“Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3)
The master teacher here introduced a powerful metaphor for the process of spiritual conversion. Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ is such a profound change of life that it is almost like starting over at the beginning.
I recently looked through the family photo archives and found pictures of each of my children when they were newborns. It made me think about what we can learn from physical birth that also applies to our spiritual rebirth.
1. The whole thing is a miracle
Human development begins with the merger of two cells, one each from the mother and father. The cell formed by this merger is a unique human organism with its own genome. As the cell divides the organism grows, and its cells specialize to form the tissues and organs of the body. The primitive heart begins to beat at about 3 weeks, and continues beating the whole time while it organizes itself. By about 5 weeks the brain has formed its basic structure. All of this development is continuous from the first step, although it may be divided into phases or stages for purposes of discussion or education. When I studied embryology in medical school I was impressed by its complexity and by the sheer number of things that can go wrong at every stage. I said to my wife at the time, “The surprising thing is that this ever works correctly!” The whole thing is miraculous.
Spiritual rebirth is also a continuous, cumulative development. A disciple of Christ can usually recall important events or milestones in their conversion, but it is never a single event or a one-and-done. The entire process is literally miraculous. It is the work of God, done by his power.
2. Out of your comfort zone
Being born does not look like a pleasant experience for most babies. If it weren’t better than the alternative, then most babies would probably opt to avoid it altogether. Their skin comes in contact with air for the first time, and it’s pretty cold out here compared to mommy’s womb. And not only do you have to touch the air with your skin, but you have to actually breathe it into your lungs! The light outside is brighter than anything you’ve seen before, and the sounds are louder and sharper. Everything is a new sensation.
Spiritual rebirth takes you out of your comfort zone. You have to set aside some things in your life that are not compatible with being a disciple of Christ. This can include changing dietary habits, media consumption, Sabbath observance, and leaving some relationships behind. These things can be unfamiliar and uncomfortable, or can produce conflict in your life.
Thankfully the new sensory experience of spiritual rebirth is much more pleasant than what newborn babies go through in delivery. Here are just a few examples of how the scriptures describe what it feels like:
- “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Galatians 5:22-23).
- “Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart” (Doctrine and Covenants 8:2).
- “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8).
- “Yea, thus saith the still small voice, which whispereth through and pierceth all things, and often times it maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest” (Doctrine and Covenants 85:6).
- “Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me” (Alma 32:28).
3. You have helpers
“Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World).
Babies are hopefully welcomed into the world by parents who love them and who will take care of them. Caring for a newborn is a lot of work, as all new parents will soon learn. This is an investment in the future which will pay great dividends over time, but the relationship is not merely transactional. Parents who are motivated by love and a sense of duty will do this work willingly without hope of reward, sacrificing their sleep and other comforts. Other family members, healthcare workers, and many others will also help them.
A new disciple of Christ is welcomed into the loving fellowship of Christian believers, very often the same people who welcomed them into the world in the first place. This fellowship includes church leaders and teachers who serve the Lord from a sense of duty and love. However difficult this journey of discipleship may seem at times, have confidence that there will be many people to help you along the way.
4. Learning to act
Figuring out how to use the human motor system is hard work. In the image above we see a newborn baby gazing intently at his parent, experimenting with moving his arm and fingers. The sensations of sight, touch, and proprioception will give his young brain feedback to improve his accuracy and coordination over time. Self-directed physical, occupational, and speech therapy is a major occupation of early childhood. These little kids are motivated and tenacious students.
For spiritual rebirth to be a permanent change, the new disciple of Christ must learn to act upon what he or she is experiencing. The primary action is repentance, which removes from our lives the things that draw us away from the Lord and turns us toward those things that draw us near him. Repentance is not a singular event, but a daily habit and a way of life. It is asking the Lord for his mercy and grace, and then moving forward to better ways of living.
5. The need for consolidation
Newborn babies sleep a lot — about 2/3 of the day. Their sleep schedules are erratic. It takes a while to consolidate all or most of that sleep into longer blocks of time. Sleep serves an important purpose in consolidating learning. People who are sleep-deprived have a measurable decrease in their ability to assimilate new information and skills. We can assume that part of why babies sleep so much is because they are learning so much.
It is useful for the Christian disciple to spend time pondering what they have learned on their journey thus far. As you follow the covenant path, write down your experiences, insights, and spiritual feelings. A lot of writers say that they don’t know what they think about something until they start writing about it.
6. Walking is hard
Pediatricians memorize lists of developmental milestones and the normal time ranges in which children achieve them. These start small and progress to more complex tasks like walking, riding a bicycle, and reading. Notice in the video above how the 11-month old baby can only take a few steps before falling over, but he is intensely motivated to keep trying and is cheered on by everyone around him.
There are also higher level skills in discipleship that take time and practice to develop. Learning to feel and recognize and act on the Spirit is an early skill. Later in the journey a disciple will have to learn how to forgive those who do not apologize, how to love their enemies, and how to stay true and faithful to their faith even in the face of serious doubts and unresolved questions or concerns. These things are hard to master, and it takes more than a lifetime of practice for some of them. We may feel like our progress is slow, but we can be joyful as we stumble and keep trying — grinning from ear to ear like the baby above — and we can be assured that the Lord is pleased to see even our stumbling first efforts.
I learned about embryology and early childhood development in medical school, but most of the practical knowledge I have on the subject comes from watching my own children grow. The same is true about discipleship; what I have learned through experience and observation outstrips my book knowledge. That will probably be true of everyone who takes their spiritual conversion seriously.
And we should take it seriously. President Russell M. Nelson has exhorted us to do so:
“I plead with you to take charge of your testimony. Work for it. Own it. Care for it. Nurture it so that it will grow. Feed it truth. Don’t pollute it with the false philosophies of unbelieving men and women and then wonder why your testimony is waning” (“Choices for Eternity,” Worldwide Devotional for Young Adults, May 2022).
Own your testimony like a baby owns his motor development. Coddle your faith like a loving parent does their newborn. Then, as President Nelson promised in the sermon just referenced:
“Watch for miracles to happen in your life.”
Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.
2 replies to “Born Again”
Beautiful thoughts, words and pictures! Thank you 😊
Thanks for reading!