The Hard Questions

by Marilyn on March 26, 2014


It was late afternoon and the sun was slowly setting across the solid blue, desert sky. The call to prayer echoed across the city of a thousand minarets. My blonde-haired 7-year-old looked at me, her deep blue eyes serious. “Is Faiza going to Heaven?”

We were living in Cairo, Egypt and Faiza was our baby sitter extraordinaire. But she was so much more.

She was our informal language teacher, our cultural broker, our friend. And she would iron our clothes just to be kind so that we looked like we stepped out of a dry cleaner’s shop. We had been in Cairo for 3 years and Faiza was an essential part of our lives.

We loved Faiza.

Faiza was a devout Muslim and our children knew this. She prayed five times a day and faithfully fasted during Ramadan. She gave to the poor and cared for those in need. She had even gone on the Hajj to Mecca – something every Muslim is encouraged to do in their lifetime if possible, but for a woman who was a widow and had only the money she made from babysitting this was a huge sacrifice.

Faiza would arrive at our house clad in a long, plain galabeya(traditional Egyptian dress) with her hair completely covered by a white hijab, always carrying with her pita bread and crumbly white cheese known as ‘gibna beda.’ This was her lunch but my kids grew to think of it as their snack. She lived her faith out loud, praying in our living room as soon as she heard the call to prayer from the mosque down the street. She was ever patient and cared for my kids the way she would her own grandchildren.

“Is Faiza going to Heaven?” I knew my response was critically important to this little girl – and to myself. I sighed internally and shot up an arrow prayer to the One who’s always listening.

“I don’t know” I said finally. “I know that Faiza loves God very much. I don’t know if Faiza knows Jesus.”

The blue eyes continued to search mine. “But she loves God – isn’t that the same thing as loving Jesus?”

Now hear this: I believe with all my heart the words of John 14:6. They are memorized, branded on my heart. “I am the way, the truth, the life…

I believe there is one way to the Father.

But I have learned that there are many ways to the Son. God is infinitely creative in the way he draws people to his heart. Our God is not defined by nation or nation building; he holds citizenship nowhere but Heaven and extends his grace throughout the world. And so I have seen people find Jesus, find ‘the way’, through white steepled Baptist churches and through gold-trimmed icons in Orthodox churches; through Bible studies and small groups and through reading of Jesus in the Koran; through the irritating street evangelist on a busy city corner and through reading Mere Christianity. Those nail-scarred hands stretch out to us in unlikely spaces and places and we marvel at the mystery of Grace.

The way to Jesus must not be dictated by a North American construct for it is like trying to fit the ocean into a bathtub – it is far too limited.

So my words “I don’t know” were truth and honesty.

But I prayed then and I pray now for the Faiza’s of the world — those zealous for God, searching for truth. And I prayed then and I pray now for the children asking these questions, questions of eternal significance.

In talking with my mom, a long-time missionary to the Muslim world, she said this: “I remember hearing the late William Miller speak about his many years of work in Iran.  One statement stood out, and although this may not be an accurate quote, it is how I remember it:  ‘We will be amazed on the Day of Resurrection to see how many will rise from the Muslim cemeteries of the world.’

The mystery of grace will continue to confound and comfort until the day when all is made clear. Until that day I will continue to pray as I grapple with the hard questions even as I continue to proclaim the name of Jesus wherever and however I can.

So I ask you now: How do you answer the hard questions? The questions of eternal significance?



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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
  • Wow. I think sometimes ‘I don’t know’ is the best answer we can give. It’s better than pretending to know all the answers or quoting lame cliches.. Thank you for sharing this – I will treasure it in my heart as a reminder to pray for all the Faiza’s and children of this world. May God bless you!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Yeah – I agree. Funny how we just don’t like to say those 3 powerful words sometimes and yet they are often the wisest. Thank you for this lovely comment and your words.

  • Richelle Wright

    We had Safana and her husband Baaba – our house helper, our babysitter/kid watcher, our cook at different times and in different seasons… and always our peanut butter maker (and I got to help function as her pb distributor!). She was our cultural adviser and language encourager. He taught our kids French, sometimes helped them with their homework and preparing for those big national exams and kept intruders out of our concession. Since we moved to Niger, our lives entertwined together… There’s Morou – the painter and odd jobs guy who always seemed to be around – wanting and willing to work any job in any way we asked him to – always smiling, happy and gentle… and our kids have asked us the same question… and my heart breaks every time because I don’t know the answer.

