Trauma, Spiritual Life, and Salvation beyond Conversion
If conversion is marked by a moment of faith and confession then salvation continues to work in the confessor to bring their life into alignment with the way of Christ Jesus. I have begun this sentence with ‘if’ because of evangelicalism’s bulls-eye like effort to bring people to this moment. Of course there has been untold abuse in this effort and at the same time it has brought a lot of good into the world. Unfortunately this has reduced the new birth metaphor to a single moment rather than a picture of the spiritual life for those seeking to see and enter the kingdom of God. The following will view John chapter three as a piece with rich meaning beyond the conversion moment (born again) emphasis through which it is so often read.
The purpose of the pericope in the gospel of John that introduces the new birth is multifaceted (John 3:1-15). Initially the piece presents Jesus as a teacher whose activity is confirmed by the signs that have followed his work. The emphasis is upon Jesus’ teaching, Jesus’ teaching is affirmed by the presence of God, the presence of God is affirmed by the signs. Nicodemus’ interest is in the teaching of Jesus that culminates in a spiritual life rich with the presence of God. This opening introduction prepares the reader for a serene evening of private instruction from Jesus, instruction that surpasses the teaching of the Pharisees.
The writer of the gospel uses this particular piece to introduce his phrase ‘eternal life’. The first time ‘eternal life’ is used in the gospel of John is John 3:15. I understand this verse to be the end of the pericope (John 3:1-15) preceding the section of verses 16-20 which represent the theological teaching of the gospel writer. The literary structure of the chapter within the larger context of the gospel is to replace the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ with ‘eternal life’. ‘Eternal life’ is synonymous with the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ but carries a nuanced meaning that replaces political language with religious language. In effect the phrase ‘eternal life’ is safer language for a religious movement. ‘Kingdom of God’ is used twice by Jesus in verses three and five. In the gospel of John this is the first time for the phrase ‘Kingdom of God to be used and the last time. Jesus does use the word kingdom (not kingdom of God) in John 18:36. His use serves to confirm the other worldly nature of his kingdom.
36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." (Joh 18:36 NRS)
Jesus is clear, his kingdom is distinctively different from all others and that distinctiveness is the absence of violence. The kingdom of Jesus cannot be established with violence, is not dependent upon the structures that maintain the kingdoms of the world. Perhaps this understanding legitimizes John’s replacement phrase ‘eternal life’. The power of Jesus’ kingdom is the presence of life unbound from the power of death to have the final word.
The interest of Nicodemus is the presence of God that accompanies Jesus’ teaching. Nicodemus’ interest is spiritual. This is confirmed by Jesus’ answer to an unspoken question or an inner need that Nicodemus has failed to articulate beyond his humility before Jesus. Consistent with his teaching, Jesus leads Nicodemus on a journey to enter the ‘reign of God’ or ‘kingdom of God’ or in John’s nuanced phraseology ‘eternal life’. The entrance to life is a spiritual journey likened unto birth. To see and enter the kingdom of God is a continual birthing process with all the trauma of a physical birth. Salvation is more than a gift given at a particular moment, it is the activity of God in history, in the world, through the church and any other way God finds cooperation with human beings. I do not think conversion is always a moment of crisis. The crisis salvation of an altar call is not the only experience for people on their journey to faith in Christ Jesus.
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1Co 1:18 NRS)
Paul speaks of salvation as a process in the life of those that grasp or understand the message of the cross. The ongoing process of salvation is equatable to the teaching of Jesus in John 3:1-15. The defining statements for understanding the ‘new birth’ metaphor are Jesus words on ‘seeing’ and ‘entering’ the kingdom of God. To see (the reign of God) presents challenge, to enter is the appropriate response. The kingdom of God is a teaching, a teaching about the way human beings are to live in the present age because they have embraced a reality other than the present age. To grasp the reign of God exposes the present reality and unmasks all its illusions. Light has come into the world and a completely new way of living is exemplified in the life of Jesus. A follower of Christ does not hide from the present reality but lives within it like someone from an alien culture who cannot be assimilated, but lives in a way that transforms the dominant culture with a power unseen like the wind.
The birth metaphor communicates the birthing of the Spirit that takes place as we see and enter (embrace) the kingdom of God. Learning the ‘nature’ of the reign of God is an ongoing process constitutive with intellectual and spiritual growth. Nicodemus’ question on the new birth suggests that in order for such a process to take place the living human being would be lost, birth after all can only happen once then we mature and age. However Jesus clarifies that the birthing of Spirit is not limited by the maturation process, rather the birthing of the Spirit takes place within an aging life and is like the wind in its unpredictable presence and power.
The birth of a human being is a traumatic experience and serves Jesus’ teaching on seeing and entering the reign of God. Spiritual growth is traumatic, the eyes are opened, a challenge is set in place and the ‘nature’ of the reign of God is inviting and all the forces of nature are set on change.
According to Hosea, people that do not grow spiritually are like a child refusing to be born.
13 The pangs of childbirth come for him, but he is an unwise son; for at the proper time he does not present himself at the mouth of the womb. (Hosea 13:13 NRS)
Such a one would die in the womb, so those that refuse to see and enter die, they do not enter into life, they do not receive ‘eternal life’.
Birth is a traumatic event, an event that all of us have experienced. From the warmth of our mother’s womb we emerge into this world. We enter this life from a place of resting, a liquid world where all our needs are met by the one that carries us. Suddenly our liquid-filled chamber breaks and muscles contract, and we find ourselves being pushed out an opening that seems too small for our passing. Entering this life, we pass from comfort to discomfort, and complete trauma becomes the order of the day. When we make our appearance into this life, our eyes are exposed to light for the first time, our lungs demand that we breathe, and our food line is severed before we even finish crying.
The metaphor of birth is first presented by Jesus as ‘born from above’. Jesus himself relates the experience to the trauma of birth. When we are born from above, it is a traumatic experience because for the first time we see the world through the eyes of the Spirit. For the first time the vanity of the present world pales in contrast to the presence of God that fills our newfound lungs. This entrance into the kingdom of God, this reception of eternal life, has placed us into a new world of possibilities. For the first time we see, breathe, and must learn to eat; there is no desire to return to the womb.
The ‘new birth’ opens our eyes to a world of injustice, of vanity, a world where God’s will is not done, and God himself is replaced with idols of militarism, materialism, national security, personal security, and self-righteous religious belief. The ‘new birth’ also opens our eyes to see the kingdom and to demonstrate the presence of the kingdom in the now. The ‘new birth’ places us in a kingdom where humanity learns to live together without war and without greed.
We pray for the kingdom of God to come because daily we must choose to enter into a Spiritual reality that sits in contrast to the world. Spiritual growth is a constant birthing of the soul to conformity with the Lord Jesus. In my life I have found spiritual growth to be traumatic, it is challenging, it reshapes all my thoughts and opens my eyes to the evil that permeates all of our social and political structures. Spiritual growth makes me aware of my short comings, my failings, my sin, and calls me to change on a daily basis.