Stories of how people come to faith have always fascinated me. Coming to faith is an individual experience—as anyone who has experienced it knows—and so there are as many different stories as there are people. Sometimes it is difficult to communicate in words the experience that leads us to become believers because, at its core, coming to faith is a profoundly solitary journey to a new understanding, to an acceptance and embracing of God and His mercy and values.
In telling our stories, we tend to characterize conversion as a “one-time thing,” as if a single decision to “accept Christ” settles it. The makers of the recent documentary Jesus Camp, which profiles Christians who operate a summer camp for children, note that “Evangelicals believe that to become saved they must be `born again’ by accepting Christ as their personal savior.” They go on to say that “Forty-three percent are born again before age thirteen.”
Many things, however, can motivate a person to answer an altar call or to “accept Christ as a personal savior.” Shortly after my conversion, I had a conversation with a man who told me his story. Though it began in a familiar way, it was not one I had heard before. He told me about the accumulating difficult circumstances in his life and how, in order to escape his pain, he had begun to drink more. His friends were growing concerned about him, as he was about himself. He knew he needed to change, to face his demons and find a different course on which to set his life, but he lacked self-discipline. He tried to “clean up his life” more than once, but he always found himself back in a desperate place. Some had suggested that he surrender his life to God—that he accept Christ as his personal savior and invite Him into his heart in order to be saved—but this was not appealing to him. Finally, after a three-day bender of drinking and drugs he came to a crisis point. He told me he awoke face down in a wet field, far from home, and did not know where he was. On this night of desperation, at the end of his rope, he realized that surrendering to God was the one thing he had not yet tried. With no options left, alone in the field, he struggled to his knees and prayed. He said he “asked Jesus to come into his heart” and save him. At this point in his story, the man leaned across the table, and in a lowered voice, he asked me, “And do you know what happened?” He pounded his fist on the table for emphasis. “He didn’t do it. He didn’t come.” He finished his story with a flourish, as if to say, “Case closed.”
I was speechless. My experience had been so different. Just a year earlier, God had seemingly reached out of the clear blue sky and grabbed my heart after years of atheism. Recognizing this man’s disappointment in the same God left me very confused. I did not understand how God could have turned down his request. I was at a loss to explain what had happened to him.
Perhaps “accepting Christ as personal savior” is not a one-size-fits-all answer to the question of what makes one a believer. We have sought to find a formula for becoming a Christian in the writings of the New Testament, and so we turn to passages that appear to be offering this. For example, Acts 16 tells the story of the Philippian jailer, and verse 31 says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” Romans 10:9 says, “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” These passages tempt us to believe that this is the method, the technique, offered for gaining salvation; this is the right answer on the quiz.
But we must read these passages in their context. In all of Jesus’ teachings, He never directly said, “These are the steps you need to take to become a believer.” Perhaps this is because the process of believing is more complicated. Rather, in the Gospel accounts, we see that Jesus often told parables illustrating the differences between belief and unbelief. In the Beatitudes, He uses a description of the person who will “be blessed” in the coming Kingdom to capture the complexity of believing.
Our formulas fall short. God is big. In any number of creative ways, He brings to faith those He has chosen. The stories are so varied. One person’s experience brings him or her to God, and yet a similar experience leads another to curse God or to find a different explanation for reality.
Following my own dramatic conversion, I was aware that much of my life needed changing. Within the first year, some substantial changes did take place. I felt propelled into a new way of thinking and living that I did not yet fully understand. And yet it occurred to me in a moment of reflection that these big changes were perhaps the easier ones. These changes were on the surface. What about the changes still needed in the deep recesses of my heart, in my desires, my longings? The complexity of “becoming” had begun to dawn on me.
Maybe “becoming a Christian,” coming to faith, is not something that happens in one moment but in many. We may want to distinguish between “salvation” and “sanctification,” but perhaps this distinction is more misleading than helpful. Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard raises the question of whether faith and “finishing” go hand-in-hand. In his book Postscript, Kierkegaard points out that having a measurable result or finding completion is a contradiction to understanding faith and spirituality because this makes faith “objective” in a way that it is not. It reduces something complex and multifaceted to something simple. We would do well to hear his concerns.
Kierkegaard illustrates the contrast when he writes of a maiden who yearns for her wedding day. She is longing to be married, however, in order to “make herself comfortable in legal security as a spouse” rather than “existing in the inwardness of erotic love.” She does not understand that loving someone is never finished, that to be truly married requires a commitment of the heart that is willing to learn what it means to love a particular person. Kierkegaard says the young woman “prefers marital yawning to maidenly yearning.” In her desire for security, she loses the idea of being married and so does not actually love her husband. Kierkegaard says the man involved would rightfully deplore the woman for her “essential unfaithfulness”; it is only “incidental unfaithfulness” when she turns to another love. If what the young woman seeks is the safety of the title “married,” she is not engaged in actually existing, in becoming, in being his lover and his wife.
How do we know at our conversion if we are signing on for security or for the love of God? Perhaps at this point in our individual story, we do not. But life and its experiences and our response to them reveal to us our heart. As we confront experiences and respond with belief and with striving, though haltingly, our inward posture and faith become clearer to us. When we find within ourselves a desire, a longing to love God, even when we cannot find the ability to do so, we find ourselves on the other side of a great gulf. We may not know how we got there or be able to name the mechanism, but we find ourselves in a continual process of “becoming.”
I did not know upon my conversion that in the context of my ongoing experience, I would ultimately decide to continue seeking God, to continue trusting His goodness, to continue striving to want what He wants. When I was younger, I did not want what He wants. As I look back now, I can see how my desire has been changing over time. As I “exist in the isolation of inwardness,” I become aware that something is changing inside me. I do not know exactly when I made the decision, when the change occurred. And I cannot find a finishing to it, an endpoint. And yet here I am, still believing, still wanting to know God, striving to love what He loves. It is this “wanting” at the core of my being that reveals to me my faith, that is my faith. It is inwardness. It is not conclusive. I am “continually in the process of becoming in an inward direction.”
As I have reflected over the years on my conversation with the man whose prayer God did not answer, I have wondered about the inwardness of his experience. I seldom know the complexities of my own motivations; much less can I claim insight into those of another. In the end, I concluded that the man must not have sought God in humility and longing; he must not really have been asking for God’s mercy. Perhaps he was ultimately unwilling to come to the end of himself. But I cannot know what was happening within him. I have enough work to do figuring out my own soul.
And so it is with conversion. We can “accept Christ as our personal savior” and have a wedding, but it is a mistake to think this event is the end. Rather, just as a wedding is a beginning (of the process of being married, of learning what it looks like to love a particular individual), so also is conversion to Christianity. We can “accept Christ,” but the unfolding of our heart’s journey of commitment from there is what determines whether we are actually becoming a Christian. The process is complex, as we exist as individuals in a growing understanding of what it means to love this God and to want what He wants. This “becoming” is not something that can be done for us or something we can do in a group. It is not something that we can do one time and be finished. It cannot be done by following a formula.
Perhaps those operating the Jesus Camp are well-intentioned believers. Perhaps they are accurately portrayed by the documentary, or perhaps they are not. Either way, the inwardness of faith is misrepresented when we distill it down to formula and technique. The complexity of the process of becoming a believer, of continually existing in the inwardness of the decision, defies categories and prescriptions. We need to let go of the idea that becoming a Christian is a one-time thing, when becoming a Christian involves a lifetime of “becoming.”