    Safana and I spoke about God and Jesus a lot… and so I love what you said: “One way to the Father, but Jesus chooses a myriad of ways to draw people to Himself – and I believe Jesus is drawing Safana to Himself… and so I keep praying and trusting and praying and hoping… That’s what we’ve told our kids and they pray with us… that Safana and Baaba and Morou (and others) keep moving closer to Jesus. One of the most encouraging things I’ve studied recently has helped me to see Jesus as “inclined” towards

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I this comment. I love your story of Safana – she sounds so similar to Faiza. I love that you add the words “Why don’t we stop and pray…” because I get so caught up that I forget this important piece. Thank you for getting this so well.

  • Thank you Marilyn. We answer the hard questions with honesty and humility. We answer them in prayer. Beautiful article.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you Michael – honesty and humility — good words to live by.

  • spreadtheflame

    I appreciate how the hard questions did not automatically drive you towards some kind of universalism but to a kind of recommitment to “proclaim the name of Jesus whenever and however you can.”

    I know if can be tough especially when you see such a consistent devotion in someone like Faiza contrasted with sometimes an utter lack of devotion from followers of Jesus from the West.

    Sometimes I find myself saying, “I don’t have all of the answers, but I am sure of what I do know and that is; Jesus is the way to the Father and we are called to proclaim him as Savior and Lord, live wholeheartedly for him in loving obedience, and call others to do the same…among all nations and peoples.”

  • Oh, Marilyn, this is one I struggle with personally. I have so many friends who don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus yet have a strong belief in God and his power and goodness. They live their lives with integrity and honesty, always seeking His will and trying to live right, do what’s right. I want so much to believe that He will draw them to Him at the end as good and faithful servants. I’ll continue to pray. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Stacy – love that you ‘get’ this — that you understand the complexity of this. I’ve learned much about God being the one who knows the heart and on my good days I rest in that. On my more difficult days I question all of it but still at the end of the day turn to those nail scarred hands.

  • I am SO glad you posted this. You just never know. Maybe EVERYONE will be resurrected! As a person with friends from different faiths, I think about this stuff a lot. Like you, I think that God can be found in a variety of ways. I appreciate this perspective and I think that holding our beliefs with open hands and uncertainty is so much better than holding them with closed fists and unwavering certainty. Wonderful post!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Karissa – thanks so much for these words. And to know there is someone else who thinks about this a lot is encouraging. I will say that one of the things I have loved about Orthodoxy is the emphasis on mystery. It’s healing for me.

  • ZZ

    Fayza does know Jesus. As a Muslim, she believes he is a prophet of God and should love him and obey him just like she loves Mohammad and all other prophets. That’s the only difference, she does not believe he is the son of God. (Islamic perspective) “He is Allah ,[who is] One,۞Allah , the Eternal Refuge.۞He neither begets nor is born۞Nor is there to Him any equivalent.” [Qur’an 112:1-4]

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thanks so much for commenting — another Muslim friend said to me “And perhaps not strangely, our kids ask us the same…” So many similarities in our faiths and yet differences in our truth claims….because you are right we do look at Jesus as the son of God. This is where blogging fails and sitting down to tea would be a gift. But since we can’t I thank you so much for being a part of this conversation!

  • Little Gumnut

    I think you gave a good and wise answer Marilyn. I struggle with this question when people who are not Christian or Muslim tell me that they have lost someone but they are glad they are in a better place. I gulp when I am asked those hard questions but as I get older I am starting to believe that no one knows what is in a person’s heart and that the only real answer is that we don’t know. I’ve been thinking about how God uses many ways to bring people to Jesus, sometimes the most outrageous ways, about how messy the journey of faith and life can be and we who like neat packaged answers find it so hard to deal with God’s way of doing things.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Sophie – your words “sometimes the most outrageous ways” made me laugh and nod my head. I love hearing stories of how people came to know Jesus – they are remarkable and no one could think them up but God. Like you say – when we want neat packages – we find this hard. Thank you!

  • Thank you for such a great article. Before I moved to Asia, I believed everyone who did not believe in Jesus was going to hell. For me, I changed my mind after I was in Cambodia and realized that I was condemning Pol Pot for what he did, but not a God who was sending those people he had murdered to hell. A lot of people in the states think this makes me liberal, but I believe nearly everything I did before, except the hell part. I just find it unlikely that there is not a second chance. If God’s will is that none shall perish, I just have to trust that he will do everything possible to reach everyone.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Hi Lana – the words of Timothy come to mind when I read this comment when he urges (and I might get this wrong) prayer for all men that they might come to the knowledge of the truth. I work with a lot of Cambodian patients here and the stories break your heart. Would love to know more about your work.

