Thoughts on Conversion
In reading Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison recently, I came across the following passage that really captured my attention –
“This being caught up into the messianic sufferings of God in Jesus Christ takes a variety of forms in the New Testament. It appears in the call to discipleship, in Jesus’ table-fellowship with sinners… in the healing of the sick, in Jesus’ acceptance of children. The shepherds, like the wise men from the East, stand at the crib, not as ‘converted sinners’, but simply because they are drawn to the crib by the star just as they are… The only thing that is common to all these is their sharing in the suffering of God in Christ. That is their ‘faith.’ There is nothing of religious method here. The religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life. Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life.
I found the passage so intriguing because it challenges the Christian assumption that encountering Jesus is an end in itself. For many in the church, “finding Jesus” is the point of conversion and salvation. This encounter is presumed to result in the involvement in religious activities such as attending church (which does not necessarily imply being part of the community of church), acts of personal piety, and the elimination of certain sins like sexual immorality. This encounter is what guarantees one a place in heaven and is often assumed to also grant one financial and social success in this life as well. In a dualistic sense, one’s souls’ eternal destiny is changed by this encounter, while physical life continues mostly as before (just in perhaps a better way). There is the encounter that in theory changes everything and in practice changes very little. For unless one’s whole life gets caught up in that suffering of Jesus, the encounter just affects the partial religious acts.
While some might say that ensuring one’s entrance into heaven is to have one’s life caught up into Jesus, it is still a partial event since it ignore the pre-converted life and often the entirety of physical life as well. As the God who suffered Jesus was already present though in the lives of all – the sick, the children, the shepherds, the wise men. He didn’t encounter them and change them so they could now be part of his story; his story became their story as they moved as they were towards him. To find Jesus in a moment is to assume that one was without God and then suddenly has God. Discipleship though is a journey where as people created in God’s image we move ever towards the people we were created to be.
The journey is our conversion as it was for the wise men drawn by the star. That shaping and forming of our selves into Christ-likeness is not a momentary wave of the magic Jesus wand, but the ongoing process of coming to reflect the image of the one in which we live and move and have our being. It is an entirely new life, like Bonhoeffer states, not simply a religious act we join into when it is convenient to us. And it by necessity involves being caught up in suffering. The suffering of Jesus frees us to reject the systems of the world that leave no room for the suffering (or are the cause of that very suffering). Instead of concentrating on our momentary encounters with Jesus, we are free instead to journey towards that shalom of all. The discipline of participating in Christ, the suffering of Christ, leads us not toward more acts of religion but toward standing in solidarity with the suffering. That is simply part of our conversion as we participate in ever fuller ways in our creator.