I first met Nabeel in the spring of 2013 at a gathering RZIM had put together. We hit it off, and soon after, Nabeel was sending me drafts of “Testimony Book”, the words that would become Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. As I read through the successive drafts that Nabeel sent, it was obvious that this was going to be a very powerful book.
A few months later, we were working together at RZIM. Working closely with him to set up the increasingly influential events that Nabeel was invited into was a great joy. I will always remember when he gave a spellbinding message to U.S. Senators and their aides in Room S-211 of the Capitol – the famous LBJ room. But of everyone in the room, he was most glad that his father could be there. Nabeel’s public calling was intimately wrapped up with who he was and so he always brought others along. Over the next three years, we became close friends in ministry. Since he brought me along, I feel a debt to share some of what I saw along the way.
Many have been saying that the best way to remember Nabeel is to imitate his example. In that case, sentimentality will not suffice. We need to resolve to love as he loved, and that can only be as honest and sincere as Nabeel was if we have made up our minds about what is true – what is so true that it is worth everything, worth every fiber of our being, worth the full passion of our hearts. As you reflect on Nabeel’s life, we need to do so in the presence of the Lord, to consider what all this means. And though our hearts are grieving — we are ready to obey.
Anyone who watched Nabeel speak — or read his books — knows that God gave him a fearsome intellect. More importantly, Nabeel’s interest in truth was not merely academic, but intensely personal. Why was this? I believe it is because his search for truth had shown him that Islam, a religion he had utterly devoted himself to for most of his life, was false. So Nabeel knew better than most that truth matters. To live for a lie – what a great tragedy. To live for the Truth? This propelled him into a life of action, of study, and of service.
Further, in an unselfish way, not only was Nabeel grateful that he was no longer living for a lie, but he remained passionately concerned for those who did not know Christ. The kind of Truth he had encountered was transformative: instead of slaving away for Allah, Nabeel now gladly testified that Christ offers salvation by grace through faith.
Part of what made Nabeel’s appeal so powerful was his sweet, tender personality. This was evidence of Christ in him, but I believe it also came directly from his loving Muslim family. So it was a natural source of grief to him that so many viewed people like his own parents and sister with suspicion. He urged and pleaded with us to think through the gospel – and to show intentional welcome, hospitality, and friendship with those who believed and lived differently. I hope Nabeel’s legacy is that an uncountable number of families who are currently without Christ would soon be feasting in the homes of gospel-loving Christians.
One of the hardest parts of losing Nabeel so early is that we all wanted him to be miraculously healed. What a testimony this would be! And we would have our friend with us.
When we worked together at RZIM, we had many meals together. Sometimes it felt awkward to see three or four entrees brought out for just the two of us, but he always cleaned the plates. And sometimes we’d go back out for midnight burgers. Coming to his home for dinner, he would want to make steaks. Nabeel’s quick mind could always find a reason to celebrate and enjoy good food!
So the particular blow of stomach cancer was that it took away his ability to savor life with a good meal. Many have been remembering the dream Nabeel had of heaven before his conversion – a feast he could not attend because he did not know Jesus. That was the perfect dream for my brother. God knew what he was doing when he showed him that sumptuous spread of food. After that, I think it was inevitable that Nabeel would follow Jesus. I don’t mean to make light of his decision – it cost him everything. It was the most gut-wrenching, painful choice he ever made. But I see the hand of God in these dreams – they were personal and specific to woo Nabeel into his true home.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be healed for more years of life. What husband wouldn’t? What father wouldn’t? Michelle and Ayah are two gems. Nabeel was a blessed man with a tremendous family. God has healed before – Hezekiah, Lazarus, the Biblical record is full of great miracles. I’ve heard of many stories of healing in our generation – powerful miracles.
If you were fervently praying that God would heal – I have few words, and mainly heartache. I don’t know what to say except that I am with you in mourning our loss together. Our hearts stretched to their breaking points with hope that Nabeel would be spared. The risk is that for those in whom this good desire for healing became a presumption could now hold a grudge or even a resentment. But we were not entitled to have Nabeel at all – his life was a gift to us. The one who made him made us and is with us. In the valley of the shadow of death, the Good Shepherd is with us. Our mourning can bring us to a place of humble surrender. Psalm 131 says that when we consider things that are too lofty for us, God needs to wean our hearts. I know our hearts are aching with disappointment – for ourselves, for his family, for those Nabeel could have ministered to. Our grief is a way of sitting with our Heavenly Father until he heals our hearts.
Now that we know the outcome, I think we need to be clear: anyone who would have been attracted to Jesus because Nabeel was healed would have turned away once they learned about the crucifixion. To follow Jesus is not a means of ‘health and wealth’ but a joyful surrender to the One who said, ‘take up your cross and follow Me’. If we would only have the faith to love others as Nabeel did, this would be a great miracle that would honor Christ around the world.
As far as I know, Nabeel never wrote out his messages in advance. He had prepared himself to preach by study and prayer. He was the messenger and so his life had to be ready. That is why we heard his heart when he shared – it was who he was. Nabeel had resolved to be sincere – genuine – himself – and so he dedicated himself to knowing God and knowing his subject. The talks were the overflow of a changed heart. It is how he could be the same person over a meal or on a stage.
One of the moments that exemplified this commitment for me came when he debated Shabir Ally. I thought the debate was very one sided in Nabeel’s favor. Midway through, he went over to Shabir during a break to give the man a hug. Here he was, debating a respected older man who had been a role model when Nabeel was a Muslim. An earlier debate between Mike Licona and Shabir had been an important turning point in Nabeel’s decision to follow Christ. Now Nabeel was being used by the Holy Spirit to show that the Triune view of God was more reasonable than the Islamic doctrine of Tawhid. Nabeel was making brilliant arguments but his main point was that a Triune God is love. So he sealed the point of the debate by taking the opportunity to hug Shabir. He wanted to reach out and embrace in friendship the former mentor who was now publicly losing an important debate. What to do? How to handle this awkward situation? Walk over and give a hug, to say, I love you and I respect you and I want to be friends though we disagree. You are important to me and I want to honor you. It was sincere because Nabeel was walking in fellowship with the Triune God of love – and that’s what God feels towards Shabir. Come, let’s hug, let’s be friends, I love you. Nabeel’s mind and heart were united in conviction. So his message and his life matched up too.
In his final vlog, #43, Love and Peace Are Our Motivation, Nabeel says, “My whole point in teaching is for Love to Reign. And so, as you consider my ministry, I hope it leaves a legacy of love, of peace, of truth, of caring for one another. That’s my hope and my purpose behind this…You know, our God is a God of love, and that should be what keeps us driven, that should be foremost in our mind, so, whether you’re talking to a Hindu, a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, whoever you’re talking to, may it be out of love. Thanks very much everyone. I’ll talk to you again soon I’m sure. Bye bye.”
I have a habitual resistant to crying, but this loss has repeatedly led my eyes to be filled with tears. Dear Nabeel, I am sure we will talk again soon. Bye bye dear friend. We are really going to miss you.
Distracted by Excellence
Distracted by Excellence