I grew up in a devout and respected Muslim family. For me, becoming a Christian was the most painful decision of my life. It was the most difficult decision I had to make, not just intellectually, but personally, because I knew it meant sacrificing everything I had in my life up until that point.
I had so often heard preaching that taught that, ‘becoming a Christian would transform your life’. I knew that, for me, it would turn it into a nightmare. I had to know what was true. There was a certain day in the summer of 2005, when I realised that I longer believed in Islam. But to take the next step and say to myself, ‘whatever it costs, I will embrace the Christian message’, would involve significant suffering.
The suffering that I was staring at was the biggest hurdle to me becoming a Christian. My mother was the daughter of a Muslim missionary, she was the grand-daughter of a Muslim missionary. My father came from the Quraysh tribe, which is the tribe of Muhammed himself and there was a lot of pride in that. When they came to the West, they spent their time serving the Muslim community, their whole time centred around Islam.
This next point is sometimes hard to fully grasp in the West but a lot of other countries around the world are based on ‘honour-shame’ paradigms. If I became a Christian, not only would I be endangering my own relationships with everyone around me but also those of my parents, who have loved me, who have sacrificed so much for me. I would be taking their reputation and tossing it into the mud.
I remember reading in Mark 10:29 that Jesus knew about this, that this was actually a common occurrence even in the time of Jesus himself.
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.
At the time I read that I already knew intellectually that the evidence was soundly in favour of Jesus Christ being God incarnate telling us, if you suffer for my sake you will be rewarded tremendously. In fact, Matthew Chapter 10 said that if you want to serve Christ you have to be ready to suffer: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)
You also have to be ready to give up your life, “And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10-38-39)
I was in medical school when I was studying a lot of these questions and wrestling with my faith. Most of the people around me were either atheists or agnostics. They had been trained up in a secular environment, they were tremendously successful, which meant they were really self-reliant, which meant they were trying to explain the world in such a way that they could be in complete control of themselves. That was the paradigm through which they all saw the world.
The problem with that was brought home to me when I was doing my psychiatry rotations. There was a guy who had crossed the centre of the highway and just ran headfirst into an oncoming truck. We were busy piecing together his body and as we were healing him we asked him what happened and he said, ‘my wife left me.’ No matter how much we tried to piece his body back together again, I knew that unless we addressed his heart and his mind he would go right back out and do the same thing. And none of the people I had been trained with had adequate training to address his heart or his mind.
Why do you tell someone they should live, why do you tell someone, don’t commit suicide. What reason can we give them if all we’ve told them is that life is a sheer accident, you just happened to evolve out of chemical mixtures and time and chance, that’s all you are. If you’re not enjoying that time, why not cut it short? There’s no good response.
I understand that life is meaningless, what I can’t understand is why I haven’t killed myself yet.
From the atheist’s perspective then, suffering becomes a true problem. You try to mask it, you try to hide from it, you try to increase your pleasure, but nothing actually addresses the reality of that suffering. Nothing makes that suffering evil if there is no objective morality. Whatever you suffer, it doesn’t matter. From the atheistic paradigm, if you’re in the middle of a holocaust, you cannot call that evil.
This isn’t a God who stands back and watches you suffer, this is a God who rolls up his sleeves, steps off his throne and says, ‘I am coming into this world as a baby.’
From the perspective of atheism and agnosticism, the problem of suffering becomes an intractable problem. But I wasn’t an atheist or an agnostic, I was a Muslim. From my perspective what made suffering bearable for a time was that it was a test that Allah was giving us. If it was his will for us to walk through this test, then we would pray for his grace to sustain us.
You may have heard that Islam is a graceless religion, that is a caricature, we prayed for Allah’s grace all of the time. But the Christian faith is absolutely unparalleled when it comes to addressing the problem of evil and suffering.
As a Muslim coming to realise the truth of the Gospel, I went from believing that God created this world then stood back, watched you and judged you. Maybe he’d answer your prayers but ultimately he was watching you to see how much you could please him so, that at the end of time, you may or may not make it into heaven.
When I came to realise the truth of the Gospel, I found that the Christian God, knowing that we were not able to save ourselves, was willing to step into this world. This isn’t a God who stands back and watches you suffer, this is a God who rolls up his sleeves, steps off his throne and tells the angels that, ‘I am coming into this world as a baby.’
Have we truly thought about this? The creator of the universe, who brought it into existence with his words and his breath, steps into the world as a helpless baby born to two children who have just been accused of an illegitimate relationship.
Have we thought about that? The moment Joseph did not abandon Mary was the moment everyone else said, ‘Aha! You impregnated her before you were married.’ From that moment on Jesus was born to an illegitimate child to two people who did not have any of the social graces common to people who had honour, in an honour-and-shame society let us not forget.
As Jesus grows, what does he do? He lives as a carpenter: working with blood, sweat and tears. This is the creator of the universe taking on a blue-collar labourer’s job. He befriends fishermen and tax collectors and people who aren’t occupying the highest levels of honour and dignity. He pours into them, living with them day and night, going from place to place with them, knowing he is going to be betrayed by them. One of them will betray him with a kiss.
Then he would go to a post to be flogged and then he would be crucified. Christians put crosses up everywhere, a lot of Christians wear crosses but don’t often reflect on how rough the image of a cross is. Crucifixion was designed to be the most painful, the most humiliating way to die ever devised in human history. In the United States, where I am from, we execute people using lethal injection, we even sterilise the skin around the area to be injected, that is how humane we have become in societies where the death penalty still exists. We want to make sure that even in death they have their dignity.
Not so with the cross. Cicero tells us that people’s skin was hanging from their body’s in ribbons, that their intestines would have fallen out, just from the flogging process. They would be strapped to a splintered piece of wood, for every single breath they took they would be scraping their skinless back on that wood.
The creator of the universe did that for us. This is the Christian message and we ask ourselves why. Because if you have been born into an illegitimate family, you can know that God loves you enough to identify with you and take your burden upon himself. So that if you have had to work day-in and day-out to make ends meet, you know that God loves you enough to take that burden upon himself, to enter into that suffering. If you have ever been betrayed by anyone who has said, ‘I will love you forever’ and the next thing you know they’ve betrayed you, even with a kiss, God knows, he enters into that suffering.
And if you’ve asked yourself, ‘why me?’, Jesus died on a cross out of love for you. He took your suffering and he paid it for us. You were made in the image of Christ and Christ suffered for the sake of others. He wants you to carry the cross with him, to suffer for the sake of others. In order to be Christ’s hand and feet, you have to carry his burden.
Suffering is not God’s ideal, but he is able to use everything for his glory. He suffers for us. He suffers with us. And he invites us to suffer with him. The message of grace, the message of love that flows out from the trinitarian God is that unconditional love will heal this world.
If you want to know more about Nabeel’s dramatic journey from Islam to Christianity then his book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus is a wonderful place to start.