When were you “saved”?
Many Christians can point to a time when they were “born again,” a moment when they accepted Christ, put away their sin, and began to live new lives. These people have experienced salvation in a profound way, and they separate their lives into “before” and “after.” It reminds me of the many advertisements we see on television, featuring the overweight, ugly “before” photo, where the person is always frowning and dressed in something unflattering, and the thin, pretty “after” photo, all dressed up and smiling. For many born-again Christians, accepting Christ has meant putting aside addictions, sin, mean-spirited ways of living, and totally redefining their identity. So they ask me, when were you saved?
The classic Presbyterian answer to this question is this: I was saved two thousand years ago, when Jesus died on the cross. For many Christians, including most Presbyterians, the language of getting “saved” or being “born again” doesn’t quite fit our experience. For me, growing up in a Christian home, I can remember telling my friends about Jesus when I was five years old, hoping they would accept Him. I made time during kindergarten to pray. Does that mean I was saved sometime before I was five? Or that I never actually got saved? I don’t have a great “before” photo; I don’t have one moment I can point to as the turning point when I accepted Christ; I don’t even have a memory of a time before I considered Jesus my Savior or trusted in God as the center of my life. Instead, I have something like a photo album; a long history of God working on me; many conversions, many moments when God keeps saving me over, and over, and over.
Here’s the thing: I think both the born-again Christians and the lifelong believers have something to teach one another. For those of us who don’t have that moment of salvation, we have to ask: is going to church, believing in Christ, following His Word just something we do, or is it who we are? Have we really allowed Christ to come in and change us—or do we just take it for granted that He will help us when we pray without unnecessary interference in the way we live our lives?
And for the born-again Christians—I’ve spent some time with newborn babies, and I can tell you that while babies are nice, moms feel a sigh of relief when they start growing up. I’m sure God feels the same way. Being “born again” is the beginning of the journey, not the end. I’ve met some Christians who confidently say they are sanctified—no drinking, no smoking, no sex outside of marriage. And I want to ask, yes, but do you covet? Do you judge? Does your mind wander during sermons? I want to say to them, John 3:3, “You must be born again,” It’s not the only verse about salvation. Psalm 30 is one Scripture few people talk about in terms of salvation. It’s a psalm about healing, and it has a very special meaning for me because I feel as though I could have written it. And it’s all right for us to read the psalms as our own words, our own prayers. Psalm 30, like many psalms, is a psalm attributed to David, but it’s also the psalm of the community. How do we know this? It’s a song “of David, for the dedication of the Temple.” What’s wrong with that superscript? Well, remember, David wasn’t there when the Temple was dedicated. David may have written the words, but it’s also the Word of God, and it was meant to bring in the whole community, to speak to the experience of all people. When we’re reading the psalms, we don’t have to focus on the life of David; while we may learn something from considering his life, the ultimate purpose of the psalms is to speak to God’s presence in your life and mine.
I first encountered Psalm 30 when I was recovering from a major depressive episode, during which I had experienced suicidal thoughts and been hospitalized. I’ve shared openly about my depression before for two reasons, first, because I believe it can help people, and second, because my story shows what God can do.
This Psalm is about healing, physical and spiritual. We in the West like to draw a hard line between physical and spiritual; medicine treats your body, prayers treat your soul. But the Bible doesn’t draw that line, and depression is an illness that doesn’t quite fit neatly into either category—at least, not according to me, as a depression survivor. Medicine, diet, and exercise can all help treat depression. Medicine helped save my life. Yet there was also a moment when God stepped in, and I could never have been healed without him.
Psalm 30:6 says: I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.”
Before major depression hit me like a ton of bricks, I thought I had it all together; everything figured out. Inside, I was a disaster; but to the world, it looked like I was an excellent student, a hard worker, a churchgoing Christian with a steady boyfriend. When I was in the hospital, dealing with suicidal thoughts, I was finally forced to admit that I needed help.
Psalm 30:2 says: I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
You have to admit that you aren’t in control, or you can never be healed. If you say in your prosperity, you shall never be moved, you’re sunk. You can’t save yourself. You need God.
