I Can Only Imagine: Reflections on Death, Eternity, Faithfulness, and the Life of Nabeel Qureshi

Today was rough.

Now I understand more fully why companies give their employees time off for bereavement. Even though I never met Nabeel face-to-face, I had a few moments at work today where it was all I could do to not burst into tears.

I guess I’d better back up a bit. I imagine most of you reading this are familiar with Nabeel, but in case you aren’t, let me explain a bit about him.

From the Biography section of nabeelqureshi.com:

Raised as a devout Muslim in the United States, Nabeel grew up studying Islamic apologetics with his family and engaging Christians in religious discussions. After one such discussion with a Christian, the two became friends and began a years-long debate on the historical claims of Christianity and Islam. Nabeel chronicled his resulting journey in his first book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus

Nabeel was an author, a speaker, a medical doctor, and part of the team at RZIM.

Last August, Nabeel posted this on his public Facebook page:

Dear Friends and Family,

This is an announcement that I never expected to make, but God in His infinite and sovereign wisdom has chosen me for this refining, and I pray He will be glorified through my body and my spirit. My family and I have received the news that I have advanced stomach cancer, and the clinical prognosis is quite grim. Nonetheless, we are going to pursue healing aggressively, both medical and miraculous, relying on God and the fact that He is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.

In the past few days my spirits have soared and sank as I pursue the Lord’s will and consider what the future might look like, but never once have I doubted this: that Jesus is Lord, His blood has paid my ransom, and by His wounds I am healed. I have firm faith that my soul is saved by the grace and mercy of the Triune God, and not by any accomplishment or merit of my own. I am so thankful that I am a child of the Father, redeemed by the Son, and sealed in the Spirit. No, in the midst of the storm, I do not have to worry about my salvation, and for that I praise you, God.

Unfortunately this means I am no longer able to engage in traveling ministry for the time being. I am canceling almost all my speaking events, with a few exceptions. From this point on until such a time as the Lord might choose to heal me, I intend to blog or vlog about my journey with cancer, transparently offering my heart, thoughts, and struggles in case they might encourage others and glorify God. I will no longer be with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, though it has been an absolute privilege to be on the team for the past 3 years. My third book, No God But One: Allah or Jesus?, launched today, and I still intend to write my next book, 20 Questions Muslims Ask and the Answers that Convert Them. Beyond that, the Lord knows.

Friends and family, may I ask you to fast and pray fervently for my healing? I do not profess to know the will of the Lord, but many of my close friends and confidants are convinced that this is a trial through which the Lord intends to bring me alive and refined. May His will be done, and may I invite you to seek Him in earnest, on your knees, fasting on my behalf, asking our Yahweh Rapha for healing in Jesus’ name.

And as you pray and fast, “I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:18-20)

For His Glory,
-Nabeel

I had become familiar with Nabeel’s name through Summit Ministries, and this news hit me like a punch in the gut. I resolved to pray and fast for Nabeel, believing he would be healed. I followed his vlogs and Twitter updates almost religiously.  On a plane ride to North Carolina, I began devouring Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. I sent a few tweets Nabeel’s way, and was delighted when he “liked” them.

Thus, I came to know him. It was, of course, a largely one-sided relationship, but when you see someone on video pour their heart out week after week, hear their voice break, see the pain in their eyes, and close your own to pray with and for them, somehow, a connection is formed.

So when he passed away Saturday, I grieved for him as for a brother. Because, well, that’s what he is. Yes, is. Nabeel is gone–and what pain it brings me to acknowledge that. But gone where?

In Randy Alcorn’s book Eternal Perspectives,an unknown source is quoted thus:

I’m standing on the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She’s an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and the sky come down to mingle with each other. And then I hear someone at my side saying, “There, she’s gone.”

Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side. And just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination. Her diminished size is in me, not in her.

And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There, she’s gone,” there are other eyes watching her coming, and there are other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!” And that is dying.

I think that this is one of the better metaphors I have heard. Others include parallels to birth, to sleeping, or to the dark cocoon the caterpillar must enter before it becomes what it was meant to be all along.

I can see that I have much room to grow in my faith, because to me, Nabeel’s death seems such a waste. I am certain that he himself feels differently at the moment. But here, in my limited, fallen perspective, I see what I imagine could have been. Nabeel could have been miraculously healed; that healing couldhave caused many Muslims to marvel and convert; he could have had an even more powerful ministry and story; he could have continued writing, speaking, and touching lives. And in my weakness, I wonder why these things were not to be; why dying was the path he was set to take; and how death could possibly be for the good of anyone involved.

