Today is another reader letter day.
During the holidays, I had the opportunity of visiting my hometown and attending a high school reunion. Since it was a Christian school, naturally there was a religious service preceding the reunion proper. One of the organizers -- who did not participate in the service -- approached me afterward to express pleasure that my wife and I participated.
His nonchalance struck me, and I guess he must have noticed, because he immediately continued, “I really like what faith can do in a person's life. I obviously don't want to talk with you about this, but I definitely no longer believe in religion.” I asked why he had lost his faith. His answer, which left me mute, is the reason why I'm writing to you.
He said: “I've had a good life, therefore I've had no need for religion. I'm sure if I'm ever in problems I'll be able to find comfort in our faith -- I know it's the right thing to do.” After that he excused himself and left to take care of something.
I would really like to help this old friend find his way towards what he already knows is “the right thing to do”. How would you recommend I approach the subject? And what could I tell him?
Your friend makes three puzzling remarks:
1. That he doesn’t believe in anything.
2. That he has no need for “religion,” because he has had a good life.
3. That if is ever in trouble, he will seek “comfort” in the faith.
I can see why you were nonplussed. You might begin simply by telling him so, and asking whether he would mind if you asked a few questions. Since he gives mixed signals – though he said “I obviously don't want to talk with you about this,” he initiated a conversation about it – you shouldn’t press him if he declines. But if he is willing to hear your questions, then his answers will give you openings to go further.
In response to his remark about not believing in anything, you might say, “Maybe you just live day by day, but unless you believed something, you wouldn’t even know how to live day by day. So what do you really believe?”
Or perhaps, “I guess you mean you don’t know whether or not there is a God, but you are living as though there is no God. How do you know whether to live as though there is, or as though there isn’t?”
Or even this: “It’s impossible not to have any beliefs about anything. Do you mean that although you hold certain beliefs, you have no hope about anything?”
In response to his remark about not needing “religion” because he has had a good life, you might ask, “What do you mean by a good life? Do you mean the life that God considers good? Do you mean you have no sin?”
Or perhaps, “You say the faith is right, but the faith claims that since God is our ultimate good, without Him we have nothing. Why are you willing to settle for anything less?”
Or even this: “When you say you have had a good life, do you mean you have good things? Don’t they leave something to be desired? Haven’t you ever thought, ‘There must be something more’?”
In response to his remark that he will seek “comfort” in the faith if he ever falls into troubles, you might ask, “Do you mean that the only reason to pursue God is to have psychological comfort when things become empty? In that case, isn’t your real god psychological comfort?”
Or perhaps, “Suppose you did fall into trouble. Since you say you don’t believe in anything, how could you find comfort in God?”
Or even this: “If you do think following God is the ‘right thing to do,’ why wait until you get in trouble? Why not do it now?”
Don’t let your friend put you on the defensive. In a kind way, put him on it. I don’t mean that you should badger him, which would only make him run, or that you should load him up with theological arguments, which would only make him argue. But do ask gently pointed questions. He needs to be put on the spot; after all, he is the one who insists that he can build his house on sand.
The discussion may end inconclusively, because it will not take him long to realize that he has no good answers. That’s all right. If he wants to end the conversation, let him end it. You only need to put a burr under his saddle -- to disturb his complacency.