I was talking to Chris recently about the way in which people become Christians. We agreed that many conversions take place as a result of some crisis in a person’s life. It may be a bereavement or an experience of illness. Whatever the cause of the conversion, an individual has seen in the Christian faith a solution to the situation of uncertainty or vulnerability.
As I thought about this scenario for people becoming Christians, I recognise that in my ministry many adult confirmation candidates and new members arrived following some significant moment in their lives. It was not always a negative experience that brought them into the church. Sometimes it was a happy but life changing event like the birth of a child or a marriage. But whether conversion takes place as the result of a traumatic life changing event or one that brings great joy, there is still a strong emotional accompaniment to this moment of change we describe as conversion.
The fact that conversion to Christ may have a strong emotional element is of course quite a normal occurrence. But it does sometimes create a tendency for the rational and thinking side of the personality not to be totally and fully engaged in the process. If I become a Christian as a result of a healing experience, then I am always going to remember that original vulnerability and how it was transformed by an act of faith. In the same way, if I become a Christian in the context of being a new parent, I would always associate that particular life-changing experience for ever more with what I do in church. The real problem with this situation is that an individual may want to regress frequently to that point of transition, because that is where the Christian faith had been most real to him or her. The healed person will want always to speak about their healing and the parent will want to celebrate that participation in new life. The Christian faith in other words has become identified with a particular moment of emotional transition in their lives.
I’ve spoken in previous blog about the tendency of some Christians, even in positions of ministry, to speak endlessly about their moment of conversion. That was the one real moment of spiritual encounter to which they can lay claim to in their spiritual journey. Whether the individual becomes a Christian because of an emotional crisis or because they have been to a mission event to hear a compelling evangelist, there are going to be strong emotional aspects in the way they live out their Christian faith. I have already hinted at a possible problem with a tendency to look back to a particular moment in their personal Christian journey. The problem is, to summarise, that there is no necessary connection between an emotional appreciation of the Christian message and a one that embraces the possibility of newness. In other words, some people will always associate Christianity only with feelings and inner experience. Anything which involves them engaging the intellect or other parts of the personality will be unwelcome and possibly even threatening.
There are many Christians who are indeed threatened by any suggestion that they should look at the claims of faith with their minds and intellects. There may be for example enormous resistance to any discussion of Bible passages which might suggest that there is more than one interpretation. The Christian who is locked into an emotional appreciation of their faith, is of course well supported by many churches who encourage them, we would say, not to engage their thinking or reason. Congregations who can be manipulated through their feelings are of course much easier to manage than those who challenge and constantly question those who preach to them.
The Bible itself sees the human personality in a somewhat different way. There is no word that is translatable as emotion, but it has another word to describe the non-thinking part of the personality. That word is the ‘heart’. When we reflect on the meaning of this word in biblical terms, we get a sense that it means much more than anything implied by the emotions. It is in the first place the part of ourselves that reaches out towards other people. It is the source of our motivation, our longing and our passion. It would be good if there were an easy way to teach people to connect with this dimension of personality. The problem is that in many church settings there is a deliberate cultivation of shallow emotion. It is of course not easy to define where the boundary between what we call the heart and the feelings should be placed. I suspect that many Christians are in fact content to stick with the cultivation of easy emotion, such as that found in syrupy choruses and octane-charged preaching. The challenge on all of us is to love God with heart, mind, soul and strength. The best test for discovering whether we do rise from feeling to engaging the ‘heart’ is to ask the question whether feelings aroused in church settings in fact achieve anything concrete or whether they remain just sensations. An action which comes from the heart is likely to have some positive outcome, such as changing a person for the good or allowing him or her to impact the world around them.
Conversion to God and conversion to Christ will always involve the heart and the mind. It should never be allowed to remain at the level of a simple feeling which is of no significance to anyone except to the one who feels it. An engagement of the heart in this process will lead to action and change which is ongoing. An engagement of the mind will involve learning and constant new discovery. To summarise what I believe to be the process of conversion, there is a change of an individual, not to a static state of being ‘saved’, but being pitched headlong into a process of growth and transformation. This is a process which will never end. If we encounter God as an infinite being of compassion and love, then our discovery of him will continue from this life into the next..