Read Part 1
What does it mean to be a born-again Christian? To read the New Testament, you’d think it means getting a whole new perspective on life, a new heart, and new behaviors along with it. Galatians chapter 5 gives a nice, quick contrast between the life controlled by the flesh, and the life controlled by the Holy Spirit. The former produces bad fruit like sexual immorality, impure thoughts, idolatry, hostility, quarreling, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, and much more. But the latter produces those famous “fruits of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see vss. 16-26). To make it more personal, living a Spirit-filled, or “born-again,” life would mean new thoughts for the depressive (formerly me) who keeps repeating, “I just want to die” (Eph. 4:21-24; Col. 3: 1-3).
If an entire household were born-again, I suppose that would mean no more yelling at one another—no more anger and bitterness and malice. Parents would love each other and kids would respect their parents. Sabbath mornings would be joyful, not hate-filled. My parents would have stayed together—and our family would not have ended in an affair, an illegitimate child (or my beloved younger brother), a divorce, and possibly not the two older children (my brother and me) moving far, far away from a home that we came to know as a battleground. In a family that called itself Christian, how could we have gone so wrong?I believe it was because my family was not living a Spirit-filled life: we were not truly “born again.” (To read how Jesus explained rebirth and the Spirit-filled life, see John chapter 3).
I know my parents were taught doctrine (a set of biblical beliefs) before joining the Seventh-day Adventist church, but were they taught about how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Were they taught how important it is to “be renewed in their minds”—and not just by learning information, but by internalizing God’s love for them and Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection? When they were baptized, were they really taught what it meant to be buried with Christ—to put on love—and to die to self (Rom. 6:3-4)?
While I am tempted to blame the church for not teaching my parents these things—because the fruit in their marriage and in our family points to a “non-born-again” existence—I don’t know the answer to these questions.
Before I go any further, I should note that my dad grew up Lutheran and my mom, Catholic, so if a church or denomination is to blame for missing the “born-again boat,” several are to blame. I don’t know much about my parents’ formative experiences with church, except that Dad’s didn’t leave any notable impression on him, and Mom’s left her wanting more and better answers. She finally started to read the Bible for herself in college, only to realize that the Catholic church strayed pretty far from its teachings sometimes. (One example would be their changing of the ten commandments—deleting the second one and splitting the tenth into two.)
I know my parents, when they were newly married, came into the Seventh-day Adventist church through a Revelation Seminar, or a series of meetings that teaches esoteric prophecies in Daniel and Revelation, along with other defining doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist church (the seventh-day Sabbath, the state of the dead, the truth about hell, the health message, etc.). I know my parents latched on to the logical presentation they saw; they couldn’t argue with the Adventists, because these people proved everything they taught straight from the Bible. I know these convincing proofs were enough to get my parents baptized.
And then my parents started doing what the Adventists did. They took my brother and me to church on Saturday and restricted what we could do on the Sabbath: no TV, no sports, no shopping or eating out from Friday night sundown to Saturday night sundown. They stopped eating unclean meats, such as pork and seafood, per instructions in Leviticus. And as I grew up, these outward markers, to me, became what it was to be a Seventh-day Adventist Christian—only I didn’t think much about myself being a Christian, or a follower of Christ. I mostly thought of myself as an “Adventist,” because, it came to my attention, being “Adventist” separated me from my peers who were busy eating bacon, playing sports on Sabbath, and attending other fun events that I couldn’t.
My Fallout from Church
When I was sixteen, after Mom left with my baby brother and Dad and my older brother were angry and I was depressed, I started blatantly breaking the fourth commandment (“Thou shalt keep the Sabbath holy”) by working on Saturdays. Suddenly I didn’t care about breaking the Sabbath, because, well, why should I? I had been attending church all my life, but church hadn’t helped me any. It hadn’t saved my family.
I can’t remember if anyone tried to tell me about what it really meant to be born again: in this case, being renewed in my now-suicidal mind—or finding peace amidst the storm. Perhaps some caring adult tried to tell me, and their words fell on deaf and hurting ears. All I know is I didn’t see the Spirit-filled life, or love and joy and peace, demonstrated at home. And this brings up another crucial point.
Fruit of the Non-Born-Again Family—Plus, the Christian Pretending Game
I remember many kind church members who I think would have intervened had they known what was really going on in my home. But my parents were good at something many other Christians are: They hid our problems from the public eye. After they split up, my parents admitted that they’d always planned to divorce—but they were trying to wait until my brother and I graduated high school. When it hit the fan, not only our fellow church members, but also my brother and I, were flabbergasted that things were really that bad. Mom and Dad had played the game well.
Going back to the born-again discussion—because I think the true root of my family’s demise was that we were not born-again—my parents today admit that they entered marriage unprepared and unconverted in their hearts. I don’t ever remember Mom and Dad modeling for my brother and me daily prayer, except that we prayed before meals and sometimes before bedtime. Family devotions were non-existent. Our lifestyle, filled with sports and fiction and media and rock and country music, was very secular, except for one day a week when we put all that away to “keep the Sabbath.” So we were “Adventists.” But we were not really Christians (not really living like Christ). Which means we were really nothing but posers, because you can’t be a true Seventh-day Adventist without being a Christian, too.
Roots of a Blow-up
Learning doctrine is great, if it is biblical. I believe that Seventh-day Adventist doctrine is biblical. But if doctrine is all you have, in the end you really have nothing, as my family’s story shows. Along with doctrine, you need to have relationship—relationship with God and Jesus that transforms the way you think and live and relate to others every single day of the week. This is what I mean by being born-again.
Before shouting matches occurred in my home, we should have been dropping to our knees as a family. Before my depressive thoughts took root, I should have been planting scripture in my mind.
“We do not wage war with mere human plans or methods. But we use God’s mighty weapons, not merely worldly weapons…with these, we take captive every thought to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5). What if my parents had learned, and I had learned, to take every thought captive to Christ?
Oh, what a much happier story I’d have to tell.
Instead, we went to church angry, put on plastic smiles, and then, when everything blew up, we kept those things out of sight, too. I learned to keep my depression out of sight. Then, when the façade became too farcical for me, I disappeared from church altogether.
The good news is that when your spiritual leaders fail you (possibly because they don’t know what you need, if they even know what they need), God can still get to your heart. He eventually got to mine. Sadly, it’s also true that the sins of the parents reach into the third and fourth generations—so sometimes even as we are coming back to God, it’s a murky, uphill battle. There are consequences to living opposed to God’s laws, and it can take a long time for life to smooth out again (hence my “ugly, messy” rebirth story).
Before I can tell you about the good fruit God eventually produced in me, in part three, I will expand on the lingering effects of growing up in a (church) culture where I thought it was “not okay” to ask for help—as well as the idea that there wasn’t anything inherently life-changing about Jesus, his Word, or prayer.