How Can I Be Reborn?
“No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
What the heck does that mean? People who ask you, “Have you been born again?” think that they’ve got it all figured out . . . and that you probably don’t. But there’s no need to argue with them.
When Jesus spoke these words about being born again, he followed them up by talking about being “born of the spirit.” He was talking about spiritual rebirth.
What does that mean?
It means becoming a new person.
We all have our faults and flaws. Some of them are obvious, some are hidden. When we engage in them knowingly and intentionally, they are called “sins.” The only way we can become reborn as a new person is to stop engaging in wrong and hurtful desires, thoughts, and actions, and start living from new and better motives and views of life.
This requires a lifelong process of learning, self-examination, prayer, and a conscious effort to put our old self off and our new self on. Rebirth may start with the conversion experience that some people call being “born again,” but it then continues for the rest of our life.
One fine night about two thousand years ago a Pharisee named Nicodemus snuck out to see Jesus. Unlike most of the Jewish leaders, he liked Jesus. In fact he proceeded to butter him up with fine words about how Jesus truly was a teacher from God, and yada yada.
Jesus ignored the flattery. He had no time to waste, and got right into the advanced teaching:
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
Nicodemus asked, “How can anyone be born after becoming old? Can someone enter a second time into the mother’s womb to be born?”
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, but what is born of the spirit is spirit.” (John 3:3–6)
Clearly, Nicodemus didn’t know what Jesus was talking about. And Christians have been debating it ever since.
It should at least be clear that Jesus is talking about spiritual rebirth.
But what exactly is that?
Spiritual rebirth: a step-by-step guide
We could debate the opinions of various Christian churches. But you and I have no time to waste either. So let’s dig right into what Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) says about how to be born again and become a new, spiritual person.
Swedenborg wrote extensively about what it means to be reborn. He also gave a quick, step-by-step rundown of what we have to do to be reborn:
If we want to be saved, we have to recognize our faults and regret them.
We recognize our faults when we learn what sorts of things are wrong, see them in ourselves, admit them, take responsibility for them, and criticize ourselves for them. When we do this in front of God, we are recognizing our faults.
We regret our faults when, once we have admitted them and asked with a humble heart for help in giving them up, we stop acting on them and start living a new life in harmony with the rules of kindness and faith. (New Jerusalem 159–161)
Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.
1. Learn what is right and wrong
Before we can change our lives for the better, we have to know the difference between right and wrong. Otherwise, how would we know what’s broken and needs fixing?
This isn’t something we can just do once and be done. Learning the basics, such as the Ten Commandments, is a good start. But we need to keep taking more “advanced classes” throughout our lives. Why? Because we’re always facing new, different, deeper, and more complex issues in life, and each one requires new and deeper understanding of right and wrong.
We always need to engage our minds in seeking out new ideas, new understanding, new spiritual truth. We can do this in whatever way works best for us. The important thing is: never stop learning!
2. See what is wrong in ourselves
Once we’ve learned something about what’s right and wrong, it’s tempting to turn our critical gaze outward and see what’s wrong with everyone else. That’s easy! Unfortunately, we can’t fix anyone else. So it’s time to heed a variation on the beloved Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the people I cannot change
courage to change the person I can
and wisdom to know that it’s me.
Only when we start turning our critical eye on our own thoughts, feelings, words, and actions can our knowledge of right and wrong become effective. Before we can change for the better, we must identify what needs changing in ourselves.
Unfortunately, many of us think we’re just fine the way we are. I do my job. I’m polite to people. I’m a nice person. I don’t need that old repentance stuff!
If that’s what we think, we’re fooling ourselves. There are probably ten or twenty people out there who could easily identify several critical faults in us but are too polite (or too scared) to tell us.
So how can we identify what’s wrong in ourselves?
Swedenborg offers a helpful mind game: Think of what we would do if there would be no bad consequences. Would we slug that annoying person who works in the next cubicle? Slip some twenties out of the cash register at work? Put out a contract on our most hated politician?
Now we can begin to identify the evil impulses that our destructive words and actions come from.
One more thing: It does no good to pronounce a blanket condemnation on ourselves. “I’m an awful person!” “I’m a terrible sinner!” “What a jerk I am!” It may sound repentant, but it gives us nothing to work on.
We have to look for specific faults to tackle. A hot temper. A critical tongue. Sloppy work habits. Procrastination. Dishonesty. Pick one—not one that’s too hard at first—and make that your self-fixer-upper project. Success in this first project, even if it’s a small one, will give strength and confidence for more difficult battles to come.
3. Admit it
This one’s easy to describe, but hard to do. All it involves is saying: “Yes, that’s what I do!” “Yes, that’s how I feel!” “Yes, that’s how I think!”
But it’s not easy to admit that we’re at fault. The human mind is capable of amazing contortions to avoid seeing faults and bad habits in ourselves that are blindingly obvious to everyone else.
So this step is simple . . . and hard. Once we’ve identified something specific that’s wrong with ourselves, don’t turn our eyes away, but look it straight in the face. Admit that we’re feeling, thinking, and doing something that’s wrong.
4. Take responsibility for it and criticize ourselves for it
Now comes something even harder: taking personal responsibility for our wrongs.
This is where we are most likely to get derailed from our process of spiritual rebirth. We may be very honest about everything wrong with ourselves. “Yes, I’m a complaining, self-centered whiner.” But the next step is critical. We can either take responsibility for it, or we can blame it on someone else.
