On Christmas Eve 2019, a new friend of mine had a medical emergency and was rushed to the hospital. I was in shock. I cried, I prayed, I felt helpless, even though she is a believer. My heart broke for her family and friends. My heart broke for my loss at work, that we would not be giggling over funny movies or other crazy things that just happen in her life, that I wouldn’t have time with her at lunch every day for a while.
The tears and prayers continued throughout the night as we awaited news on her surgery. Christmas Day was strange following the insane emotional roller coaster I’d been riding all night long. Christmas Day was spent with some other new friends and was a nice, quiet day. During the conversation, a son’s turning from God came up. As he was growing up, he decided he could not believe in God anymore.
I am ashamed to admit I made a pretense of appearing saddened by this, but I was so absorbed in my own wallowing that I did not realize the gravity of the statement. Two days after Christmas I started thinking that I should be just as brokenhearted about a friend, stranger, or any other person not being saved as I am about a friend who is saved but sick. Sin is a sickness to which we are all prone, and it is much more deadly than physical illness if Christ is not your Savior.
Death is permanent. Eternal life after death is permanent. Eternal damnation after death is permanent.
My friend’s illness is temporary. If she were to pass, I would be extremely sad, but she would be rejoicing and sitting at the feet of Jesus, praising his name for eternity.
If my friend were not a believer, how much sadder would the situation be? If she were not a believer and didn’t recover, she’d have sentenced herself to eternal punishment, eternal separation from God, from others who love her who are believers. There would be nothing left for me to do. There would be no time left to talk to her.
In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus found in Luke 16:19-31, the rich man realizes his decisions have led him to eternal anguish after he dies. He begs Abraham in heaven for a drop of water, for someone to talk to his family, for intercession on their behalf so that they don’t experience what he does. “Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment” (16:28). Abraham replies in a blunt but true statement, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if [Lazarus] rises from the dead” (16:31).
This was a foreshadowing of the response to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection as well. Jesus did die and rise again, but how many people still rejected him? The people who still do not believe are the rich man and his brothers in this parable.
If I hear that someone is not a believer, why do I not pray as hard for their salvation as I do for the physical healing of a Christian? Is not healing a relationship with God much more important? Jesus says in the three parables preceding this in Luke 15 that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents” (15:7), “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (15:10), and “we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (15:32).
My friend started pulling through a couple of weeks later and was even taken off her ventilator, and I rejoiced in that. Shouldn’t I rejoice in other people coming to Christ and turning from questioning? Shouldn’t I feel as much happiness and shed a tear for the new believer with a sincere heart?
Jesus, in his abundant love and mercy, has given himself as our savior and intercessor. When we believe in him, we become inheritors of eternal life with him. God does not want any of us to be separated from him, but he does give us the opportunity to follow him or not. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). But we are not promised tomorrow either—God could call you or me home today and our chance to feel the joy of another person coming to eternal salvation will be lost.
You may ask, did that realization change everything about my life? Have I changed drastically and become an evangelist totally on fire to share the gospel with anyone I meet? Am I praying for all unbelievers in a way I never did before? The honest answer is no. As a sinner, I have not changed that much. I have asked for a heart to share and a heart to learn, and God is teaching me. Now, almost a year after this realization, I am in a Bible study where we are learning ways to better share and show God’s love.
It is a process and I encourage you to join me in earnestly praying for the unbelieving hearts around you, that God may use you. I ask for prayer for myself and others like me who may not have realized this issue until now. I ask for prayers for grace for myself and my fellow believers who struggle with this. If this convicts you, do not let it turn into guilt or a question of your worthiness. None of us are worthy of anything Christ has done for us! Pray for a change of heart! Pray for God’s leading in this area of your life! Praise God for every lost soul that has been found!
Cathy Barlow serves the Church of the Lutheran Brethren as the Administrative Assistant for Lutheran Brethren International Mission.