Listen: LifeWords Q&A Podcast, Episode 90
If you’ve been in Christian community for any length of time, chances are you know someone who has walked away from the faith or the church. When a loved friend or family member rejects faith, what should we say or do? How can we continue to be their friend? Should we try to “win them back to God”? In this episode of the LifeWords Q&A podcast, David Reay and Clare Bruce discuss a helpful approach.
Clare Bruce: The question that we’re looking at today’s something that probably a lot of believers have come across… the longer you go along in Christian life, the more likely the chance of this being a reality in your life, when someone that you love loses their faith.
“My friend has walked away from their faith. What can I say? How can I still be a friend to them?” How do we tackle this one, David?
David Reay: Well, first of all, as you said, Clare, very, very common. Grandparents have it with their grandchildren. Parents have it with their children, siblings have it with their siblings, friends have it with their friends, church ministers and pastors have it with people who were once very involved and are now no longer involved with them. It’s a very, very common thing.
And it ends up being a test of the nature of our love and acceptance of these people. Very easy to love people who are going along with what you believe in what you think and be with your opinions. But when they turn against what you hold to be dear and valuable, it is a bit of a test of our love. Now, there’s a few warning things here that I’d want to put in.
First of all, when we say someone has walked away from faith, we can’t assume a person is not a Christian, just because they might have left the church or question some beliefs, or perhaps not living quite the lifestyle we want them to live. It’s very hard to judge someone’s spiritual state a matter of fact we shouldn’t. Because you see if someone looks to have rejected the faith, maybe they haven’t actually rejected the Christian faith as handed down over centuries.
It could be some mere outward defiance, it could be a rejection of a church, or certain beliefs within the church. It could be rejection of what was a false sort of faith in the first place. Some people have walked away from a sort of faith that, I’d say, “well, good on you for walking away from it, it wasn’t a good sort of faith in the first place”. So we’ve got a beware of jumping to conclusions there, about someone’s spiritual state. I never want to say, “so and so is not a Christian”. All I’d want to say is, someone who appears to have walked away from faith – appears. May not be.
CB: As you say all of that, it does remind me of a friend who I had in this situation, who had a very, very intense sort of religious way of following her faith, and she tended to jump from one set of doctrine to another, and every time it was very, very religious and intense, and everyone was wrong and she was right. And eventually she landed on atheism. And at the same time as I was sad that she had sort of been immersing herself in all of this atheistic thinking, I did think to myself, “I think this was a necessary change”, because a lot of her faith was very legalistic and religious. And I think that’s the part that essentially she was rejecting. And in a long journey, she actually did come back to faith some years later. But it was a much more real, genuine faith that wasn’t caught up in religion, but it was a real relationship with Jesus, you know?
DR: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, even in my own life, looking back, I don’t think I’ve ever gone right away from faith. But there was a period in my life when I was much younger when I walked away from church and discovered faith in more of a parachurch sort of context, and then sort of got back into the church. So sometimes you as it were, need to take a break, because sometimes you just need a bit of refreshing and a bit of a circuit breaker, particularly if there’s some phoney ideas of faith around.
The other thing I want to say Clare, is that we’ve got to be aware too, of jumping to a conclusion that we might be at fault. Parents can sometimes do this with their children. “Oh, dear me, my child has gone away from faith. What have I done wrong?” Well, first of all, I mean, many of us can say, well, there’s people who’ve grown up in households that are nowhere near Christian, yet are strong believers in Jesus Christ. And there are others who have grown up in wonderful godly homes who have rejected Christ, it seems. So we can be good Christian friends, we can be wise Christian pastors, we can be loving grandparents and parents. We can do all that. But having done all that, we cannot guarantee that those we love will follow the same faith – because they have to do their own business before God as it were… there’s no magic formula.
CB: Something that springs to mind for me in thinking about friends I know who have left faith behind or walked away from the church is that it’s really important not to then see them as a project and to not let your expression of love for that person to be like a constant, you know, ‘quest’ to try and change their mind and bring them back. Because that may be your prayer. But if they sense that in your friendship that all you’re there for is to change them, then it’s not going to come across as a genuine friendship.
