Steaks, Smiles, and Steely Faith: Remembering My Friend Nabeel Qureshi

Every time I saw that wry smile crawl across Nabeel’s face—the kind of smile that turned one corner of his mouth up higher than the other—I knew what would follow.

“You want to get outta here and grab a bite to eat?” he’d ask. But it wasn’t really a question. He’d smile sideways at me because we’d already eaten, probably just an hour or so earlier. But new flavors were beckoning us both. Often this would happen when we’d be at a conference, sometimes even an event at which we were both speaking. I’d feign resistance, only to cave in the moment he’d crane his neck back, look at me through the bottom of his eyes and say, “C’mon!” And if I paused, he’d just repeat himself and draw it out longer, “C’mooooon!” Despite his God-given rhetorical gifts, that’s all he’d have to say to persuade me. Before I knew it, we were in a restaurant ordering more food than two people should be legally allowed to eat at once. Usually sushi or steaks. Good grief, we ate a lot of fish and cows.

Nabeel Qureshi was known the world over as a gifted communicator and passionate advocate for the gospel of Jesus Christ. I knew him that way, too. But my fondest memories don’t come from his impressive speaking or widely read books. My fondest memories are of meals with him or the long theological discussions we’d have together. I’m sure David Wood, who knew Nabeel longer than I and whom God used to bring Nabeel to faith, can attest to the same. How delightful it has been to see David posting pictures and videos, many of them candid, of his adventures (sometimes misadventures) with Nabeel.

At various speaking events, people have said to me, “I wonder what it’s like when you and Nabeel sit around and talk. The conversations must be so deep. I’d love to be a fly on the wall!” It would always make me smile because, yes, there were deep, hours-long theological discussions; Nabeel and I would often chat on the phone for hours pondering major life decisions. But when I think of him, I think of watching YouTube videos of bloopers (like David Buckner passing out on Glenn Beck), ridiculous frivolities (like the Trololo guy), and translations of American movie subtitles by non-English speakers. We’d laugh till our sides hurt. And I could always tell when Nabeel was getting overtired, which meant he’d laugh at just about anything I said, no matter how inane. It was one of my crowning achievements to whisper something silly to him just before a speaking event that made him laugh so hard he had to leave the auditorium. Yes, I know, we should be ashamed of ourselves. But I remember it now and smile.

But there were deep conversations as well. We shared life together, even when we were oceans apart. When big decisions had to be made in both of our lives, we consulted one another. We would hold each other accountable because public ministry has a way of presenting tough emotional, moral, and spiritual challenges. We shared pictures of our kids, mourned over losses, and embraced over triumphs. We would talk about what it means to leave our old religious identities behind to follow Christ. We would share about our deep love for our wives and kids. He would admire his wife Michelle’s unwavering ability to trust God no matter what. And he doted on his beautiful daughter, Ayah Fatima, who they named after a Christian martyr.

As Nabeel battled with cancer, the inevitable “why?” questions would arise. We long for a sense of purpose in our suffering. It’s strange, of course, that Nabeel and I spent so much time at public forums answering the question of suffering. To be clear, Nabeel’s cancer never caused him (or me) even a moment of doubt in God’s existence or in his goodness. But there are always “why?” questions. In the year that he fought against cancer, I was asked numerous times by people something like, “How is this happening? Why would God allow this to happen to such a bright voice for the gospel, and so young? I just don’t understand.”

I will not—because I simply cannot—venture a guess as to why. It’s just not something I can know unless God reveals it to me. But here’s what I do know: God did not cause Nabeel’s cancer, but God can (and I believe already has) used it for the good not only of Nabeel but also for the wider world.

C.S. Lewis wrote that “God whispers to us in our pleasure, he speaks to us in our conscience, and he shouts to us in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

God whispered to so many through Nabeel’s wry smile and childlike enjoyment of the little things in life. I once saw Nabeel enjoy a steak so much that he got emotional over it. Those who got to know him personally can attest to the fun times after speaking events or at late night gatherings.

On the Monday just before he passed, I flew to Houston to spend time with him. Because of abdominal pain, he hadn’t taken in any calories for days. But that day, the doctors said that he might be able to tolerate some food. His eyes perked up at the thought of having a little ice cream. I sat eating Chick-fil-A sandwiches with Nabeel’s dad while Nabeel enjoyed some ice cream. We were enjoying a meal together once more. He was his true self, if only for a few minutes. It was our last meal together. In fact, I think it was his last meal. I still thank God for allowing me that privilege of seeing Nabeel enjoy a moment’s pleasure. God indeed whispered to us in our pleasure.

And God has now shouted to us in our pain, using it as a megaphone to rouse a deaf world. Ravi Zacharias, who loved Nabeel deeply, has written about him in a secular news source. Thousands who had never heard Nabeel or the gospel he loved to preach have now been exposed to Jesus’s life-changing message. People have seen Nabeel’s steely faith remain steelier yet in the face of death. They have seen the “peace that passes all understanding,” as the Bible calls it, in Nabeel’s voice. And they are encouraged to face difficulty with grace. A deaf world is roused through the megaphone of pain to hear the message that God has overcome the troubles of the world through Jesus. Nabeel was a megaphone for that message in his life and he is a megaphone for that message in his passing.

I will remember the Nabeel who boldly shared his faith with intelligence and passion. I will remember the lengthy, deep conversations. But I will cherish the mirth that always came after his wry, mischievous smile.

Until I see you in heaven, Nabeel, I’ll have to settle for imagining the smiles you are spreading there.

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