I had never been one to have heroes, or “idols/role models/etc.” My classmates in school would admire celebrities or athletes but I never really got that. I recognized good traits in the grownups around me and I would feel appreciation and respect but never anything like awe.
Such remained the case until last summer. I had just graduated university and I stumbled into the world of apologetics and I quickly discovered Nabeel Qureshi.
Nabeel’s powerful testimony was a bestseller and his personality and academic prowess strongly impressed upon me. I watched his debates and lectures, always admiring how he could be so firm and passionate in the truth and yet respectful and irenic at the same time (and the world of Christian apologetics can be rather deprived of irenic personalities.)
There’s a scene in The Hobbit where Balin, upon seeing the heroism of Thorin, says “There is one who I could follow. There is one I could call king.” My impression wasn’t quite that strong but I think I now know where Balin was coming from.
I felt rather insecure for a while. Perhaps I had put the man on a pedestal. Basically I felt as though I could never be content with myself until I had reached his level. There was a jealous corner of my heart that thought “I just have to be like him.” Specifically, just as smart as him.
Then, after only a few months of getting to know his work, he was diagnosed with advanced stage stomach cancer and given a grim prognosis. He vlogged his experience over the next year and his physical conditioned worsened. Then on the 16th of September 2017 (yesterday) he passed away. Obviously this is to be taken seriously and his and his family’s experience of all this is what matters most, but I hope the reader won’t mind if I share my own experience of this.
In a year, Nabeel went from being someone I new nothing about, to being the person I admired the most ever, to being dead. So what happens to a man of such reserved admiration as myself when his hero suffers like this?
In my case, he only admires him more but that admiration changes. The hevel (the word in Ecclesiastes that is translated ‘vanity’ or ‘meaninglessness’) of health and academic achievement blow away and we see what really matters – a soul that loves God. Doctorates are hard but loving God is accessible enough a concept, I think. We also see a spirit that hopes and trusts in the midst of suffering which is a far more important (and more practical) lesson than anything taught in the halls of academia.
I wonder how Jesus’ followers must have felt the day after his crucifixion, having seen the great man they had followed and in whom they’d hope die.
As for my own experience, I now get how how unabashed childlike admiration for a person can transform you. I was drawn to Nabeel for his knowledge of books and histories and theologies, but he taught me (and I hope all of us) a greater lesson. He showed us what it looks like to love and hope in Our Father.
As for my envy over academic accolades, I now feel that disquietness lifted. While his mind was impressive, it is for his heart that I will remember him as being great. Perhaps that is the more effective apologetic. As the church does, remembering great writings from her history such as the letters of Clement or the 95 Theses of Luther, I hope we also remember Nabeel’s Vlog 43, his last public words to the world, as a pattern of conduct for how we are to share our faith.
If you allow yourself to admire a person you might just get hurt. You might just agonize over their suffering. But the strength of God is made perfect in the weakness of man and I cannot at all reflect on the life of Nabeel Qureshi without seeing the love and the power of God behind it all. The Spirit of God has not left us. And He just as might shine through us as well.
Choose your heroes well. I know I did.