It was not an enemy who taunted me—then I could have borne it; I could have hidden and escaped. But it was you, a man like myself, my companion and my friend. What fellowship we had, what wonderful discussions as we walked together to the Temple of the Lord on holy days. Psalm 55:12-14
One of the heartbreaking realities of the Christian life is that most of us will have close friends who tragically will abandon their faith. In my 36 years of Christian living and spiritual friendships at SBCC, I have many friends with whom I played and prayed, studied the Bible, and co-labored in ministry and now they no longer believe. Every time it has happened it has shocked me. In Psalm 55:12-14 King David laments this same abandonment of faith by his friend. In the Psalm David seems perplexed. After all, David and his friend had enjoyed rich fellowship, stimulating spiritual discussions in the Temple complex and now that spiritual connection that was once so vibrant is gone.
As I said above, I too have had friends with whom I used to enjoy intimate fellowship. I am thinking about friends with whom I felt complete spiritual harmony, with whom I talked openly about my faith and theirs. These were friends that shared the same biblical worldview and values, the same transforming born again experience, the same love for and obedience to the Bible, the same trust in Jesus for salvation. Friends with whom I was in complete sync spiritually. These relationships changed when their faith waned and eventually disappeared to such an extent that we no longer shared common spiritual ground. Heartbreaking is the best way to describe this abandonment of faith and friendship that is dramatically different.
I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that some of my friends have jettisoned their faith in Jesus. The Apostle Paul warned that this would happen. Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons (1 Timothy 4:1).
Men in particular often form friendships around activities. We need something to do before we can actually talk. In thinking about my spiritual friendships with other men, my memory bank is filled with wonderful recollections of playing soccer, surfing, lifting weights, playing roller hockey, snowboarding, climbing mountains, riding bikes and talking about our Christian faith in the midst of these endeavors. It is during these activities that spiritual bonding often took place. Somehow, for me, these shared adventures make the loss of a spiritual friend even more painful. Not only will I no longer pray with my friend, but because of a changed relationship I will no longer play with him either.
So what is a believer to do when a friend no longer believes in the gospel? Certainly there is no simple or correct way to navigate such a changed relationship. Allow me, though, a few thoughts and imperfect suggestions.
First, be understanding. Recognize that for some, faith is complex and full of difficulties. With virtually every friend that I have known who has stopped believing the reason for this change in spiritual allegiance has been multifaceted. We tend to be complicated people and the reasons why some stop trusting in Christ is often a result of many factors that can be hard to clearly delineate. I have had the sad experience of asking friends why they have left the faith and receiving an answer that I judged to be less than satisfying. Personal trauma and pain, family backgrounds, individual temperament, disappointments in life, intellectual questions, immoral behavior or a stony heart can all conspire together to militate against trusting Jesus for salvation.
The complexity of one’s faith has caused me to be compassionate and understanding toward those who lose theirs. Matthew records for us that Jesus, When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). Sheep without a shepherd are confused. Certainly, at a minimum, we should be compassionate when our friend stops believing because of a tangled web of reasons.
Be realistic. If you have a friend with whom you shared warm Christian fellowship and a common cause who no longer believes, you simply and sadly have to admit that the nature of that friendship has changed. This doesn’t mean you stop being a friend. It does mean, however, that the unique bonding that came through Christ is now altered. One of the sad realities that accompanies my friend’s loss of faith is that they will often pull away from me. My friend no longer feels comfortable around me because my entire life is centered on my Christian faith.
Be hopeful. Sometimes those who lose their faith return to trusting belief in Christ later in life. I am not addressing the issue of whether or not a true Christian can lose their salvation and then be saved again. For the record, I believe the Bible teaches that salvation is a one-time event and once someone has saving faith and has been regenerated (born again) by the Spirit of God, that that person will not abandon their faith and cannot lose their salvation. Their salvation is secure because of Jesus who will never let go of those who are his. That is not to say that one may not experience the ups and downs or fears and doubts that accompany any journey of faith in God. Being hopeful means remaining a friend who prays for the recovery of faith and is always ready to gently welcome back a friend who has wandered from Jesus.
Be vigilant. In thinking about a friend who no longer believes, we find a sober warning to guard our own faith lest it grow cold and, for all practical purposes, disappear. The Apostle Paul gave such a warning to his young protégé Timothy: Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you (2 Timothy 1:13-14).