read John 3. One of my nieces has 50 different bottles of nail polish. She is artistic; her creativity spills out in painting, drawing and applying make-up. Meanwhile, I don’t have the patience to even apply nail polish. So … I go to the nail salon. One of the advantages of the nail salon is that I get to catch up on fashion magazines. And there, in the April 2012 issue of Vogue, I discovered two fascinating articles on anxiety. I wasn’t surprised. If I read Vogue every day, I’d be anxious, too. The articles were surprisingly good. They were both anecdotal. One discussed her experience of treating anxiety with medication and therapy, and the other with behavioral modification. The articles, insofar as they summarized the current thinking in our country on how you treat anxiety, lead us to the question of how does the solution Christ provides here in John 3 about being “born again” relate to all this. Where is the overlap, the common ground, the shared vocabulary?
The first article on anxiety was written by a woman who has been taking a different cocktail of anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications since she was 16, along with talk therapy, to stop herself from committing suicide. She has an ambivalent relationship to her pills. She can affirm only that they have kept her alive. But she asks her therapist the poignant question: is this living? The therapist replies that her question is her depression talking. But is it? Or is she expressing an existential angst, that neither her pills nor her talk therapy can get at?
The second article was far more hopeful. It was written by the novelist Plum Sykes, whose crippling anxiety hit after the onset of a medical condition that made her so dizzy she couldn’t care for her children – let alone sit in a chair. She took medication for the dizziness, but she found she couldn’t shake the anxiety. She was frightened to do anything or go anywhere, for fear the dizziness would return. So she took herself off to an anxiety retreat offered by Charles Linden in the countryside in England, where she was told this:
Anxious people treat non-life-threatening situations as if they’re life-threatening.
Plum was told that the fight or flight response of anxious people is over-reactive. It’s as if it’s too finely tuned. She was told she was a creative person, and that the solution for her would be to throw herself into positive, creative outlets. She took up knitting. She was told to accept every invitation. And she went streaming back into her life, to her husband’s, children’s and friends’ relief. For her, the solution was to do far more, instead of cutting back.
So there, in this month’s Vogue, were stories of the modern ways to treat depression and anxiety: medication, talk therapy, behavioral modification and creativity. How does this relate, and compare, to the words of Jesus here in John 3: “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.” John 3:3. What does it mean to be born again? Nicodemus, who has come to Jesus “after dark one evening,” presumably because he doesn’t want anyone to see him, is very literal. When Jesus tells him he has to be born again, Nicodemus asks Jesus the question we all want to know: “what do you mean?” Nicodemus goes on to ask if an old man can go back into his mother’s womb and be born again.
Jesus explains that to be born again means to be “born of water and the Spirit.” He says that the “Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.” He says: “The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” John 3:5-8. Jesus goes on to say that He has “come down from heaven.” John 3:13. He is not just a nice man who taught good moral values: He is claiming to be the Son of God, who came to us from heaven. Jesus is claiming to be God himself. If this is true, then what He is saying is that in order for us to have a truly spiritual life – not just a vague sense of mystery when we light a candle or do a kind act – we need to be “born” of the Spirit so we can understand the things of the spirit. In other words, we humans cannot understand, know or be acquainted with the things of God because we are human. In a very profound sense, there is no shared vocabulary. Flesh cannot understand spirit. We have to have a spiritual rebirth.
How? Jesus says it’s not something you can explain, anymore than you can know where the wind comes from or where it’s going. His words suggest that the experience of the new birth – the coming and going of God’s Spirit – is different every time, for every person, just as the wind comes and goes in a different way each time, but that the experience of feeling the “wind” sweep through you is the same. Blaise Pascal, for instance, had an experience on the night of November 23, 1654 that was so important to him he wrote a description of it on a piece of parchment which he sewed into the lining of his coat, where it was discovered after his death. He begins with the word: “FIRE.”
My born again experience, also, happened on a particular evening. I loved my freshman year in college, but when the honeymoon period ended, I found myself constantly restless. I knew enough to know it wasn’t another boyfriend I needed but God – but I didn’t believe in HIm. Every time I read the Bible, it didn’t make sense. Like, why did Samson set foxes’ tails on fire? What was that about? One day I read in the gospel of Luke that if you ask God for something in His will, He will give it to you. “Huh,” I thought. “Well, God would WANT me to have faith in Him, so if I ask Him for faith, He WILL give it to me. ” So I asked for faith. Every day after that, I began to read a tiny bit of the Bible each night – just one or two sentences. And I was taking English 101, which was all the literature written several centuries ago, and so steeped in the Bible. A month later, I was reading something in the Bible, I don’t even remember what, and I realized I actually believed what I was reading. I started to cry – which I now know were tears of repentance, because we weep when we meet a holy God. And then a supernatural peace – something I had never experienced before – swept through me. That peace, I know now, is “the peace that passes all understanding.” I have had many experiences of God since then. And there were many ah ha moments leading up to that moment. In a certain sense, you could say my whole life had been a journey leading straight to the feet of Jesus.
As Jesus said, we don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, but we hear the sound of it. It comes and goes differently for us all, but when you hear the sound of God moving through you, the way the wind moves through the trees, you know it. It’s not like anything you have felt before – because it’s of the Spirit. It’s a gift from heaven. John 3:27. As John the Baptist puts it at the end of this chapter: “We are of the earth, and we speak of earthly things, but he has come from heaven… He speaks God’s words… And anyone who believes in God’s son has eternal life.” John 3:31-36.
And here is where we return to Vogue and the issue of creativity and anxiety. The “eternal life” that Jesus Christ offers to each of us is a life of the Spirit. It is a life of God’s peace – and peace is freedom from anxiety. It is a life of God’s joy – and joy unleashes creativity. It is a life of God’s love – and to live is to be loved. If, as Plum Sykes was told, anxiety comes from treating non-life threatening situations as if they are life-threatening, to live for Christ is to know that nothing on this earth is life-threatening anymore. To live for Christ is to know, in a deep intimate way, the One who died to give us life. To be born again, allows all that God is – His joy, peace and love – to be born in us.
In other words, while the flesh cannot understand God’s Spirit, we are made to long for that Spirit. The shared vocabulary between our world and God’s is one of desire. It is a vocabulary of hope – hope for more than this life, more than our own flawed selves, more than our relationships seem to be able to offer us. God’s love “weans’ us from dependencies on people, places and things other than Him, things that can never give us all that we want from them. Because we do want all. We long for the infinite. That’s what it is to be human.
Being born again doesn’t make our problems disappear overnight. It is a process. We are all on a journey, and we all have different make-ups and different backgrounds. God meets us in our weaknesses, and gives us His strength, but it takes time to trust Him. We may still have to pop pills to keep suicidal thoughts at bay. We may still go on “anxiety retreats” to visit kind counselors who hold our hands after traumatic experiences and remind us to find new outlets for our creativity. We will still be fully human, with all the downs and ups, temptations and abstinences, failures and triumphs that that involves. But our true life will be found in Christ Jesus.
I can’t really explain it more than that – we all need to experience Christ for ourselves,. I can promise this, from my own experience, Jesus changes everything. He is real. He is alive. When my children tell me God is not real, I say, calmly, that I know He is – and I do know, because I know Him. He comes inside of us, and begins to transform us – not by making us “better”, but by filling us with Himself. As John puts it in this chapter: “he must increase, and I must decrease.” And that is my prayer: that Jesus increases, and I, Caroline, decrease. For to answer the poignant cry of the woman who wrote the article on Vogue who has to take pills to stay alive: “is this life?” When you know Christ, you can say: yes. This is life.
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on April 4, 2012