I have a friend named "Lee." We met in college a few years ago. Lee was an exchange student from South Korea and we became fast friends. We both went to classes together and also went every Sunday to church and bible group. Lee always seemed like a good Christian to me.
After a year Lee went back to Korea to serve in the military. It's something that all Korean men have to do for two years apparently. Lee really didn't want to go into the military but if he skipped out he'd be arrested -- so he did his duty.
Immediately after going into the army, the letters Lee sent me became very dark. "I hate this place. I hate the army. I want to die."
He wrote that to me at least several times during his service. Lee said that even during the train ride from his home town to the military barracks: "I was in hell. The guy sitting next to me went insane. No joke! He said 'I want to go home! I want to go home! I want my mommy!' Then, one time, the train passed a town and he said 'That's my town! I need to get off! I need to see my family!' He tried to jump out the window!!! The guy needed to be restrained by two soldiers and a sarge! It was really scary."
The letters got even more disturbing. "I hate this place! I'm cold and hungry and tired. I want to lie down and sleep forever. The superior officers treat us like **** and hit us. I had to go to military jail for a week because I talked back to an officer. They're adding my jail time to the end of my term so I'll go home even later."
Lee seemed most miserable during the winters, which were unusually cold in Korea during the last two years. "I am going to die of cold. I was on patrol all night and I was too tired and too cold and I thought I would faint. I couldn't feel my hands and feet... it was like walking on nothing. When I had tower duty near the DMZ, I could see the North Korean soldiers on the other side training their guns towards us. If North Korea invades, we will be the first to die."
Towards the end of his term Lee seemed to lighten up a bit. He wrote a letter saying that he had been accepted into a grad school in the US. "One month until I'm free!!!!!!" He said, "I've been approved for a student visa today!!! woo! When I'm in the US, let's meet for coffee!"
When I met Lee later that autumn he definitely looked different. His posture had become really rigid and he had put on a surprising amount of muscle. He also had a surprise for me.
"I'm not going to church anymore," Lee said, "I don't believe in God. I don't think He exists... but I still want to be friends with you. Is that okay?"
"Yeah," I said, but I was shocked and saddened, "I'm so sorry you've left your faith. Why don't you follow Christ anymore?"
"Well, I mean..." Lee looked uncomfortable, "I mean, I did pray when I was in the military. A lot of the soldiers prayed. We had church and everything... but it was really difficult. I was being yelled at by all the officers and bullied by the soldiers because I had gone to jail. I was so tired and hungry and I hated being made to do things by other people. I mean, I prayed and prayed but I was still tired and hungry and being controlled by other people."
"But starvation and tyranny are really the works of Man, not God," I said, "God doesn't need prayer, only we need prayer to remind ourselves that God is there and loves us. Prayer is supposed to be a comfort. Even if our parents and friends who love us die, there is someone there who will love us into eternity and who will never die... and that's God."
"Yeah, well..." Lee said, "I used to believe that but, y'know, after nights on patrol you get to know your own head pretty well and I suddenly realized that I just didn't believe there was a God."
"I think there's a war for your soul right now," I said, "I'll pray for you..."
Lee looked kind of irritated suddenly. He said, "Look, you don't really know what I went through. You were never in the army. You were never really starving or afraid... you can't really counsel me on this, okay? Maybe you should understand what I'm going through a little better before you start telling me to pray or anything."
I said okay. I know that Lee is losing his faith and that's wrong. I also know that in some senses he's right. I've been very blessed my entire life. I have loving parents and a good home and a good education. I have never been hungry or experienced tragedy or true suffering. Maybe I can't really counsel people who are suffering to have faith -- not if I haven't suffered myself.
I hope that my faith is strong and that if I ever experience suffering I will keep my faith.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Still, I'm really worried about my friend Lee. I don't want him to lose his faith. Does anyone have any advice?
How do you lovingly counsel a friend who has lost his or her faith because of circumstances you can't understand? What could this person and similar people do to reach out to friends who are walking away from God? Have you ever been in a similar situation?