What Does Conversion Look Like?

Having cut my spiritual teeth in the Pentecostal world as a youngster, when I first looked for evidence of Christian conversion in history, I was often stymied. I was under the impression that everyone had a similar experience to mine. I responded to an altar call as a teenager after a Passion play, complete with tears and a very supernatural encounter with the Living God.

So when I came across a person like John Donne, who went from writing lascivious poetry in his younger days to becoming an Anglican clergyman not long afterward, I was caught flatfooted as I looked for some kind of event or experience that resembled what I and many others I knew had. But his poetry speaks volumes about a genuine change. Take "The Flea" where Donne essentially tries to get some young woman to hook up with him by arguing that the same flea that bit me bit you too, so let's our freak on. The poet's libido was certainly something I related to as a teenager trying to stay morally pure.

But then you read one of his Holy Sonnets, like "Batter My heart, Three-Person'd God," where he takes that same sensual imagery, but seeking a vitally intimate union with the Holy blew my mind. This wasn't what I expected to see from someone who never had a conversion experience as I understood it. That was the early seed from which I grew to recognize that fruit pointing to a changed heart is far more important than pointing to a particular date and time, an event which was (supposedly) life-changing. Add to that the observation of those who kept "recommitting" to Christ, I realized that there was no cookie-cutter of how the Spirit of Christ works in a person's life. Whether it was gradual or dramatic, early or late in life, with steady growth of lots of highs and lows, we who follow Jesus are not going to experience the full change into his new creation the same way.

If you are wondering about Christian faith and "when" a person crosses that line, I commend to you the experience of C.S. Lewis, who could not pinpoint a specific moment, but observed that at one point he definitely did not believe but after returning from a trip to the zoo found, to his surprise, that he actually believed this stuff about Jesus after all. He then began to actively pursue those activities and associations that Christians have traditionally found helpful in deepening their faith--going to church, prayer, serving others, promoting the Gospel (he was quite the apologist in his day), and so on. I also commend John Donne, who's life reminds us that people can change, and when they do, they often turn those energies that once drove them to all manner of sin to motivations to deeper holiness and love for God.

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