A podcast listener named Becky writes in with a level of desperation to say: “Pastor John, when I first came to Christ I was obsessed with, on fire, and in love with Him. Slowly that started to fade, even though I wanted him so badly. My husband deployed for six months (we had a bad marriage), and it’s like I never knew the Lord at all — I committed adultery, turned to porn, began to do drugs and drink alcohol, cut myself, stopped reading my Bible and stopped praying. God tested my faith and I failed miserably for six months.
“Over a year of not feeling God’s presence at all, I can’t even mentally journal or pray or read my Bible anymore. I can’t do it, and nobody understands. I feel that if I were truly saved, my sin would have gotten smaller and less desirable as Jesus became more desirable. But it didn’t. He didn’t. The thing is I know I loved Jesus. Now all I feel is separation from God. I hardly even feel guilty for the things I did, if at all.
“I’m terrified of God. I’m terrified for my salvation. I want him. I miss him. Nobody — nobody — understands me. I want to be saved. And I don’t think I am. I need help. Why is my heart so hardened? Why doesn’t God want me back? Can you help me?”
Understanding the Past
Becky, your cry for help is mingled with evidences of hope — like, “I want to be saved” — and terrors of hopelessness — like, “I am getting farther and farther away,” like a ship sailing to the end of the world or a boat going over a waterfall.
“Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to analyze the authenticity of the horrible and glorious past. You will never figure it out.”
Now from my distance here, I don’t know you well enough to have any clear sense of whether or not you are born again. But I want to take encouragement from your own testimony that you once loved Christ. You said so.
I want to take encouragement from that. But whether or not that is true — it could have been fake for all I know or even you know — that is not the issue now. I want to help you with this. That is not the issue now. The issue now is not the past. The issue is the present and the future. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to analyze the authenticity of the horrible and glorious past. You will never figure it out. That is just not where assurance is going to be found.
Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of God (see Romans 10:17). Faith comes from seeing God at work often in the lives of others.
So let me simply give you some beautiful truth from God’s word and then a few stories from God’s faithfulness to people like you. And I am praying now that God might use this miraculously — not because you deserve it or I am effective — to awaken new, fresh, sure faith.
I will just read them to you as you listen and pray that God would make them beautiful.
This is the prophet Micah. I sang a hymn yesterday based on this text.
Who is a pardoning God like Thee?
Or who has grace so rich and free?
That song that I love very much comes out of this text. It goes like this: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression?” (Micah 7:18). In other words, there is no god like this. He pardons iniquity. He “[passes] over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance. He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love” (Micah 7:18).
And I would add way more than judgment. He delights in it. This is his first choice. “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread down our iniquities underfoot” (Micah 7:19). Did you hear that, Becky? He will not tread you down.
“He will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old” (Micah 7:19–20). So in Christ this promise is yours. Who is a pardoning God like you? And who has grace so rich and free?
The Patience of Christ
Here is the other text: 1 Timothy 1:15. Paul says, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
“If Christ is raised from the dead, everything changes.”
I think Paul is saying to you, Becky, there: You are not the foremost. I am. Don’t compete with Paul here. He is trying to make a case for why mercy shown to him can be mercy shown to you, because he is the foremost.
Here is what he says: “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example” — to those like Becky “who were to believe in him for eternal life” — though they were sinners like me (1 Timothy 1:16). “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17). Indeed, honor and glory for such patience. So those are two passages: Micah 7:18–20 and 1 Timothy 1:15–17. Meditate on them long and hard.
It’s 1975 in Munich, Germany. John Piper is sitting in a German church learning my German. I was getting enough. And I love this story. I have never forgotten it. A woman standing in white ready to be baptized gave her testimony. Her testimony was that she lived all of her life as a Jehovah’s Witness, and she could never ever be sure that she was saved. It was driving her crazy. There was no assurance of salvation.
She came to the point of deciding: I cannot go on like this. I am going to take my life. Somehow God put it in her heart that, before she took her life, to kneel down and open her Bible and read one more time the Gospel of Luke right through. And then she would take her life.
She said that as she got to the end of the book and she saw Jesus in the garden agonizing with sweating drops of blood to be obedient for sinners and pay their complete price (Luke 22:44), God saved her soul and removed all doubt and gave her the gift that Jesus is real, and he has covered her sin. She was standing there ready to be baptized two days later. I thought, What a marvelous rescue. And he can do that, Becky.
Just this week I was talking to a PhD in theology, asking him to tell me his life story. He told me that he grew up in a Christian home, and when he studied in the university, he threw it all away and became a relativist, a postmodern — no truth — and lived like it for five years.
“Sometimes the prayer you prayed 999 times is answered in attempt 1,000. Don’t give up.”
Then he read — for whatever gracious reason, who knows? — God put him on to reading a book about the resurrection and God persuaded him: Jesus really is raised from the dead. I can’t escape this. And if Christ is raised from the dead, everything changes. And it did for him.
I said, “How do you account for that?” And he got huge tears in his eyes. I had no idea he was going to tear up in this conversation. He didn’t seem like the person who would do that. And he had no explanation except sheer intervention of divine grace.
In 1982 when I was two years into the pastorate I was reading in Leadership Magazine, and there was an article there. It has become iconic for many people. It was called “The War Within” and it was about bondage to sexual sin by a pastor and how for ten years he was an absolute hypocrite.
He would go to speak at spiritual retreats and between sessions he would steal away and actually go to strip clubs. That is how serious the bondage was. The article was about how he read a novel and God used a novel about good and evil to open him up to the desire for purity like he had never known.
This is the one sentence I remember, and maybe this will give some encouragement. He wrote this: “I cannot tell you why a prayer that has been prayed for 10 years is answered on the one thousandth request when God has met it for the first 999 with silence.”
Becky, God may surprise you. I am praying that he will surprise you stunningly that a prayer you have prayed 1,000 times will be answered on the 1,001st time. I don’t know why he has delayed, Becky. I don’t have an answer for your question about why does God stay far away.
I don’t know why God’s timing is the way it is. I just know you are not the first. You are not alone, and Jesus, in fact, told you a parable to the effect — this is Luke 18:1. “He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.”
So Becky, don’t give up. Your answer may be just over the horizon.