It would be a lot easier to say, “What do you expect? Look at how my parents raised me! Look at the way I have to live! Look at all those jerks I have to deal with every day! It’s not my fault!”
As long as we blame everyone else for our problems, we’ll keep right on living the same way. If it’s someone else’s fault, that person has to change, not me. And even if they did change, we’d just find someone else to blame. But the worst part is that when we blame other people or blame our rotten circumstances, we give away the power to change our own lives for the better.
It is only when we take responsibility for our own faults that we acquire the power to change them. Maybe our parents did do a number on us. Maybe life is unfair. But the way we are is now our problem, not theirs. And it’s our job to fix it.
Once we make the difficult but critical step of taking personal responsibility for our faults, we can get on with the task of changing ourselves for the better.
Isn’t this all kind of negative?
Why all the focus on evil? Why not just look for the positive? Isn’t looking at what’s wrong with ourselves just going to drag us down?
Not if our goal is to make things better.
Let’s say you’re driving in your car and you start hearing a noise. How will each approach work?
Look for the positive: Hmm, I hear a funny noise. But there are so many good things about this car. It gets so warm when I turn on the heat! And the windshield wipers do such a good job! No sense getting all negative and focusing on that noise that’s getting louder and louder. The car isn’t shaking—it’s got massaging seats! . . . Hey! Why did the car stop? Oh well. I’ll just get out and meet all those nice people who are honking their horns at me. They must really love me!
Identify the faults: Hmm, I hear a funny noise, and it’s getting worse. I’d better take the car to a mechanic and get it fixed. It might be expensive, but I can’t have the car breaking down on me.
We focus on our faults because “that’s where the money is.” In other words, we focus on our faults because that’s how we get the greatest benefits.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to see the good in ourselves too. After all, in the beginning God made everything in creation “very good” (Genesis 1:31). That includes us!
But by now we’ve lost our “new car smell.” The parts are beginning to wear out and break. No matter how much we “think positive,” we’re not perfect. And if we’re willing to see, identify, and deal with the parts of ourselves that aren’t working properly, we can get to work fixing ourselves so that our life won’t break down.
Why focus on the negative? Because identifying and dealing with the negative will make things a lot more positive for us.
We now return to our regularly scheduled step-by-step program.
5. Do all of this in front of God
This step may be the most important one of all. There are many reasons we could stop lying, cheating, stealing, and so on. We could do it to stay out of trouble, save our own skin, or make a profit based on a reputation for honesty and hard work.
But when we admit our wrongs in front of God, we’re saying, “I need to change not just because it’s good for me, but because it’s what God wants me to do. I need to stop doing what’s wrong simply because it’s wrong.”
If we change our behavior for self-centered and materialistic reasons, we’ll slip right back into those bad ways of living as soon as we decide that being honest, fair, and thoughtful is not a benefit to ourselves anymore.
But if we change our behavior out of a conviction that the way we were living is wrong, and that we must start living rightly according to God’s standards, then we can make a permanent change in our life.
6. Ask with a humble heart for help in giving it up
Maybe we can correct some of our simple bad habits by our own efforts. But when it comes to the deeper ones, we’re no match for them on our own. Praying to God involves recognizing that we’re not strong enough to overcome our deeper evils without God’s help.
We may also need to ask for help from trusted people around us. Close friends and family members, ministers, counselors, fellow recovering alcoholics or addicts, organized programs that address our particular issue . . . all of these can help give us the strength and guidance we need to stay the course until we have overcome.
Then, when we do overcome, we can remind ourselves that on our own we would have failed, but with the help of God and other people, we were able to change our lives for the better.
7. Stop acting on it
Are you with me so far?
Then it’s time to stop talking and get to work! It’s time to end our wrong behavior. Using all the tricks we can learn and all the help we can get, it’s time to face our bad habits . . . and stop doing them.
There are as many ways of doing this as there are people and personal faults. One way is to say to ourselves, “I know I want to do this right now, but it’s wrong, it’s against God’s commandments, and I’m not going to do it!” Yes, it will be a struggle. We will go through many trials and temptations. But it is possible to change.
8. Start living a new life in harmony with the rules of kindness and faith
If we are determined not to live the wrong way, we’ll have to replace it with living the right way. We must “cease to do evil; learn to do well” (Isaiah 1:16–17).
If we don’t replace our old destructive habits with new and better ways of living, we’ll fall into the trap that Jesus pointed out:
When an unclean spirit comes out of anyone, it goes through dry places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean, and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. (Matthew 12:43–45)
When we finally succeed in evicting our old bad habits from our mental and spiritual house, we must bring in new good habits to take up residency there.
For example, if our old habit was to complain about everything, then in order to permanently break that habit we must replace it with a good habit of finding something positive to say about the person or situation we’re currently encountering. No matter what our particular wrong attitude or behavior is, there will be something positive to replace it. That’s how God made us.
A new self
The best replacement is the replacement self. As we go through this process with our various faults and flaws, we gradually find ourselves becoming a new person: more loving, more thoughtful, wiser, more helpful to others. In the process, we gain an inner joy and peace that we never knew before.
That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “You must be born again.”
This article is © 2013 by Lee Woofenden
For further reading:
- If You Think You’re Going to Hell, Please Read This First
- Repentance: The Unpopular Partner of Forgiveness
- What does it Mean to be Baptized with Water, the Holy Spirit, and Fire?
- Faith Alone Does Not Save . . . No Matter How Many Times Protestants Say It Does
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth