Around the time I was five (about my daughter’s age), I first learned that if I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart as my personal Lord and savior I would be saved and that, when I died, I would go to live with him in heaven forever. I spent the next fourteen years trying to do just that.
Lying in bed, over and over, I would utter variations on a basic prayer: “Dear God, I want Jesus to come into my heart so that I can go to heaven.” On penitential occasions, I would throw in lines about being a “miserable sinner” or “needing forgiveness.” But the basic thrust remained the same. I wanted Jesus to get in my heart so that I could get to heaven. For fourteen years, I prayed that prayer at night only to discover that, when I woke up, it didn’t take.
I had been told by reliable sources (Sunday school teachers, parents, other elders) that when you’re “saved” you know it. And I didn’t know it. More than once, I heard a preacher ask a congregation whether we knew where we would go if we died that day, and I knew I couldn’t answer the way I wanted to. So I kept praying that prayer. I needed a conversion moment. I needed a blinding light and a thunderous voice. I needed a Damascene moment like the one Saul had. But every time I asked I got nothing.
What is conversion anyway? The first place to look is the story of Saul-becomes-Paul. In today’s Daily Office lesson from the NT (Acts9:19b-31), we read that Saul had a hard time convincing the Christians in Damascus that he was one of them. “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” they asked of the former arch-persecutor of the church. How could it be that this man who spent his life trying to destroy the Jesus-movement now proclaims that he is a part of it? The same thing happened when Saul got to Jerusalem, and Barnabas had to come and describe for the Christian leaders how Saul had been blinded on the road to Damascus and had heard Jesus’ voice. Saul’s conversion—as dramatic as any in human history—became the archetype.
That’s the sort of conversion I wanted. But I wasn’t a persecutor of the church. I was the kid who did more in church than anyone else. I was “Mr. Sunday School.” I preached several youth sermons. I volunteered every time the doors were open. I always won bible trivia. From what was I supposed to be converted? I didn’t need a blinding light to shake me from my anti-Christian ways. But I still needed conversion—just not the sort of conversion I was looking for.
I believe that all of us need conversion. The call of discipleship is too countercultural for us to accidently stumble into it. Jesus proclaims life through death, power in weakness, wealth in poverty, and love for the enemy. That doesn’t just happen. Even those of us who grew up hearing the story of salvation need to discover it for themselves. But conversions come in all shapes and sizes. Some are as dramatic as Saul’s. Some are so powerful that they need to be expressed as a name-change. But others are gradual and subtle—like mine.
For me, the moment finally came not when I was saved but when I discovered that I was already saved. What I lacked was the confidence that God does the saving and that no formulaic prayer uttered by me could make it happen. So I was converted from my self-guided approach to a dependence-on-God-alone mindset. That conversion was quiet and subtle. It was only a slight though distinct shifting of my heart. I never said that prayer again. I didn’t need to. We all need conversion—from something and to something. God offers it to us. What change of heart is he leading each of us to?