      • I worked as a live-in with troubled teens in Thailand, but we also do outreaches to the rural poverty in Cambodia.

  • I know for certain I don’t know! What I do know, we walk in the WAYS Jesus instructed us to walk, tell the TRUTH about Jesus’ love, forgiveness, peacemaking, reconciliation, and justice, and live the LIFE Jesus showed us, a life surrendered completely to even death on a cross. Then we wait to be surprised at the end. What joy. Thank you, Marilyn!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Love this Cindy! Especially the “Wait to be surprised at the end!” Reminds me of C.S. Lewis and the Last Battle!

  • What a great post! Newly moved to the Arab Peninsula my eyes and heart have been opened to the Muslim world. A new friend of mine is Muslim, we have begun chatting, mostly about dress, the hijab and abaya, reasons for wearing and so on. She loves God very much and her devotion touches my heart. After reading many books about living and working in the Arab world many, many of my Western molded preconceptions of what it means to follow Jesus are falling away. I am so glad that God is in control and does not need our methods or protocol of salvation to save. A heart wanting to please and glorify God in every area of life, is what is asked of us. Thank you Marilyn! PS> we are from NH, near Boston!!! the snow will melt!!! 🙂

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I remember the humility I felt when I suddenly realized a few of my Muslim friends were just as faithful…or more so… than I was. So humbling. It’s so easy to mix up culture and faith and unwittingly export our western methods, forgetting that God is so big and can bring the saving knowledge of Jesus in ways that we understand — it’s what God has been about since the beginning with the Incarnation. You’re from New Hampshire! Thank you so much for the encouragement that change in this awful winter will come!

  • This one brought tears to my eyes, because it is a question I grapple with a great deal. I have a friend who is a missionary in India right now. His team has worked to introduce the concept of the “faithful muslim, ” one who believes in Issa (Jesus.) They do not need to become Christians, but to understand Issa’s love so they can understand Allah and serve Him more faithfully. Hearing of this approach was a soothing balm for the heartache I have experienced from Western evangelical religious dogma.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thanks Ariana – I’m so glad to see you in this space! My mom and I were talking on the phone last night about belief and God’s creativity in reaching us with the gospel message – this is one of those creative ways.

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  • Phil Wilmot

    Faiza will be in heaven. If there is a heaven, she will be there.

    Jesus didn’t come to preach about the afterlife. The only time he talked about it was in the form of parables, referencing the need for doing social and economic justice in the present world. I know this kind of belief seems like a threat to many missionaries whose goal is evangelism, because they feel as though their work is pointless without a belief in hell and a formulaic understanding about “how to get to heaven,” but these discussions about the afterlife are all peripheral (perhaps “bonus factors”) to the discussion of “salvation”.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Hi Phil – thanks for joining the conversation. I think Jesus had a strong message that emphasized his “kingdom was not of this world” so I would tend to disagree with you We’re told in Colossians to not set our minds on earthly things but on things above. Throughout the gospels there are references to the kingdom of Heaven, the kingdom of God and then there is the beautiful passage in John “I go there to prepare a place for you….” But I think the overwhelming piece of this is that we don’t know the heart of another person. Only God knows the heart. And I agree with you – the more formulaic we make it the more we forget the mystery of grace.

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  • Elizabeth

    This was excellent, Marilyn…thank you for sharing it. I think your response shows a lot of wisdom and compassion.

    I also think it was brave of you to share this because there are Christians who get quite nervous when we start to talk about God’s grace being far wider and deeper than has been traditionally taught in north American evangelicalism.


    • Marilyn Gardner

      I so needed to read this right now….thank you. Thank you. Really. I knew that it had potential to not please anybody….or please everybody…neither of which is necessarily best. A Muslim friend has written to me and asked to share a response from a Muslim point of view on my personal blog. I told her I’d be honored. I feel like so much of this is if I want people to be willing to listen to me, it has to go both ways. In younger years I constantly felt the need to interrupt and defend God. In the last 10 years I’ve gone through a transformation and realized that so much of this is about being willing to listen and admit we don’t know everything. And what we do know is by grace. So thank you more than you know for your grace to me in this comment.

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  • So impressed and encouraged with this post. It takes courage to not know, and such faith to say it out loud.

  • Lourens Laureti


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