Psalm 30:3 says: You brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
God saved me in a very literal way. If God had not stepped in, I would have taken my own life. And even if I had not, life for me had become a living Sheol, a living hell. The demons, the thoughts inside me head, told me that I was worthless, a failure, that no one really loved me, that no one cared. I was sinking deeper and deeper into a downward spiral from which there was no recovery.
And then, there at the bottom, there was an element of choice, and the choice was whether to trust. To trust other people; to trust God. To trust that: Psalm 30:5—weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning. And so I chose to let go, and let God; and I began to experience joy. I’m not saying that it happened in a moment. The joy came little by little, the more I let go of my ego, my plans, my need to be in control and focused on daily life. It’s still a process; people talk of themselves as recovering alcoholics; I think of myself as a recovering depressive. But when I let God in, he keeps restoring me to health; over, and over, and over.
Psalm 30:11 says—you have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. When I experienced my calling to ministry, there were people in my life, and there still are, who couldn’t accept it, people who pointed me to the words of Paul: let the women keep silent in church. When I read Psalm 30:12, I say: I cannot. My soul cannot keep silent. God gave me a story, and God gave me a message; and if I shut it up inside me, it is like a fire within my bones. I could be dead. I could be in a hospital somewhere. Instead, look what God has done! O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever and ever and ever, with every breath that is within me, with every opportunity you place in my life, let me praise your holy name.
That is one of my stories; those are some of the pictures in my album. But the book isn’t finished yet. My family can tell you if you don’t believe it—there are still parts that need healing, still parts that need saving. God is still working on the image in the picture. We are in need of salvation, in need of spiritual healing, every day. Sitting here, there is some part of you that God still wants to save. I don’t know what it is—but you probably do. There’s a part of you that’s believing lies about yourself. There’s a part of you that won’t give up behaviors that hurt yourself and others. There’s a part of you that refuses to let go and let God. Salvation isn’t just an event; it’s a process.
The salvation of John Newton, writer of Amazing Grace, is one of the great before and after stories. John Newton was a slave trader who accepted Christ, became a minister and an abolitionist. But it didn’t happen overnight. Newton was born in 1725, and his father, a sea captain, began taking him on voyages at the age of 11. Newton ended up working in slaving vessels and becoming a slave trader. In 1748, when he was 23, Newton’s ship got caught in a storm. He prayed to God, and the cargo miraculously shifted in such a way that it filled a hole in the hull and saved the vessel. Newton began taking an interest in the Bible, but in his memoirs he wrote “I cannot consider myself a believer at that point.” His faith grew, but he continued to sell slaves until his retirement from seafaring in 1754 at the age of 29. In 1764, he was ordained a minister at the age of 39, and also began to compose many hymns. At the age of 47, in 1772, he wrote Amazing Grace; I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see. Later, he began to reflect critically on his time in the slave trade, and in 1788, he wrote the pamphlet “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade,” and took up the cause of abolition at the age of 63. John Newton lived to see the slave trade abolished in 1807; he was 82.
Salvation is a process. But it only happens as we let God change our ways of thinking and speaking and acting, we ask the self to step out of the way, and let the Spirit step in.
Psalm 30 is a psalm for dedication of the temple. In fact, it’s the only Psalm written for the occasion. So perhaps it’s surprising that there’s nothing about community worship; nothing about Jerusalem; nothing about the House of the Lord; nothing about priests or sacrifice or the Ark. Instead, this is the personal praise song of someone who God has saved. And why is that? Perhaps because what God was getting at all along was the temple of the Holy Spirit; which, as 1 Corinthians 6:19, is your body. What God really wants us to dedicate is not buildings, but lives. God wants us to dedicate our bodies, our hearts, our lives more and more to Him. And when we do that, God turns our whole lives into songs of praise. He turns our mourning into dancing. He takes off the sackcloth and clothes us with joy. He draws us up out of the hell we are living in and allows us to experience a little bit of heaven here on earth.
He begins to change us, change our ways of being in ways large and small, making us kinder, more trusting, more hopeful, more joyful, so that, as we turn the pages of the album, what shines from the page is less and less about me, me, me, and more and more, little by little, day by day, the image of Christ.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.