Hi ho there, neighbor!
Only 90s kids, or perhaps just those who are fans of 90s family sitcoms in general, will recall the kindly, comedic, and often times philosophical next door neighbor known only as “Wilson” in the hit television show “Home Improvement”. Separated by a tall privacy fence, Wilson and Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor were neighbors, confidants, and most important of all good friends. Now why am I bringing up this 90s nostalgia you may ask? No, it’s not because of the popular #throwbackthursday, but rather because of an argument I had with a very dear friend of mine a couple of weeks ago and how it had us standing on opposite sides of the “religion fence”, so to speak.
Allow me to first give you all a brief history of myself and this particular friendship, so you can get a better understanding of our situation and why our little disagreement ended up being a big deal. I’ve been friends with this person since we were both freshmen in high school, so that’s 10-12 years of camaraderie give or take. During the course of our longstanding friendship we’ve been able to talk to each other about every subject you can possibly think of. From politics to pop culture, you name it and we’ve probably spent several evenings discussing it. Fortunately, because of our similar temperaments and tastes there have been very few flare ups or heated debates between the two of us; if we happen to disagree with each other we usually can just laugh it off lightheartedly and go on as usual. However there is one subject that in the past 3 years has caused more late night debates and ruffled feathers than any other. Can you guess what it is? If you guessed religion, more accurately Catholicism, then you’d be right!
In October of 2013 I decided to get serious about my religion, which at that time happened to be more agnosticism than anything. I was raised in a “Christian in name only” household; we believed in God and prayed when things got bad, but never actually followed any particular teaching of faith or attended any specific church. As one Catholic tumblr put it, we were “Do-It-Yourself-Christians“. Thanks to The Holy Spirit’s constant guidance I was led to the true church– our church– The Catholic Church. After living all my life knowing almost next to nothing about Christianity, or religion for that matter, I was suddenly voracious in my pursuit of knowledge. I spent months in RCIA and in my personal time learning everything I could think of or get my hands on about the Catholic faith. Needless to say, as with any encounter with Christ, I ended up becoming a vastly different person than I had been before.
My friend was surprised to say the least at my sudden conversion and new-found faith. I have to give my him great credit for how well he took my changes. Although he didn’t understand a lot of it he encouraged me, and even went so far as helping out in my parish’s food pantry with me as well as giving me a ride to adoration a few times. For the most part my friend was content to just roll with the punches and support me, but as time went on he began to get curious about religion and what exactly it was that Catholics believed. Being an agnostic himself, whose parents are fallen away Catholics, now devout Protestants, he was having a hard time trying to understand what we believe vs what he was told we believe (i.e. the typical idol worshiper, holier than thou charges etc…) So he began bringing his questions to me, and while it took some time I did the best I could to answer him. Although he was very reluctant at first, he’s gradually warmed up to Catholicism in general. He even favors it over Protestantism now, though he remains undecided on actually getting involved in any one religion. This is how our friendship has been the past few years, him asking questions and me trying my best to answer them.
Well, a few weeks ago he came over to help me do a few things around the house. As we were sitting down over dinner, he asked me why God was doing so many good things in his life like helping him get a new job and what not, but a child in Africa was starving to death and He wasn’t doing anything for them. Well that’s a can of worms question as you can imagine. I did my best to talk to him about a few points, about how God is all good, how He gave all humans free will and how it’s us humans who are technically keeping food away from that child. I talked to him about human suffering, and how we really don’t know that God isn’t doing something for that child at this moment, and so forth. It started off fine enough, but as the conversation went on I began to get angry with my friend. He said that the church was run by “archaic rituals” and that since I couldn’t explain something to him exactly, but I believed in what the Church leaders taught on it, I “didn’t really know, I was just going along with what I was told“. He then went on to basically call our Father a bad dad who liked to play favorites (at least that was the way I took it at the time.)
Needless to say things got pretty heated there for a while. Eventually I snapped and told him that if he wanted answers he had to start reading the bible, learning history, and finding out what he believed for himself. I told him he couldn’t understand an answer to a calculus question without first learning basic math, so if he wanted to understand Catholicism, or Christianity for that matter, then he had best start doing his own research rather than shutting down and not doing anything because I couldn’t answer something to his satisfaction. He fired back, calling me out on how I was taking this way too personally and getting angry just because he didn’t agree with me. And he was absolutely right. I was taking his own personal viewpoints of God and reacting as if they were personal affronts to myself. While we are called to stand up for Christ, and while yes it does hurt us when someone misunderstands someone we love, we should never take their opinions personally. It is a basic principle in apologetics and one I quickly forgot in the heat of the moment. As I took myself out of my personal feelings I realized that my friend was not intentionally trying to disrespect our Lord, rather he was like Job who did not understand God and so had begun to question Him. And just like Job’s friends, I ended up getting angry and telling my friend off. My words that night surely must have echoed Elihu’s (in Job 36:1-6)…
“Then Elihu continued and said, “Wait for me a little, and I will show you that there is yet more to be said in God’s behalf. I will fetch my knowledge from afar, and I will ascribe righteousness to my Maker. For truly my words are not false; One who is perfect in knowledge is with you. Behold, God is mighty but does not despise any; He is mighty in strength of understanding. He does not keep the wicked alive, But gives justice to the afflicted.”
