Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Happy Spiritual Birthday to You?

Most of us love birthdays. The cake, the festivities, the presents...overall, they're pretty great. But when I attended Conservative Christian College, I learned that many there celebrated two birthdays...their physical birthday and their "spiritual birthday." Those birthdays  didn't come with all the cake and gifts, but they were announced proudly. I've even seen confusing facebook statuses from people in their 20s or 30s that say things like "Today is my 17th birthday!"

Such landmarks were also used to justify why someone did something others disagreed with. For example, "Well, they are just a baby Christian." Or as the basis for a challenge from a chapel speaker or pastor. "Everyone should memorize at least one Bible verse for every year that they've been a Christian." The whole concept confused me, on both personal and theological levels.

It confused me because I had never heard of such a thing before. And once I understood what it meant, I realized that I didn't have a spiritual birthday. Let me clarify.

For those of you who are not familiar with the concept, many in American Evangelical Culture count the day that they "accepted Jesus into their heart" as their spiritual birthday...the day they were reborn so to speak. So, how does one know exactly what day they count as their spiritual birthday? The most common measure is by celebrating the day they prayed "the sinner's prayer." Don't look for the term (or the prayer itself for that matter) in the Bible. It's not there. Rather, it's a prayer that has become the standard to know whether or not someone is saved. It involves confessing one's sin, asking God for forgiveness, expressing belief in Jesus Christ and His redemptive work on the cross, and committing to follow Him from now on.

So, like I said...I have no spiritual birthday. I was raised in a Lutheran Church and can remember from a young age believing in God and Jesus Christ, but no one ever told me I had to put Him into my heart and make sure He was my personal savior. I didn't hear that claim until I started spending more time with kids from the Evangelical Church late into my high school years. And at first I worried. "Was I really a Christian? Did all the previous years not count? Why didn't anyone tell me about this? Does this mean I'm not saved?" Due to those fears, I'm certain I must have prayed some version of that prayer at least a dozen times over the next five years. I mean, you can't be too sure, right?

Even so, there was no date I could mark as a spiritual birthday, because I was a Christian long before praying any of those prayers. And once I made the decision to take my faith more seriously, it was a series of small intentional steps rather than one grand gesture. This didn't bother me. After all, didn't Paul say to work out your salvation with fear and trembling? That certainly doesn't sound like a simple formulaic prayer to me.

In some ways I get why so many people push that type of prayer as a measure of faith. It does cover some basic tenets of Christian belief. And if you're from the type of church that prints the tally of the number of people "saved" in the bulletin every week, there's got to be some standard of measure. But overall, it just seems like an overly simplified approach to the complex beauty of faith.

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