What is conversion?

The root of much of my hypocrisy may have been a fundamental misconception of Christianity. I believe I have shared this misconception with many of my evangelical friends for more than twenty years. The misconception? I equated being a follower of Jesus with conversion.

They’re not the same. Take me, for instance. I became a follower of Jesus at age sixteen. My conversion gained some traction at age forty, though, as the result of a debilitating identity crisis. And my conversion continues (I hope).

For much of the twenty-four-or-so years between my decision to follow Jesus and my most significant conversion experience to date, I struggled to make the Christian ideal real. Because I thought I was converted, I blamed myself for the discrepancy between what I was and what I thought I should be.

Now I think this discrepancy was based on mission creep. Jesus’ main mission is to lead me to the end of my false self. I understood something of that, but my main mission was to be more like Jesus. These are different enough goals to have kept Jesus and me at odds for years without my knowing it. I’m glad I made certain efforts to improve, but I mistakenly saw my efforts as evidence of conversion instead of as preparation for it.

Jesus is also at odds with his apostle Peter over the same mission conflict. Three years into following Jesus, Peter is still trying to show himself worthy of Jesus: you know, cutting off a soldier’s ear, swearing his undying .allegiance, etc. And the hypocrisy of it: Peter says he’ll follow Jesus to the end, but he denies Jesus only a few hours later. The cool thing is that Peter’s willingness to find out just how strong he was brings him to the end of himself

Just before Peter’s spectacular flame-out, Jesus tells him this:

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail, and you, when once you have turned again [“converted,” the KJV has it], strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31-32, NNAS)

When he first meets Jesus, Peter gives up everything to follow him, but Luke suggests that most of Peter’s conversion doesn’t take place until about three years later.

I think the keys to Christianity are elusive to most Christians: concepts such as “the kingdom of God” and “Christ in you,” God in you. I believe conversion is misunderstood because we assume we understand the kingdom of God as well as Christ in us. We assume we understand the birth analogy in the Gospel of John and in two of the epistles.

There’s another way to look at this birth analogy. If we refer to the stages the New Testament uses in this analogy, perhaps Peter receives Jesus’ seed when Jesus first calls him; perhaps Peter labors with child when he betrays Jesus; and perhaps Peter is born again around the time of Jesus’ resurrection. Perhaps Christ is in Peter the whole time, but, for Peter’s first three years in the Bible, “Christ in him” is only a growing seed.

The difference between receiving Jesus (a seed analogy, recall) and being converted may be the difference between being a potential child of God and a functioning one. “To as many as received [Jesus], to them gave he power to become the sons of God.” (John 1:12) For at least twenty-four years I was becoming, all the while taking myself as the genuine article. I wasn’t very childlike at all. (Childish, yes – and still am.)

(Of course, these child metaphors get difficult. In one sense, we’re all God’s children. In another, Paul assigns sonship to “all who are being led by the Spirit of God.” (Romans 8:14) Consistent with an underlying premise in Jesus’ prodigal son story (and in King Lear), there are daughters and sons, and then there are daughters and sons.)

Peter is still a sinner after this conversion. (Luke’s own book of Acts and Paul’s letter to the Galatians point this out; Paul even points out Peter’s continued hypocrisy.) But there is far more evidence of a new person after this conversion experience then there is during Peter’s first three years of following Jesus. After Peter denies Jesus, he finally is capable of being weak and befuddled. Soon after his resurrection, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him more than the other disciples do. (Like any good mentor, Jesus can’t resist piling on when it suits him.) In response, Peter is far more circumspect on this issue than he has been up to his public denial of Jesus.

Peter has come to the end of himself, and he finds that God loves him anyway. I think that’s why our crises can be gifts. Our crises are sometimes opportunities to strip off more of our false selves and to receive God’s love at a deeper level that our false selves are often unwittingly defending.

My trying to live up to something wasn’t all bad, at least when I wasn’t judging someone to make myself feel better. (Peter also found judging others to be an important strategy in following Jesus: he enjoyed comparing himself favorably to his fellow disciples.) My efforts to live up to who I thought I should be actually prepared me for some conversion, if only because my failures in that regard helped me to come closer to the end of myself. (I’d add to my hypocrisy if I now claimed to have reached the nadir of my false self.)

Paul figures that trying to follow the Bible’s laws plays an important role in someone’s conversion. He says, probably with a wry smile, “The law is a schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ.” I need to study, to pray, to try to love — to try and fail. In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster puts it this way: “The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.”

Conversion is an unmerited gift given over time. It’s a life based on weakness and favor alone. Conversion is the child in me that sometimes sees things I miss as an adult. (“Unless you are converted, and become as children…”)

Conversion means I no longer have to be better than others. It means that what I call Christianity doesn’t have to be better than other religions. Now that I’m a little more converted, I meet people of other religious faiths or with little religious background who are more converted than I am. Who cares? I’m weak – that’s the whole point.

Conversion is the darkness that helps me see and the child that guides me. I hope for more of it. I don’t date it (“I was converted on such-and-such a date”) and I don’t push it (“Are you converted?”). That would be like date-stamping and selling love.

Conversion, in the sense I believe the Bible uses the term, isn’t a decision to accept the tenets of a religion. Instead, conversion may be a gradually increasing ability to receive love.