“It is a mistake to believe, as some people do, that “birth in spirit” can happen at once, as with St. Paul on the way to Damascus. St. Paul was not spiritually born on the way to Damascus (he had been a righteous and zealously believing Jew before then) — but it was as though a bandage fell off his eyes, and the whole power of his faith was turned to serving Him Whom he had persecuted ‘in God’s name.’ No doubt St. Paul had been inwardly prepared for that which happened on the way to Damascus by the whole of his preceding life; and to the end of his days he disciplined himself, saying, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection” (1Cor. 9,27) and, “Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended : but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3,13-14). “Let us therefore,” he adds, “as many as be perfect, be thus minded.”
This is an indication of the way toward ‘birth from above’ which St. Paul himself thought he had not yet attained. It is an example to all Christians. That is why men ‘born in Christ’ differ from others, not by apparent, but by the true humility. They do not regard themselves as having ‘attained’ anything; they see their deficiency in everything; they do not notice other people’s failings, but on the contrary, are always struck by their good qualities.
Unfortunately, many people who sincerely seek the Lord are deluded by the thought that they have been ‘born of the Spirit.’ A man may experience spiritual joy, feel the warmth of prayer, find his Lord and Saviour and decide in his mind that this is ‘second birth.’ And indeed not infrequently he changes his conduct: gives up telling deliberate lies, drinking and smoking, begins to say his prayers, to read the Gospel daily — and in all sincerity numbers himself among the ‘saved’ and ‘the risen in Christ.’ In doing so he imperceptibly grows placid and satisfied with himself and his conduct, and then begins to look around and see who is ‘saved’ and who is ‘not saved.’ He goes to hear only such preachers who confirm his belief and, by specially selected texts from the Gospel, he is lulled to sleep in his spiritual complacency, thus barring the way to poverty in spirit, i.e. to true regeneration in Christ. The result is the type of the ‘proud evangelical saint.’ This is New Testament Pharisaism: “I am not like other men…” (in the parable of the publican and the Pharisee).
This false “birth” which deludes a good many of the ‘righteous’ opens the broad way to spiritual self-satisfaction and prevents a true ‘birth in Christ,’ i.e. the acceptance of the narrow and thorny way of spiritual poverty. But that was the way trodden by all the righteous, beginning with the Apostles, and they bequeathed it to us, their brethren. The nearer a man is to a mountain, the bigger it seems to him and the smaller he himself becomes in his own eyes. The nearer to the Lord, the smaller and more sinful he feels, and sincerely says, “I believe, Lord, and I acknowledge that Thou art of a truth the Christ, the Son of the living God, Which came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief….” If one has that feeling, it is difficult to grow proud and regard oneself as ‘saved’ and another man as ‘not saved.’
+ Archbishop John Shahovskoy