The waters looked choppy, the waves seemed so strong, and the rocks where the surf crashed on the shore seemed like cruel, dull, black teeth. And who knew what was under the surface of the water that I couldn’t see? Just the thought of swimming in those murky gray-green waters made my stomach twist into knots! But my friend announced, “I’m going for a swim.”
I tried to talk him out of it, “You’re joking, right? Do you realize how dangerous that is?”
“Relax,” my friend tried to reassure me with an unconvincing smile, “I know what I’m doing. I’ve swum in waters like these before, lots of times. I can handle it.” He headed off toward that pounding, angry sea with what seemed to be a swagger of confidence, but there was something in his eyes that seemed to be silently imploring me, “Please, save me!”
My friend had been going through a rough patch. His business which started out so well was now on the brink of closing in this crummy economy. Instead of realizing there was not much he could do in this downturn, my friend began to think that he was the failure. Recently at church—where turning from one’s sordid past is supposed to be celebrated—some scoundrels dredged up his past and used it as a cruel weapon against him. These mean-spirited, unforgiving people were jealous of my friend’s success in allowing Jesus to help him turn his life around. My friend did nothing wrong, but the spiteful words of these hypocritical church-attendees made him relive his forgiven past. Although he didn’t say it, I knew these hurtful words caused him to second-guess his value to God. And now, just last week, my friend happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and was charged by the police with a minor misdemeanor. No jail time nor fines were going to be imposed on him, just a few hours of community service. But yet again my friend’s self-esteem took a hit as he walked through this embarrassing process.
So now here he is feeling beat up, thinking to himself, “I’m a worthless failure,” walking toward something dangerous. I can’t understand why. Is he trying to escape reality? Does he really feel that poorly about himself? Doesn’t he see how much his wife and his friends love him? Does he feel so dead inside that this dangerous behavior makes him feel something again? Or does he feel too much and this dive into risky waters is merely an attempt to numb the pain, to self-medicate away the accusing thoughts?
While I was contemplating all of this, I didn’t realize what my friend had done. He had not only reached the shore and waded into the swirling waters, but he was now bobbing quite far from shore. All I could see was his head and shoulders. And his blank, lifeless, passionless face.
He seemed to be bobbing further and further away from me, and closer and closer to those vicious teeth-like rocks.
I ran down to the shore, as close to that angry ocean as I could get, and yelled. I don’t know whether he was ignoring me or couldn’t hear me, but he didn’t respond. He bobbed farther away and I yelled louder and waved my arms. I pointed at the rocks looming closer and closer with every swell of the sea. I screamed until my throat was raw. He drifted farther from me. He waved. And I heard just two distinguishable syllables above the pounding surf and howling wind, “…okay….”
“Okay?! Do you think it’s okay?! You’re killing yourself! It’s not okay!” My friend’s face changed. No longer was it a blank stare, there was emotion there now. I blinked my eyes against the spray of the ocean; I looked intently at my friend’s face. Then I saw it etched in the lines on his forehead. I saw it in his eyes. Panic!
I stared at him, my mind racing what to do. And then I heard it: two more syllables distinguishable above the roar. Two syllables that shot me into action: “Help me!”
I frantically looked around and spotted a tattered, faded orange life vest. It was really only half a life vest, but at least it still floated. It was tangled in seaweed and stained with muddy sand. I grabbed it, ran toward the shore, and flung the life vest toward my friend. It wasn’t a very good throw. Whether it was the wind or my weak attempt, the orange vest didn’t get very close to him. But even so, what was more disturbing was that my friend didn’t even make a movement toward it.
I got frustrated and stomped my foot in anger. Angry at my poor first attempt at a rescue, and angry that my friend made no attempt to reach out for what I had thrown him. I looked around again. I spotted an unattended lifeguard station 75 yards away. I raced to it and found an intact white life ring with a bright red cross emblazoned on it. I grabbed the life ring, sprinted back as close to my friend as I could get, and heaved the life ring as far as I could. It flew through the air. It seemed unimpeded by the wind, and landed within a few feet of my friend! The white and red ring stood out clearly in the dark waters!
I almost let out a shout of victory! Salvation for my friend was within arm’s reach of him! Yet my friend didn’t move. He wouldn’t reach for the help that was right there.
“Does your friend need help?” a strong voice behind me asked.
I wheeled around to see a tall, athletic man. A Lifeguard! “Yes! Yes, he needs help!”
The Lifeguard looked out across the churning waves and saw my friend getting closer and closer to those jagged rocks. It seemed like the next swell of the sea would dash him on those black sea-teeth. “Yes,” the Man said, “I can help him.”
My heart leaped and then seemed to stop in the very next heartbeat. The Lifeguard wasn’t moving. He just stood there looking at my friend.
“I can help him,” he repeated, “If he will simply ask for My help.”
“He did ask for help,” I argued. “I’ve been trying to help him.”
“No, he really doesn’t want help,” the Lifeguard said. “I can save him, but he has to ask Me to do it. And,” he added turning to look at me, “you have to leave.”
“What? He’s my friend! I’m not leaving him!”
“If he is your friend, you have to. You have to love him enough to leave him to Me. He’s been here before, and I have rescued him before. But as long as you’re here throwing flotation devices to him he will keep the rescue attempts alive without ever actually allowing himself to be rescued. The most loving thing you can do for your friend is leave him to Me.”
“How long?” I asked quietly, knowing in my heart that noble Lifeguard was right.
“That all depends on him,” the Lifeguard said. “As soon as you leave, that may get his attention and he may call out for My help immediately. Or he may wait until things get even more desperate. It’s his choice. I am the only One who can save him from this surf now. But he must call on Me before he is smashed on the rocks. I will not leave this spot. I will not sleep or become distracted. I will never leave your friend because I love him. I love him even more than you love him. So the sooner you leave him to Me, the sooner he can cry out for My help.”
I stood there weighing the Lifeguard’s words. I knew He was right, yet I didn’t want to leave my friend. And then He repeated, “The most loving thing you can do for your friend is leave him to Me.”
So I walked away.
That was last night. No word from the Lifeguard or my friend yet. I’m still waiting—and praying—that my friend will cry out for help to the only Lifeguard that can save him now.
I did the most loving thing I could have done. I left my friend to Him.