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The Pain of Becoming a Christian
There is rejoicing in heaven each time someone turns to Jesus. Christians rejoice too. Many – especially those of us in the evangelical stream – see it as some kind of vindication of all our efforts for the Lord, a sign of God’s pleasure. And we assume that the new convert is equally joyous.
But it’s not invariably so. Gaining a new life in Jesus means abandoning an old life, and that is not always easy.
Recently I sat down for a chat about this with my friend Rabbi Harold Vallins. Several years ago, at the age of 57, he committed his life to Jesus, a pretty unusual occurrence for a practising rabbi.
I have written about him before, and have learned of some of the pain he felt. Here is what I wrote previously:
He was forced to resign his position, leaving many in his congregation feeling betrayed, and he lost many of his dear friends. His wife - pregnant with their second child - was devastated by the news, and the marriage collapsed.
His words now might cause some Christians to pause and think. In our zeal to make converts are we overlooking the fact that Jesus calls us instead to make disciples? And that is a lengthy process.
Here is what Harold told me, in his own words:
People say to me, “It must be so wonderful to have the experience of coming to the Lord. Most of us were brought up knowing the Lord.”
Which it was. That initial meeting with Jesus was a strong and earth-shattering moment, and what people seem to think is that meeting Jesus makes you aware of all there is to know about Jesus.
But meeting Jesus is only the beginning.
In unguarded moments I sometimes ask: “If I knew then what I know now would I so easily have come to the Lord?” Because life has been one long series of painful growth experiences after the other, often punctuated by strong periods of self-doubt, or doubt about whether this is worth it, or is this what coming to Jesus really means. I envy people who are certain or are sure and who walk every day with the Lord.
I find I’m constantly having to question and evaluate what I’m doing because I’m not sure if it’s the right thing or the right path.
I guess that’s where faith comes in.
I was rejected by my family – my mother, sister, uncles, aunts and cousins. I was rejected by my friends and colleagues. I was rejected by my congregation. And I was rejected by my wife.
That was a rejection of everything I had been standing for or fighting for, for 57 years.
What’s painful is if I’d committed a murder or even a massacre my colleagues would have come to see me in prison. They would have given me some support. But not when I became a Christian.
I guess it knocks at everything they hold sacred – not the religious part of Judaism, but the identity side, the ethnic and racial side.
When you’re in a minority, identity is very important. You fight against anything that dilutes identity.
If a Jewish boy is in love with a non-Jewish girl, there is enormous pressure on the girl to become a Jew. Often the marriage is forbidden if the girl doesn’t convert. Among some Jews – especially the Orthodox – there is a period of mourning if a son marries out. It’s as if he has died.
As a rabbi I had to officiate at many weddings where one side was not Jewish. The wedding dinner was always painful. There was no mixing. I can’t tell you the number of times I heard the Jewish side saying their son had married a shiksa [an abomination]. I would say that 70% of these mixed marriages end in divorce, because of family pressures.
When a person does worse than marry out – turn to another religion – then it’s devastating for that community. When a rabbi does it, it’s more devastating still. I’m sure that is what stops many rabbis from contemplating that path.
I don’t think I thought of all the consequences of what I had done. When you suddenly realise that you’re cut off from everything...
However, there is nothing that I would change. I have been inspired by the words of Paul: “I can rejoice in my suffering…” I have come to realise that no-one can come to the Lord without paying a cost. Once I had been called by the Lord, there was no way that I would want my life to be different.
Through the pain and the loneliness that I have suffered, I have also grown, and, praise the Lord, become a deeper, more compassionate person. I truly believe that whatever one pays to come to the Lord – and make no mistake, there is a cost to pay – the Lord is always faithful, not only to restore whatever has been paid, but He restores much more.
Yes, I still continue to experience frequent moments of great pain and loneliness when thinking about my family and about my former Jewish friends and community. But my life is richer and more fulfilled, with more direction and purpose than I ever experienced before. I feel blessed that I can work for the Lord and that He faithfully cares for me every day.
July 16th, 2002