A friend came by the other day to talk about salvation. Those who characterize themselves as unbelievers may find this strange, but Christians talk about such things. We talk about it because having been awakened by God’s Holy Spirit, been made aware of our sins, His salvation, and the new life He has given us, nothing is more important. This is not an obsession or undue introspection; it is our hope, our life. Such thinking is, to me, more real, more authentic (a trendy word that I feel I have to apologize for using) than not thinking about it.
Well, at any rate, my friend wept in talking about his salvation because after years of serving the Lord, the pain of his past seemed to be mitigating the promised joy of the Lord. There is this complicated narrative that looms over his life like a sinister low-depression storm that won’t budge. It is a story of parental neglect that led to insecurity and a depression of the soul. This man did not lack in Biblical understanding, in sitting under the preaching of God’s Word, or in loving and serving others. He is a model, in fact, to this often-faltering preacher. But he told me of a life spent in pleading for Christ to take away the pain. This man—a Christian leader for most of his life—has spent his secret moments in prayer asking God to fill His spirit with an illusive joy. But he sat before me, his head in his hands, wanting to know what was wrong with him. “Why can’t I know the joy that others know?”
Unconfessed sin can poison the fruit of joy. Undisciplined living can stunt the growth of any potential buds. But I saw none of that. So what do you do when you are doing all of the “right stuff” and still no living water is gushing out of your heart? It is enough to make you doubt your salvation. It is enough to drive you to your knees day in and day out seeking and searching for God in the midst of all of His promises.
What I told him that day I want to tell you. I believe what he went through is what many professing believers go through. If you are a distant follower of the Lord, maybe a bit cynical about the whole evangelical Christian thing, then read on. I want to explode some myths about the abundant life. And I want to also bring the hope of God’s grace to the rest of us who sometimes pretend like we have it all together when we don’t. These thoughts are intended to be, like radiation treatments for cancer patients, small but potent, well placed, arsenals against the pseudo-perfect evangelical Christian family that will bring life and healing and hope. And this is what I told my friend.
There is a passage, 1 Peter 1:5 that is a great “life verse” for those, like my friend, who struggle with depression and with lingering heartaches and painful memories. I quote the passage from the New King James:
“who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
Now the context for the verse (the larger “periscope” as my New Testament theologian friends like to say) is the promise of a “living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead to an inheritance incorruptible…reserved in heaven” for God’s people. Does this seem like just another verse to heap guilt on the lonely pretender who can’t make sense of God’s grace in the midst of their depression? I don’t think so. In fact, I would say that the “happy verses” are never intended to create a press release version of a disciple, and any attempt to create it distorts God’s intention for our lives. I believe what we have here is something I call “delayed salvation.” When I say “delayed salvation” here is what I mean. First, when Peter, writing from “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13)—his own place of hardship, likely Rome—speaks of “being kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time”—he is not denying the work of conversion. He is affirming the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (“What God starts, God completes” as in Philippians 1:6). He is also saying that “this thing is not over.” He is telling bewildered Christian refugees (1:1) suffering the common but extraordinary insults, slanders, isolation, deprivations and beatings, that there is another salvation, a final salvation, a consummation of all that God intends. The promises of God’s blessings are held in faith through the trials and sufferings to the ultimate day of salvation. But this does not mean that there is an absence of God in the midst of the suffering. Just the opposite. God is there, but He is silent. And I do not know why and you do not know why, but this we know, we are being kept, preserved by Him for a ‘salvation ready to be revealed.”
Back to my friend and back to my pastoral concern for you. I told my friend that the very sufferings, the longings in his heart, the unrequited pain, the years and years (he is in his 70s) of seeking the Lord have unfathomable meaning and purpose. But I just cannot say why. But this I know. The thing that has brought him pain has been the thing that has brought him to the Lord. Indeed, it is the very longing for God in the midst of his heartache that keeps him seeking the Lord. And the cross of Jesus Christ is the answer, as usual. For the place of torment and shame, the unspeakable place of cosmic sorrow where creature murders creature—a God-ordained Decide—has become the place of salvation and hope. And this is what the cross means for my friend and maybe for you: Our depressions may be healed by God in our lives here. Our heartaches, etching the lining of our souls, may receive sacred filling. Or maybe not. Maybe our damaged emotions and our deep longings will be the thing that keeps us close to the Lord. “Does a good father ignore his frail child?” I asked my suffering friend. “No,” he said. “He loves him. Maybe even more.” That was a break-through. “Yes! Now we are on to something!” And I put my hand on his shoulder. And I want, now, at this very point, to reach out to you. Yes, the Father loves you who have suffered your whole life long. I speak to young parents with children who have Down’s Syndrome. I speak into the lives of middle-aged women who suffered abuse as little girls. I want to speak to children orphaned and raised in a series of foster homes. I want to speak to doctors who overachieve because they are trying to prove something to a father who never cared as he should have. I want to speak to pastors who are loading up their calendars and calling it “ministry” to avoid the rejection they still feel deeply from the elder in their first charge. I speak to the older couple who longed for children but were given none. Or the single woman about to go to yet another wedding. I speak to my own heart. “God loves His frail children.” But here is the beauty of Peter’s promise of a delayed salvation: the unrestricted joy flowing through your life which you can only dream of, the final answer you have craved all of your life, the deep sense of belonging you have always wanted, the end to the cycle of dreams that you have all of your life feared, the release of the soul that you felt was all bound up in your complicated life for so many years, will receive a final “salvation” on the last day. And the joy will be all the more sweet in that Day. “Pie in the sky” you ask. No. Pleasure in the Presence, says old Peter.
I did not want to minimize the longing heart of my friend, and I do not want to minimize the sufferings of those who read this. But I want you to know that while God’s Word does not reveal all of the reasons for this “delayed salvation” it is certain that, as in the case of a delayed healing of Lazarus, God delays a salvation, a healing, a resolution, an answer, a fulfillment, for His only glory and for our own good. So we are back to faith, a faith in suffering, and a “faith in winter.”
So my friend and I prayed. I prayed for removal of the thorn in his flesh. And we left the disposition of this matter with a wise and loving God who answers prayer. And we knew that he would be healed. We knew joy would come in the morning. But we also knew that the thing haunting him was giving him a “poor in spirit” quality to life that keeps bringing him back again and again to the Good Shepherd. We did not celebrate the pain, but we trusted the Plan. We did not desire more of it, but more of God in it, if it was to remain. We affirmed that no matter what, my friend was in the loving grip of the grace of Jesus. And we believed together for a salvation, even a salvation that may be “revealed in the last time.”
And I saw him smile that said to me, “It’s not over, is it?”
“No. No, it’s not over. The pain is likely ‘not over.’ But the grace of God is implanted in your newborn soul, slow-releasing the infinitely amazing resurrection power of Jesus Christ directly onto the cancer cell on your soul. And you will soon be healed.” Soon.