She was one of my closest friends. And apparently I didn't care that her eternal destiny was in question.
Actually, I did care. Julie was one of those rare friends I would call a kindred spirit. We were both the daughters of immigrants. We both had a heart for the poor, and often cheered for the underdog. We married into similar families. And we were both deeply spiritual.
The difference was that I was a Jesus follower while her belief system was a cobbled-together mosaic of karma, good deeds, and conflicting standards of right and wrong.
At first, this difference bothered me. Not because I was scared of her or thought she was a terrible person, but because she was so far from Truth. I begged God to show himself to her.
Lord, reveal yourself to her.
Jesus, she's reading a book by a Christian author. Speak to her heart!
Father, she's actually reading the Bible! Please show her you are the only way.
More than anything, I wanted Julie to know Jesus. He was the one I loved and I wanted her to love him too. My spiritual-conversation-opportunities radar was on high alert as I looked for moments to share God's beauty and grace with my friend. I felt thrilled when it seemed Julie took little steps toward Jesus.
But one morning as we laughed over steaming cups of coffee, I realized she wasn't getting any closer to Jesus. And I had a sinking feeling that I might be part of the reason why.
Shocked at my indifference, I pondered this revelation before God. Was I doing something wrong or was this God's slow timing? Should I approach her differently or was it time to walk away?
As I wrestled with myself, God showed me three ways I'd unknowingly extended tolerance instead of Jesus' whole-hearted love and acceptance.
Julie invited me into her home to show off her new couch. As I dutifully ooh-ed and aah-ed over the toffee-colored suede sectional, I caught a glimpse of a new Buddha statue sitting in her living room.
I wish I'd struggled with what to say or whether to say anything at all … but I didn't. In truth, I barely noticed. We'd become so comfortable with each other as friends that Julie's distance from God was normal to me. It didn't even occur to me to notice, to say something, or even to pray about it. It simply passed by as if it were a non-event. I'd become so used to flippantly thinking, It will all work out eventually!, that I didn't bother to notice an external sign of a gaping hole in my dear friend's heart. All I could feel was a twinge of jealousy over her new couch.
The prophet Jeremiah penned God's accusations against the religious leaders of the day: "They offer superficial treatments for my people's mortal wound. They give assurances of peace when there is no peace" (Jeremiah 6:14). God doesn't tolerate his people turning away from the direness of others' spiritual state.
I had become so accustomed to Julie's need for Jesus that I became apathetic toward it. I was too busy laughing, drinking coffee, and simply enjoying her company to care. The sheer joy of relationship became more precious to me than the destiny of her soul. Perhaps these are harsh words, but they were the harsh reality of my heart.
The opportunity to ask Julie about her new Buddha slipped through my fingers even as God's finger pointed at my apathetic silence through the pages of Jeremiah. My brazen neglect eventually turned into a deep regret that brought stinging tears to my eyes and softened my hardened heart. It was all I could do to ask God to open my heart and see Julie the way he did.
Julie and I had a once-a-week ritual to head out for coffee while our kids were at preschool. Though it sometimes felt like a guilty pleasure, I saw it as "holy time"—a time for me to sprinkle bits of Jesus into our conversation.
One of those mornings, bound and determined to make the most of coffee time, I pointedly asked, "So we've talked a lot about faith. What is it you really believe?"
She admitted her faith system was confusing and muddled even to her, but she clearly told me she thought of Jesus as nothing more than a nice guy. It was the perfect opening … yet I mumbled a non-answer. To be honest, my words were so powerless I can't remember what I said. All I remember is that I excused my weakness, thinking, Don't offend her. We can cover the Jesus-is-the-only-way part another time.
The apostle Paul described his labor and struggle to bring everyone to Christ in the first chapter of Colossians. He poured out his love, his energy, even his sweat and blood to effectively share the hope and glory of Jesus. In contrast, I eked and dribbled Christ's love.
Frankly, all those spiritual conversations with Julie left me mentally and emotionally tired. Did I offend her sense of tolerance with "Jesus talk"? I'd wonder. Was there something I should have said, but left out? The murkiness of our spiritual conversations left me exhausted. I wanted a simple, clean, sterile relationship. The excuse of tolerance allowed me to have one.
Paul's diligence and sacrifice reminds me that drawing a friend toward Jesus' acceptance is messy, labor-intensive, love-laden work. I wish it were effortless. But more often than not, walking the road toward Jesus with a friend requires whole-hearted commitment. Using the lazy excuse of tolerance to escape the hard work of praying, loving, and speaking out is far too easy.
Now, I often pray that like Paul I can wrestle with the difficult questions of faith alongside my friends with Christ's powerful and unending energy (Ephesians 3:16). I admit I'm not always up for the fight, but an awareness of my tendency to slack off makes me desperate for God's strength and tenacity.
During the four years that Julie and I met regularly during our kids' preschool, she weathered her husband's infidelity, a bitter divorce, a sudden career change, and life as a newly single mom of four. Tears were shed, hugs doled out generously, and thousands of prayers uttered. But I have to confess I was often too scared to pray aloud with her or give her God's perspective. Perhaps she would think me odd or closed-minded or judgmental. Too often, I chose silence. I couldn't admit my fear of her opinion to myself or to God, so I donned the mask of tolerance. In the name of open-mindedness, I kept my prayers silent.
As a mentor, the apostle Paul exhorted Timothy not to be ashamed of the gospel message of God's radical love and acceptance. He reminded him that a spirit of fear and timidity is not from God (2 Timothy 1:7). As I contemplated how I might have been too tolerant of Julie's distance from Jesus, the Holy Spirit stirred the complacent waters of my heart.
Not only did God admonish me for my fear of speaking up, he unmasked my fear that God's love may not be radical enough to reach Julie. Yes, Scripture tells me God's love is extreme, full, and ready to accept everyone. But I had begun to fear that Julie would never know Jesus … and that God will have let me down.
The reminder that God chose me to show Julie his unabashed acceptance and love was a shot of fresh faith. There was no need to fear! I simply needed to hide behind him instead of my fear, trust that he loved Julie more than I did, and rest in his justice.
Today, I continue my friendship with Julie. Our paths have diverged, the weekly coffee dates have ceased, and the opportunities to see her are few and far between. But she is not far from my heart nor have my prayers ceased.
Finding My God-Given Voice
I wish I could say God instilled in me a fresh boldness to share his good news and Julie is now a Jesus-follower just like me. I can't. I'm still patiently desperate to see her discover the joy of following Jesus and my confidence in God on the matter ebbs and flows.
But Julie taught me not to allow myself to get comfortable in simply tolerating a soul that's far from God. In a revealing conversation with a dear neighbor this week, I found myself again hiding behind lazy, apathetic, fearful acceptance. Would I paint myself into a religious corner in her mind? Would she shove me into her narrow preconception of evangelical Christians? Would I alienate a woman I respected and cared deeply about?
But this time, memories of my missteps with Julie challenged me to use my God-given voice to proclaim his love and be honest about my struggles with doubt instead of ignoring my neighbor's questions on faith. I don't know if my bold words will eventually help her know Jesus in a fresh way, but I know I did not hide.
Moments of regret about Julie frequently remind me to persevere in allowing my heart to be filled with compassion for those who are far from God. It's human nature to protect myself from the ugliness of an eternity without God. But I've discovered how sacred it is simply to ask for a soft and courageous heart to share Christ's radical acceptance with the friends I love.
Esther Feng lives in New York with her husband and their two elementary-aged daughters. She's been published in Gifted For Leadership, Thriving Family, Connections, P31 Woman, and various online publications. www.estherfeng.com.