Can you be passively active?


So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ John 3:7 NLT

Don’t we sometimes long for a ‘do-over’?  For years, I’ve celebrated new beginnings. But coming upon Jesus’ words this morning I spotted a new way of thinking about the new birth as he startled the learned Nicodemus.

What do people assume when they speak of a ‘do-over’?  I know my mind goes directly to inaugurating a fresh start. A chance to try again and to better THIS time.

But is that what the Bible teaches? That we all receive a clean page, unblemished by sin in order to ‘make it good this time’?

Knowing me, that’s not good news.

I don’t have confidence that I can do better.

Praise God that Jesus’ conversations point to a passive plan of action.  He does this by using the passive form of a verb, BE born again.

Okay, let’s pause for a brief grammar review.  Just what is the passive ‘voice’ in language?  Wikipedia simplifies it this way:

“…..In a clause with passive voice, the grammatical subject expresses the theme or patient of the main verb – that is, the person or thing that undergoes the action or has its state changed. This contrasts with active voice, in which the subject has the agent role….”

Jesus holds out to the current and most influential religious man in Jerusalem a different way of doing life.  It’s a receiving of an action done to him that is going to change his life forever. That is, if he submits.

Is this good news?  To me it is. For ‘try harder….do more….change your ways….start fresh’ no longer hold out hope. They simply remind me of how I CAN’T!

I remember the years that I loved January 1.  The calendar proclaimed the tempting possibility of maybe getting it RIGHT this time.  I’d pull out and unwrap a brand-new planner and write down goals and steps and the intermediate milestones, tagged to specific dates. I dared to imagine that THIS year would be better.

I don’t do that anymore.  Oh, I still have hope.  But a new kind, one that causes my entire body to relax.  I can’t change myself, but God can. Not only does he want to, it is his express plan of how we are to live.

Let’s start with what happens after what Jesus describes as the second birth. Consider this biblical fact:

Now, we are new and different living beings. And that condition is right from the start. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

Okay, now what?  Is there something we are to do?  Paul tells us what to expect as new boys and girls, men and women:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind….Romans 12:2 ESV

If you and I were meant to do the change, the Holy Spirit would have exhorted: Don’t conform yourself to the world, but transform yourself by……

Can you SEE or maybe FEEL the difference?

Countless verses and passages in the Bible lay out for us just how much we have received (a passive action) from grace, to strength, to riches, to comfort, to guidance, even to the gift of wanting to repent.  

But here’s one of my favorite examples and this is VIVID.  Do you remember Ezekiel’s encounter with God in a vision in the Valley of Dry Bones? Read all of chapter 37 for the details, but let’s look at verses 5 and 6s showing that God is the agent.

Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

It’s ALL of the Lord’s doing.

Maybe you are you questioning:  So, we don’t do anything?  We just let ourselves be DONE to?

To the contrary! Yes, primarily we are to receive, but Paul DOES strongly exhort us to practice various ACTIVE behaviors.

For example, given ALL that God has done for us and IS doing every second, we are to:

Per Romans 12:12

  1. Thoroughly enjoy the hope, the expectation we have of permanently belonging to God as his ‘do-over’ children.
  2. Bravely and calmly bear whatever affliction or suffering he ordains.
  3. Chatter to God all the time through thanksgiving and praise and handing over all our requests.

Per Philippians 4: 8 ESV

Here is where we are to direct our thoughts:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Of course, we are to read, study and meditate on God in his word daily to receive his counsel. And he DOES lay out actions we are to take like helping others and offering hospitality. 

However, I think Christians can fall into the trap of thinking it’s all about their DOING.

Let’s add thanksgiving back into our daily lives,  the ‘being done to us’ side of the Christian life.  Remember, WE don’t cause fruit to grow on our branch.  That’s the Holy Spirit’s job, too.

My words to Maria and to you are: “Relax, little branchlet, little twig, little offshoot of the trunk who is Jesus. You have a gardener who knows what he is doing.  Just be glad and receive his care and let him grow you into a strong branch.”

The pain of childbirth – a picture of holiness

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Consider Mary.  Pregnant with God’s glory.  (see Luke passage at the end)

Like some of you, I have given birth to two children.  As each pregnancy advanced, my growing state became more and more of a hindrance to my ‘normal’ pattern of life prior to conception.

And THEN, that final couple of days of growing and UNBELIEVABLY intense, painful contractions – it was far from pleasant.  But effective.  And new life, when fully formed and ready for THIS world, was born.

Both pregnancies acquainted me with the thickness of a normal cervix and the size of an ordinary womb of which I was only vaguely aware each month.

But pregnancy and delivery taught me new things, through suffering.  Were those experiences worth the experiences?  Without a doubt.

How does this relate to holiness?

Picture the Spirit of God who comes to take up residence inside a new believer.  As C.S. Lewis has written, this new inhabitant starts to do major renovations that a baby Christian hasn’t even asked for, let alone heard about.

Adding to Lewis’ illustration, another picture, other than ‘flipper of homes’, came to my mind this morning.  I’ve been reading John Owen and John Calvin about God’s purpose in curating suffering for our growth in sanctification.

(Recall God’s will for our lives IS sanctification – 1 Thess 4:3 and how important He considers holiness, ‘without which no one will see the Lord’ – Hebr 12:14)

These classic Christian authors prompted me to think of expanding holiness WITHIN me, akin to a baby expanding in the womb.  The more I submit to God’s will with humility, patience, and gratitude, the more the Holy Spirit, aka my doula or birthing coach, grows this new spiritual life within me.  I’m reminded of John the Baptist’s statement about Jesus as recorded in John 3:30 –  He must increase but I must decrease.

This new spiritual life IS Christ in us, the promise of future glory. (Col 1:27)  Just as a pregnant mom undergoes a growing baby stretching out her womb, making room for new life, so, too, the Holy Spirit pushes against some of the old self-centered us, crowding it out to create space for His growing presence.  Pain and suffering are part and parcel of pregnancy and childbirth.  And so are they also in our progress toward holiness.

That Holy Spirit-induced ‘new you’ is expanding and pushing against the boundaries and walls of the ‘old you’.  That thick ‘flesh’ is being thinned out, which HURTS like Hades (as my mom used to say).

That image of being ‘pregnant with God’s glory’* resonated with me this morning.  Our Father is not content to let that presence of holiness engrafted in us through the Holy Spirit remain the same size.  You and I must be glad, therefore, of His expansion plans to complete the work, He has pledged to do.  We must learn to accept suffering as from the Hand of God, lovingly intended for our good:  our holiness and thus our happiness.  After all, ‘A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.’ John 16:21

Luke 1:27b-38 (NIV): 

The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.


*pregnant with God’s glory, like Mary – a phrase I read somewhere but don’t know to whom I can attribute it.

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