However much sorrow, anger, and doubt I have felt, though, it behooves me to say that I am glad that I am not God. I imagine I would have done things differently–better, I’m tempted to think–but I have faith in the risen Christ. And that faith whispers to me that although I cannot see, one day I will. Although I do not understand, and feel as though I never will, there is a loving Father Who does. And Nabeel is with Him now, alive, free of pain, free of worry, free of tears, free of the cancer that ravaged his body. Ever the scholar, I imagine he is likely chatting away with Francis Schaeffer, Chuck Colson, or someone similar. I imagine he is also holding the child his wife miscarried some months ago.

Change is difficult. The changes that a devastating disease brings to a person are especially difficult, as you watch someone you care for slowly waste away in front of you, week after week, and there’s nothing you can do but pray.

In processing all of this, a particular vlogNabeel posted back in March keeps coming back to me. In it, Nabeel describes a dream he had in which Jesus came to him, hugged him, and sat down and talked with him. Upon waking, Nabeel discovered that the only things he could remember the Lord saying to him was “baby” and “sponge bath.” Nabeel thought that maybe this meant that he was, for whatever reason, to give his daughter, Ayah, a sponge bath, and so he did.

He described something a bit bizarre and disturbing happening when he did so, however. Ayah began to cry and scream, acting terrified of the sponge her father held in his hands. After the bath, Nabeel went off by himself to pray and ponder what this could mean.

He came to the conclusion that perhaps what he had done had been a prophetic act. He had wanted to lovingly cleanse his daughter, but she was so terrified of the instrument of that cleansing that he couldn’t really do a proper job. Her terror was completely irrational, however–largely because it was her father that stood before her, holding the sponge in his hands, loving her more than anything else in the world, and wanting only to cleanse her briefly–though thoroughly–before lifting her out and wrapping her in a warm towel and his arms.

And here my doubt again raises its head. What cleansing is achieved through death? But maybe, there’s more than what we see.

Isaiah 48:10 says:

Look, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested [or chosenyou in the furnace of affliction.

I think when the average person hears the phrase eternal life, they focus on the “eternal” part–and not the “life” part.

Joseph Bayly is quoted as saying:

“We consider it strange that Christians claim to believe that [H]eaven–being present with God–is so wonderful, and yet act as if going there were the greatest tragedy.”

Martin Lloyd-Jones said:

“The moment you come into this world you are beginning to go out of it.”

C.S. Lewis, in true form, put it as only he could:

“There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

We love to sing and say that this world is not our home. In part, that is true. This present world, with all its pain and poverty, war and weeping, starvation and sex trafficking, cancer and corruption, murder, drugs, and abuse is not our home–and thanks be to God, there is a better world coming.

However, there is also much that is good and beautiful about this world. God made it, after all. And He’s not going to abandon it to the whims of the Prince of Darkness.

 Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.”

–Revelation 21:5, HCSB

One day, perhaps not so far away, the saints of God will rule a redeemed world–this one. A world where death, grief, crying, and pain exist no longer. A world put right, as its Creator meant it all along.

And as for us–we will not lose who we are. We will not be absorbed into the Force, assimilated into Nirvana, or made someone other than who we were always meant to be, with our unique passions, personalities, features, and purposes–all perfected, of course.

This life is a training ground. Boot camp. We get dirty, we sweat, we cry, and we bleed. But in the morning, when we conquer our course, we get to go home. There’s a feast waiting for us, and our loved ones are there. They’re hardly able to contain the excitement they feel. The party they’ve been waiting in anticipation to throw can finally commence.They’ve been urging us on, cheering for us, and loving us–unseen, perhaps, but no less real. But that’s not all–after the celebration, there is work to do: the work we were made for, rebuilding, restoring, and beautifying a redeemed world.

Nabeel will be there, and so will I. I hope you will be, as well.

The end of this life is not the end, but a glorious beginning. The fact that our pain makes it hard to see does not make it any less true.

May we all be as faithful as our dear brother, and may we all, at the end of the race we run, cross the finish line hearing our Savior smile and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Heaven Knows by Hillsong United

About Abigail McCoy

Hi there!
I’m a young starving artist. (Just kidding.)
I am a 19-year-old Summit alum, writer, guitar player, and I’ve been redeemed.
Changed people change culture!

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