DR: Oh, couldn’t agree more. I think that’s a great danger that some people have – they love someone so much, and they think “I want them back with Jesus so much”, that they put in these little religious comments, leave Christian literature around the place, drop Christian quotes into their inboxes and so on. Now, there’s a sense in which some of that is okay. You know, I’m not saying you should hide your light under a bushel and never talk about your own faith. But I think what you’re saying and I’m certainly agreeing with it is this constant sort of pressure on people. I think the best thing we can do is be available to discuss issues, but also by living out a reasonable sort of faith life yourself. Be available to talk, and yet living out your faith as best you can, I think that’s in itself was a terrific advertisement.
CB: Yeah, for some of us. I know that for many people who are strong believers, things like prayer and scriptural answers to life’s problems can be really woven into the DNA of how we do friendship. And for some of us, I know for me, often I’m like this – I do tend towards having a spiritual answer for everything. And I really had to learn with a couple of friends, I’ve really had to reprogram myself in my conversations. Because when they have a struggle in their life, I really want to jump straight to “I’ll pray for you”. But I’ve discovered that you can still absolutely offer wisdom and encouragement and biblical truth without it sounding biblical, without spiritualising it. And I think it’s like, if you can think of it as “ministry by stealth” in a way, because we still carry God’s presence and God’s wisdom wherever we go. And it doesn’t have to look like it’s packaged in in a Christian box.
DR: That’s so right, yes. I’m very reluctant to, for those who in this category have wandered away from faith of saying, “I will pray for you”. Now, in certain circumstances, it can be okay to do that. And it may be appreciated. But like you, I think it’s very important to avoid the terminology that we would normally use. Because you see, the thing is it can be misunderstood, or it can be even a sign of “Oh, Look, I’m spiritually attuned, whereas you are not”, you know, “I’ve got a hotline to God, whereas you haven’t”.
CB: Or, “I’ll fix you, you have a problem.”
DR: That’s exactly right. I don’t think we have to mouth all these religious words and go all spiritual, as you say, in order to be a witness for Jesus. I think we can do the things that Jesus wants us to do by offering wise counsel, as needed, to bear burdens as needed, to live out some sort of positive life, and we don’t need to sort of use all our spiritual vocabulary, to show, “Listen here, I’m in and you’re out”. Because that’s the way it can sometimes be interpreted. I think you can pray for someone without saying, “I’m going to pray for you.”
CB: Yeah, I heard a really good quote the other day, I was watching a message by Nicky Gumbel from Holy Trinity Brompton church, and he’s done so much work in the area of reaching out to people outside the faith. And he used this phrase, “Don’t try to win the argument, instead, aim to win the person and then they will keep coming back”. And I think that’s such a good principle. You know, more important than winning a theological argument, even convincing someone that God is real – more important is your relationship. And if you have a relationship with a quality that [makes people want to] keep coming back to you, then you have something lasting. You have a lasting link and through that link, maybe one day they will find God again in their own time, you know,
DR: That’s right. If you’re not trying to market a product, you are trying to maintain a loving relationship. The important thing is to maintain that relationship, to have that availability, because there can be a time when that person who’s wandered away comes back and says, very much like the prodigal son, “Listen here, I’ve mess”, and “what can I do?” Now, if you have burnt your bridges as it were, by coming on all heavy with your Christian faith, and demanding that they change before you love them and accept them, they may not have that relationship with you to come back to. So if we erect walls, walls of rejection , walls of superiority, walls of moralistic judgment, if we have burned those bridges, we’ve got walls instead. And the relationship is under threat.
God still loves them; God still pursues them; God still cares for them. And so should we.
CB: And just as you say that something springs to mind which I learned some years ago when I was watching a parenting series. I learned a lot from that because it taught me about how God gives us freedom. The principle was we need to raise our children in an environment of freedom. Because God does give us our freedom of choice. And so I think the same thing can apply. It can help us really earnest Christians that want to win someone back to the faith, it can help us to remember that God gives us freedom. And so we’re actually expressing God’s heart by allowing our friend the freedom to make their own choice.
DR: That’s exactly right. And that’s where it’s such a test of love and acceptance, that I have got to love that person and also acknowledge the fact that they are rejecting what might be dear to me and they are making some choices which may not be right. But my prayers, my love for them, my earnest Christian witness, cannot guarantee that they are going to come back on track as it were. But I am obliged to live as a Christian to build those bridges rather than walls, irrespective of the outcome. Because as you say, The Lord has given us freedom. and I have got to love that person, irrespective of the choices they’ve made, and that requires a lot of supernatural help.
CB: Yeah, awesome. supernatural help is something we can get as we pray for them. And we can do that in private anytime we like.
DR: No one can stop us praying.