first 6 years of my life in Scotland, but even when we came to Canada, we were still a very British family. That made me stick out like a sore thumb in grade 2. I was quite a bit more Candianish by grade 3, but in grade 2 I was a wee bit different from everyone else.
If we have a fresh start with God as the main influence on us, we will end up being different. But where I was glad to change over the years to become more and more like a typical Canadian, in being born again we want to become more and more like a typical Kingdom person, to stand out as being odd in this world. While Canada was to become my home, likely for the rest of my life, the Kingdom of God is to become my home forevermore. That is were we want to fit in!
Which brings us to our last point.
Fourth, there is, and will be, a big change in our situation.
We may think, great, so far all the change spoken of is in me, but look at my situation. Yes, I have a fresh start in many ways, but I’m still facing financial ruin, or a difficult marriage, or loneliness, or mental illness or whatever challenge we might be living with. Perhaps we feel like we are changing, but our situation isn’t. We are still stuck.
Consider again a newborn baby. There are big changes upon birth, yes. But very often when that baby leaves the hospital they go back to the same home, to be with with the same people the baby has been with for the last nine months or so. The situation has changed drastically, except that it hasn’t. But it will. Usually, and eventually, the baby grows up and moves on.
So too with us. We may be born again, but we still face the same situations. We do grow. And as we do, some situations will begin to change because we are learning to handle things in a different manner. For example big changes may come to our relationships, beginning with small steps in learning to forgive, or developing a servant heart. But not only do our current circumstances often change while we grow, some day we will move on. Even if the immediate situation is dire, and getting worse each day, the prevailing situation is not. We are sitting pretty. We live as Kingdom people now, as family of the king. The Kingdom is our future. Big changes are on the way.
There is something else we should note here. For some people the current situation is life with mental illness. We might assume that when we are born from above, with a fresh start, that mental illness is cleared away. We might put it in the same category as something we have picked up growing up, something learned from our experiences in the past. So a fresh start clears it, right? So, for example, if someone struggles with depression, being born again makes it go away, right?
Not necessarily. And this is important, because it might lead us to look down on those with mental illness as somehow failing at following Jesus. Perhaps we may think of ourselves as failures. Paul speaks about a “thorn in the flesh” that God would not take away:
So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud.2 Corinthians 12:7-9 (NLT)
Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.”
Thistles in the mind are no different than thorns in the flesh. When we speak of a fresh start we are talking about growth in our character, not a perfection of our health.
Mental illness may be the reality on the ground for many Christians. If that is you, be patient with yourself and seek the appropriate help. There will be healing for all illness, including mental illness. In the meantime, we do the best we can with the level of health we’ve got.
If we find ourselves really stuck, that “I am the way I am because of my upbringing or early experiences in life,” perhaps we have not let the words of Jesus sink in. Jesus uses the strongest possible language to describe what happens to us when we are in relationship with him. We are born again, we get a fresh start with a much better influence and the greatest possible Influencer in our lives. We are born from above, God is working in us through His Holy Spirit.
Let’s not let the past dictate who we are and what we are like. Let’s let the One Who is Lord over the past, present and future shape us into who we are becoming.