In high school, I had a tight-knit group of Christian friends. We encouraged one another through the pressures and struggles of teenage life. One of my best friends was Thomas (name has been changed).
Thomas and I were in several leadership positions together in our youth group. He and his mom became Christians two years before I met him. His dad wasn't a believer. I remember sitting with him late one night at a big youth rally listening to him cry about how broken he was over his lost father. He told me he'd spend the rest of his life living in his car if it meant his dad would come to Christ.
I always thought there was something beautiful about a kid who would give up everything he owned to have his dad find the love of Jesus. I wondered what kind of crazy things God would do with his life, with that kind of passion for the Lord.
Thomas went to college, started learning things that made him question his faith, prayed for God to get him through the loneliness and hurt he felt as he went through his freshman year...and heard no answer. And he stepped away from God. Completely.
We didn't talk for six years.
Last year I reconnected with Thomas. Over burgers we reminisced about the study halls we spent goofing off, the bands we saw, and the old friends we missed. Finally the conversation turned more serious. Honestly, almost shyly, Thomas asked if I was still "saving myself for marriage" (a big topic from our youth group days). When I answered yes, he whistled and looked down at his hands.
"I wish I still had that. That stuff doesn't mean anything to me anymore," he said quietly. He didn't look back at me for several minutes, but when he did, his eyes were filled with grief. "I'm not the same person I used to be."
My heart and soul ached for the lost boy in front of me. That something once so sacred to him had become so commonplace. The boy I'd done student leadership with, read the Bible with, led worship with, prayed with, laughed with, been big-brothered by...that boy was gone. In his place, a grown-up Thomas sat before me. A hollow shell.
He was trying to do life on his own. His way. And he was coming up empty.
After that day I cried a lot for Thomas.
I cried for how empty he was. Cried for how lonely his eyes had become, for his loss of joy. And most of all, I cried because Satan had taken away his hope.
Seeing Thomas opened my eyes to the fact that this life is a spiritual battlefield. And my fellow soldiers are falling right and left.
The mourning I felt eventually turned to anger over the life the enemy stole. I wanted to get it back. I wanted redemption and restoration for my friend. After all, he used to be part of the Christian body. When the body loses a limb, don't we ache? Don't we mourn? Don't we do everything we can to get it back?
I decided if I spent enough time reminding Thomas of who he once was, reminding him of the love of Christ he once felt, he would return to the faith quickly. I thought all he needed was a voice to speak truth to him—I figured I could persuade him back.
But as the weeks turned to months, I realized that this was a battle I wasn't going to win through encouragement and reminders. Instead, it caused fights and hurt. The battle for Thomas's soul was happening in a realm I couldn't see or control, and no amount of kindness or pleading was going to bring him back to the light.
Things became more complicated. The kind of simple, easy friendship you can have at 15 doesn't work at 25. After a while, God told me clearly that I needed to take a few steps back, that I could neither carry nor argue Thomas back to the Cross. In my persistence to save him, I was actually getting in the way. I had to bow out. God wasn't going to be an instrument in my conversion plan for his lost son. He had it under control.
Taking steps backward in my renewed friendship with Thomas made me feel, for a time, that I'd left a fellow, fallen soldier in the middle of the road to die. He haunted me: his lonely eyes, his angry heart, the fear and doubt that ruled his life. I felt guilty and worthless. But I had to turn this one over to God, completely.
God allows us to take part in sharing the gospel. But we'll never convince others of the reality of the Cross—only the Holy Spirit is capable of moving a person's heart. That's a freeing and terrifying realization, and it changed the way I saw my prodigal friends.
Watching close friends or family members step away from their faith is a hardship most Christians have endured. It's a growing, painful epidemic. My generation's faith life is starting to feel like an episode of Survivor; each week, it seems that one more person leaves. Parents are watching children walk away. Wives are crying over their husbands' loss of faith. Our world is in a place of pain.
It can be crippling and hopeless, feeling as though you're one of the few who remain. And it can take time to comprehend that we can't convince others to return to Jesus. I ache for my generation in a renewed way after seeing the deathly grip Satan has over people who once had the love of Christ flowing in their hearts. I have to live my life knowing that I can't argue the people I love back to Jesus. I can't drag anyone to church, or to the Cross.
And the knowledge that my friends are wandering, lost, imprisoned, hurts me every day.
But I don't want to stop the pain.
If I stop hurting for these people, these prisoners being held captive in the enemy's hands, then Satan has won a long-fought battle in my own heart. If I stop hurting for these people, I'll stop praying for them. I'll stop taking the opportunities God gives me to witness to them. And I'll stop caring.
I feel rejuvenated in my commitment to intercede in prayer for my lost friends. Prayer is the most powerful weapon we have in this battle.
Jesus and I talk about Thomas on a regular basis these days. I plead with God, begging him to bring Thomas back to him. I pray for him at church. I pray for him at home. I write his name on the prayer request cards. I talk about him with other believers. God loves Thomas, and he reminds me of this every time we talk. And this love keeps up my faith that God is slowly wooing his son back to him.