On the other hand, “the twice-born” know the depths of pain, the devastation of being utterly alone, the overwhelming burden of guilt and shame. Finding God for the twice-born means a life-changing experience. These people “hit bottom” and emerge from darkness into light. They find new worth in God’s mercy and forgiveness. They find new life in God’s love.
My book, Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories, contains 60 accounts of both the once-born and the twice-born. When they are examined closely, the distinction is blurred. The experience of twice-born people looks more like a process of discovery, rather than an emotional turning point. The experience of once-born people often has more drama than one might expect.
Nearly all these stories reveal a fascinating pattern. An individual is confronted by God. Then the individual resists. Eventually the person surrenders. What follows is an experience of joy and a new life of mission and service.
Despite this pattern, the experience of conversion or finding God can take various forms. It can be emotional (John Wesley’s heart being “strangely warmed”), intellectual (C.S. Lewis’ gradual conviction of God’s existence), aesthetic (Jonathan Edwards’ awareness of God in the beauty of nature), or moral (Albert Schweitzer’s and Mother Teresa’s decision to devote their lives to the poor).
The 17th-century pastor Richard Baxter summed up the astonishing variety of experiences of God by acknowledging that he did not know the time of his conversion. Upon reflection, he wrote, “I perceived that education is God’s ordinary way for the conveyance of his grace. I understood at last that God breaketh not all men’s hearts alike.”
But the issue remains. Can people change? This question lies at the heart of virtually every area of human knowledge — from science to philosophy to literature to criminology. Answering that question has enormous implications for how individuals live their lives and how societies organize their governments and their laws.
The lives of people who find God is a powerful and eloquent testimony to the fact that people can change, and they can change when they discover, in the words of St. Augustine’s prayer, that “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
Festo Kivengere, an Anglican bishop who became known as “the Billy Graham of Africa,” spent his life telling people about the God he found in his youth. He was renowned as a storyteller — for all ages. In one of his favorite stories, a little girl sat watching her mother working in the kitchen. She asked her mother, “What does God do all day long?” For a while her mother was stumped, but then she said, “Darling, I’ll tell you what God does all day long. He spends his whole day mending broken things.”
Throughout the centuries and in various ways, people do find God. But when you look more closely, it’s more a matter of God finding them — because God spends his whole day mending broken things.
John M. Mulder is the former president of Louisville Seminary. His most recent book is “Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories.”