April 20, 2006

Beloved Enemy

1511 page5 cape leaned against opposite walls of the retreat center prayer room, barely visible to each other in the semi-darkness, but seeing clearly the choices for our lives.
Hank1 was articulate, well-informed, and witty--all of which I so much wanted to be--and an unbeliever. Though raised in an Adventist home and a product of Adventist education, he had arrived at his freshman year of college without enough faith to move a mustard seed, never mind a mountain. He trusted science, progress, and “the human spirit,” he acknowledged, but not much else, and certainly not God. None of my eager arguments for faith persuaded him, nor did the story of my own adolescent experience as a follower of Jesus.
“In the end, it just isn’t fair,” he announced despairingly at the end of our two-hour marathon of wits. “If I am right, and there is no God, then both you and I will simply live our lives as best we can, and when we die, that will be the end of it.”
“But,” he added, the anguish evident in his voice, “if you are right, then you will spend eternity in heaven with God, and I will perish in the lake of fire. It hardly seems fair.”
I let his words trail off, unanswered, in the darkness. As usual, he had put it better than I could, and with a passion I never would have dared.
1511 page5Hank was the first of my “beloved enemies”2--friends whose fundamental denial of faith placed them on the other side of the greatest of divides. Unlike the hundreds of Christian acquaintances and friends through the years who have differed with me on the manner of Christ’s second advent, the importance of Christian lifestyle, and even the appropriate day of worship, my “beloved enemies” are those whose bitterness and skepticism have led them to deny faith even a small foothold in their lives. Jesus, the lover of my soul, has become, somehow, their great enemy, a threat beyond compare.
Our differences in belief are neither small nor inconsequential: they see, as I do, that the divide between faith and unfaith fundamentally changes everything about life, including even our friendship.
And yet, for all these differences, our lives have met, our hearts have warmed, and our spirits have been challenged by each other. A genuine friendship underlies our frequent attempts to dislodge the other from his chosen citadel. In the end, we want the companionship on our journey of one in whom we have invested so much time and love.
Tens of thousands of Adventists wrestle every week with their own beloved enemies. Within their families, their workplaces, or the circle of their school experiences are those who remain precious even while living as enemies of the cross. No “progressive” or generous theology will reach them: no neo-universalism3 can stretch the tent of salvation broadly enough to include them. They have made a choice.
And yet, we do not--and cannot--despair. Faith by its nature is both hopeful and prayerful. But when we pray, let’s not pray only that they will be “blessed,” as though their greatest need were a comfortable life, smooth sailing, and light winds.
Our beloved enemies may, in the end, be more blessed by conflict than by calm, by distress more than success. With wisdom given by the Spirit, we pray that the fixed platform of their lives may be shaken just enough that they will see in Jesus the Savior they need. And as we pray, we covenant with God that we will move as close to them as we are allowed, to be there in their wrenching moments with compassion, good judgment, and a few, well-chosen words.  I cannot yet give up the dream that Hank will one day stand with me beside that sea that looks like glass, full of the joy and laughter of the Lord, and truly glad to be there. For that day I pray, and especially on days when my arguments are unconvincing.
1 Not his real name.
2 The term gained popularity in the 1950s from a Christian song and film of the same name.
3 The unbiblical belief, ancient or modern, that God will ultimately save everyone.
Bill Knott is the associate editor of the Adventist Review