We know the story of Job, we know how it ends and we also know that although well-intentioned Job’s friends weren’t really any help to Job at all. Even Elihu the best apologetic of the group couldn’t change Job’s mind. That is because it was always more a matter between Job and God than a theological debate. In the end Job didn’t need their answers or explanations. What Job needed was to encounter God. The book of Job is interesting because God never really answers any of Job’s questions; but after Job’s personal exchange with God he comes away perfectly reconciled with Him and even stronger in his faith than he had ever been before. Why is that? Probably because it is one thing to be told about the goodness of the Lord, the divine intelligence of God, and about His immeasurable love, but it is quite another thing to actually experience it. When directly communicating with The Divine Creator, Job realizes his own humanity, his own limits of knowledge and understanding; but more than that, it is my opinion that Job came to truly believe in God. The scriptures tell us that Job had always been faithful to the Lord and that it was Satan who questioned his sincerity; that after a series of great trials Job does begin to doubt and question his God. In the end it is the one-on-one meeting with God that finally secures Job in his faith. Let’s take a look at Job’s last words to God in Chapter 42 (with God’s words in quotes)…
Then Job answered the Lord and said:
I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered.
“Who is this who obscures counsel with ignorance?”
I have spoken but did not understand; things too marvelous for me, which I did not know.
“Listen, and I will speak; I will question you, and you tell me the answers.”
By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.
After finally meeting with his Creator Job is no longer in need of answers because he’s been confronted with the reality of the living God. We can go our whole lives being preached to about God, we can be told over and over about the innumerable merits of God, and we can even see the love that our friends, family, and neighbors have for Him; but it has been in my personal experience that nothing can truly bring us close to God until we have had, in some way, at least one personal encounter with Him. It is one thing to hear how great a person is, to be told of their great deeds, but that person will always be somewhat detached from you until you meet them yourself.
I like to think that what God did with Job is what He is doing with my friend now. He is waiting for my friend to stop talking to me about his personal hang ups and to start actually talking to Him. This is because talking about God all the time is not the same as talking to Him, and knowing a lot about God is not the same as actually knowing God. At this point my friend is not lacking in apologetics but in belief; and it is my strong opinion that there is nothing I or anyone can say that is going to change that. Maybe what my friend ultimately needs is to take the initiative to sit down and have a heart-to-heart conversation with his Maker.
I find myself in the same place as Job’s friends, both frustrated with wanting my good friend to be close to God and to have his eyes opened to the goodness and greatness of the Lord, and full of righteous anger on God’s behalf when He is unjustly accused of some sort of evil. However, as one of my former RCIA catechists once said, “It’s not your job to be the Holy Spirit”. My job isn’t to persuade, but to inform, and then to pray for, my friend. The rest is between him and God. I don’t have to “prove” God to anyone, nor do I have to justify anything God does. (Hello, He’s justice itself!). What I am supposed to do is to answer my friend’s questions with truth, patience, and charity, as far as I am able. It is not my job to convert him; only God can do that, and He will do that in His own time and on His own terms. Just like Jesus told us (in Matthew 19:11,) “But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given.”
Our duty is to be faithful disciples of Christ, to follow Him and keep His commandments and to bear witness to His goodness by our very lives. But we don’t have the power to change hearts or minds; that’s His power only. What we do have the power to do is to be good friends and good neighbors, even if it means we end up standing on the opposite side of the “religion fence” as our friends. We may not ever see eye to eye with them when it comes to our religious beliefs, but that doesn’t mean that we should let it divide us from our friends or drive a wedge into our relationships. We can’t get personally offended every time someone disagrees with our viewpoints. We are called to evangelize always, but what I’m really trying to say is that ultimately it is up to the other person to decide to move towards God. This will happen only after God has drawn them to Himself, and we do not know when or in what ways He will decide to do that.
So from now, on when my friend asks me a question about our faith I’m going to answer it as calmly and honestly as I can and leave it at that. Whether he accepts it or not is none of my business. It’s good that we should wish all our neighbors to be Catholic, but we can’t force them; they must come to God by their own free will and in their own time. In the meantime I will try to be an even greater friend from now on. I will try to be a person to call, a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand, and a listening ear, but not a heart or mind converter. Sometimes the best way to be a good neighbor is to just give the best advice and instruction you can and let the other party do with it as they please. In parting, just like Wilson was to Tim Taylor in “Home Improvement”, so shall I strive to be from now on.
“The first step for greatness is humbling yourself. Maybe you shouldn’t try to have all the answers and instead ask more questions. A truly wise man always has more questions than answers.” – Wilson Wilson, Jr. “Home Improvement”apologetics, catholic living, catholicism, evangelization, friends, friendship, Job, neighbors