Encountering Religion, Hypocrisy, and True Faith
This guest post is written by Isak Lee, a friend of mine who is getting his doctorate degree in seminary. This is a story about a man he met in Barnes and Noble, and his journey to find truth in the midst of hurt and hypocrisy. This version has been shortened, and if you would like to read the original, you can find it here.
How I ended up at Barnes and Noble
Every other Thursday, our church holds a men’s small group. I was already nearby several hours earlier, so when I saw a Barnes and Noble I decided to read there until it was time to go to small group. I almost went home - I was busy: I needed to finish reading a book and write a short review on it, among other ministry and school things. In addition, I am a natural introvert, and I would have enjoyed being alone tonight. But I felt the Spirit tugging at me to go to small group.
I walked into the B&N, set up my laptop, and started to read. I only got through a few pages before an older gentlemen stopped me and asked me what I was reading. I told him that it was a book on religious epistemology, particularly Christian. Upon hearing that, he asked if he could sit down and talk to me about Jesus. I gestured for him to sit across from me, and so began a much longer night than I envisioned.
A Conversation About Hurt, Hypocrisy, and Faith
The man’s name is Josh, a Vietnam War veteran who has seen a lot in life. He has given me permission to share our conversation minus a couple of details. Obviously, we talked for a while, so what I will present below will be a very truncated version of our discourse.
The very first thing Josh asked me was, “What is a true follower of Christ?” I gave an answer about faith, justification, and obedience. He was seemingly impressed with that answer, but then he said matter-of-factly:
“Well, the day I find a true follower of Jesus, I’ll fall over.”
I asked him why he’s never seen a true follower of Jesus, and he shared with me several experiences he had. One pastor basically destroyed his life, and his grandmother was apparently bamboozled by televangelists and died broke. Also, he says that he has many friends who have gone through tough times and have asked churches for help, only to be turned away.
“These churches have some mighty nice buildings and security guards, but they can’t help people in need. So much for following Jesus.” These experiences led him to believe that Christianity is a scam and pastors are all phonies. He asked me, “Are you a pastor?”
“Nope, not yet,” I answered, “but I’m in seminary.”
He snorted, “Oh, that Southwestern one over there?”
“Yep,” I replied. I smiled knowingly, “So… did your opinion of me just lessen?”
He smiled back. “Yes.” At least his honesty was refreshing.
Despite that, the conversation started pretty cordial. He asked me why, if Jesus is real, Christians and especially pastors keep committing the same sins, particularly regarding things like sex and money. He also expressed skepticism about my view on materialism, and I told him that I was a UT grad of the McComb’s Business School who has experienced both student loan and hospital debt, yet I still went to seminary. “If I was in this for the money, I obviously picked my path poorly,” I quipped. This led to this amusing exchange.
“Ok… I see that your laptop is beat up. Well, how much debt do you have?”
I told him.
“How much money do you have in your bank account right now?”
I told him.
“Yeah, you’re broke.”
I laughed. “Thanks… I already knew that.”
Round 2: It gets heated
Josh then started asking a series of questions and also started making some accusations that seemed designed to get a rise out of me. He asked some pretty challenging questions and I did my best to answer those questions. Then he challenged me about the Sermon on the Mount: If it says that a Christian should turn the other cheek when he is struck and give his cloak when he is sued, why don’t Christians just freely give everything they have?
I took the opportunity to challenge him too; I told him that his bitterness and anger against Christians was clouding his judgment and logic. Surprisingly, he agreed, but didn’t seem to have a problem with that. He got really exasperated and started to test me, and I decided I didn’t want to go along with it. He asked to borrow a series of things–my phone, some money, my drink–not because he wanted them but to test me. Eventually, he got to my laptop:
“What if I asked to borrow your laptop?”
“Sure… let me type in the passcode for you…”
“Well, what if I just walked around with it for five minutes.”
“Why don’t you just use it here since we are… well, here.”
“Well, what if I wanted to walk around with it, huh?”
Oh brother, I thought. “Look, I’m not playing games with you. This is irrelevant to whether or not Christianity is true.”
“I’m not playing games. It’s important to ME to see if you are willing to let me borrow your laptop and possibly lose it.”
He eventually told me that he would rather take his chances with God and Hell then believe in Christianity, and he called me a phony. I asked him how I was a phony, and he muttered that he didn’t know and that it was between me and God. He got up and left, and I felt a little confused because though we had moments of genuine humor and laughter throughout our conversation, and he seemed to like talking to me, he was pretty scathing here.
Thinking that was that, I looked up Texas football recruiting online. However, to my surprise, Josh eventually circled back and sat across from me again, trying to use his phone to call a cab.
Round 3: We get somewhere
After a moment of awkward silence, I asked him, “Hey, I know you don’t seem to like me, but do you need a ride?” He declined and said that he’d just get a cab. “Ok,” I said. “Um… did you want to talk again? I’m a little surprised you came back.” He muttered that he has to wait anyway, so he might as well come sit down.
I think this is where it became very apparent to me that Josh, despite his bitterness and hurt, was seeking to find some purpose in life. Anything.
So I offered him a ride again. Then came another “test”: He asked me for some money for rent, since he gave all his money to a friend in need and his military pension wouldn’t come in until a few weeks later. I told him, “Look, you know I’m broke, but if you really need it, I can go to the bank and give you some rent money.”
After that, his demeanor towards me changed. He said he didn’t want my money, but it was important for him to see me be willing to part ways with my “wallet” (he claimed earlier that you can always expose a pastor by “hitting him in the wallet”). He said, “You know what, you may not be so bad after all,” and then he told me something that was very important for me to hear.
He told me that he was puzzled why I was reluctant with the laptop when I was generous with everything else, including my time (which he appreciated the most), and I told him that it was because I felt he was playing a pointless game, not because I cared that much about the financial value of the laptop.
He then said, “Hey, let me tell you something. I understand that it may have been a stupid or unimportant to you, but for me, I’ve been through a lot of hurt. It was a big mountain for me to get over, to see if you would be willing to lend me your laptop. I just had to see it.”
When he told me this, I actually apologized and told him that I did not mean to diminish the bad experiences that he went through.
Round 4: To the airport
I eventually took him to the airport, missing the exit a couple of times because we were talking. On the drive, he continued to ask me questions, and I eventually got him to the airport. He told me he wanted to meet up again near seminary on Monday, and I agreed. I asked him if he wanted my contact information, but he said no; just meet him there and bring him a Bible. I prayed for him, and then I drove home.
As I was driving home, thinking about how I was led to a B&N that I never go to in order to meet this man, I just shook my head and laughed. I also thought about the people that I have wronged in my life and prayed for forgiveness. I have no idea if Josh will show up, but even if he does not, I hope that my small offer of a ride to the airport would open his heart more to finding purpose and Truth.