It seems as though the virus has given rise to many new questions. So, I’ve been thinking a lot about questions…and answers.
There are new, virus-related questions, of course: When can we get back to normal life? Will a vaccine be forthcoming? Are masks effective? What will life be like post pandemic? Somebody answer me!
Sometimes the questions are more urgent: How will I pay my rent? Where will my next meal come from? When can I visit my hospitalized loved one? Somebody answer me!
And then there are really big questions, such as: What does it mean to be human? Why am I here? How can there be a good God who would allow such worldly horror? Somebody answer me!
About my own questions, I remember saying years ago, When I get to Heaven I will have a lot of questions for God. I said it with humor, but if I am honest I had the sincere expectation that God would submit to my demand once I stood face-to-face with him…and what I really meant was, God, you’ve got some explaining to do, and I‘m willing to listen to Your side before I judge You.
About questioning God, the curious thing for me is this: there is a written, historical record of quite a number of people who actually got to ask questions of God! In the biblical Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) of Jesus, who is the God-man, when He walked the earth, people did ask Him questions, and quite a lot of them according to Martin B. Copenhaver (Jesus is the Question). During three-year period covered in the Gospels, the four writers record that people asked Jesus 183 questions. He answered only 3. ONLY 3! Worse yet, Jesus asked the people 307 questions.
Yikes!…the thought of being questioned by God brings back my old “test anxiety” in a big way. Seriously, though, the Gospel accounts seem to squash my idea of putting my most pressing questions to God and expecting answers.
Yet, does that mean I should have no questions for God? Am I supposed to just have some sort of mindless “faith” in Him, afraid to ask anything for fear that He will turn the tables on me?
Here is a story. In the Bible’s Old Testament, there was a wealthy family man named Job (rhymes with “robe”). He had a wife, ten kids, and owned a very large ranch with thousands of head of livestock. And, he was one of God’s favorite people. In a single, tragic day rustlers stole all of his livestock and killed many of his herdsmen, and then a wind storm collapsed the house of one of his children killing all ten of them. If that weren’t enough, Job himself was infected with painful boils. In the days and weeks that followed, and as the shock of his loss began to wear off, Job had questions for God. In page after page of the story, Job defends himself from friends who accuse him of having offended God and thus reaping due punishment. Job continued to claim his innocence and began to insist in asking why this had happened to him.
Eventually, God appears before Job, but not to defend Himself from or explain Himself to Job. You see, before Job can even open his mouth with his first question, God says, I will question you and you shall answer Me. Then, like machine gun fire, God rattles off 67 questions for Job. Questions like:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know. Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened, Or who laid its cornerstone, When the stars were made And all My angels praised Me in a loud voice?
On it goes. Questions interspersed with sarcasm and facts. I image Job cowering before God like Dorothy before the Wizard of Oz.
When God stops talking, Job has a sudden realization…I regard myself as dust and ashes, he says to God, please teach me. Job’s questions are gone and he is beginning to be healed of his trauma.
But, how can he have such a rapid change of heart after enduring such trauma? How could 67 questions bring that about?
Honestly, for a long while Job’s response struck me as remarkable to the point of incredulity. Had God simply responded to my questions with 67 of His own, I would have felt like I had been slapped down by a Bully. My questions would metastasize into deep resentment toward or even hatred of God. After all, I would silently rage, I didn’t ask to be born! I didn’t ask for any of this! I am tired of the unending battle against myself! I am tired of living in this world!
Humanity’s questions are manifold and legitimate, they echo in the ears of my soul: Why was I…born into slavery, thrust into the horror of war, abused as a child, abused as a woman, subjected to repressive discrimination, falsely accused,? Why did I…lose a child, lose a spouse, get this disease, have my dreams dashed, lose my life savings, become addicted, endure mental illness, lose my job, lose my home? Why am I…so lonely, such a misfit, bullied, too different, trapped in a bad marriage, trapped in a dead-end job?
More questions: Why did you bring me into this world, God?! If you are everywhere and are all knowing, all powerful, and all loving, then why don’t you rescue me and fix this stupid world and those in it?!
Whether screaming, in laughter, in normal conversation tones, or in whispered weariness I have asked my own questions of God.
Why, God? It is the ultimate question. I have come to know it is also a prayer.
So, how do I get to the point of beginning the healing that Job experienced?
The late Catholic priest and writer Henry Nouwen (Spiritual Formation: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith) says this of our questions for God:
More often, as our questions and issues are tested and mature in [our] solitude [with God], the questions simply dissolve…God does not solve [all] our problems or answer all our questions, but [he] leads us closer to the mystery of our own existence where all questions cease.
So, is that it? Should I expect my questions to simply dissolve away with time and maturity as Nouwen suggests? What about the hardship or trauma I may have experienced in this life that caused the questions…will that also simply dissolve, too? No, something else must have happened to Job in his encounter with God to find the kind of contentment he confesses.
Back to Job’s story. After God ends the questioning, Job says:
I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.
Job says he had heard of God. That does not help me. Who among us hasn’t heard of God. But, what was different here is that Job also saw God. Christian Orthodox tradition says that Job saw Christ Jesus. Did he see the transfigured Jesus whose face shone like the sun? Or did he see the crucified Jesus hanging on the cross bearing Job’s pain and sin and the sin and pain of the world? Whichever Jesus Job saw…God revealed Himself in the way Job needed to see so his questions would dissolve and he would began to be healed from the trauma.
In their encounter, God certainly gave Job truth: 67 questions and many statements of truth of who He is as God. But, it wasn’t the hearing truth—God beating him about the head and shoulders with questions sarcasm—that dissolved Job’s questions and began his healing; rather, it was Job seeing the Beauty of God (Jesus) that helped him. Truth by itself is like a sword that cuts us apart; only seeing Beauty—seeing God—can start us on the path of healing (Timothy G. Patatsis, The Ethics of Beauty). Falling in love with God then becomes the path along which we journey to be healed.
How do we see God like Job did? He is all around us. He may reveal Himself in a direct vision as He did with Job, the apostle Paul, and many, many others. He may be seen as the Artist while sitting on that mountain top overlooking a scene that is too breathtaking to describe. He may be seen as the crucified Christ in the healthcare worker sacrificing their safety during the pandemic. He may be seen as the resurrected Jesus in the kindness of a friend who comforts. He may be seen as the humble Jesus in the poor or in a visit to someone in prison. He is all around us.
So, don’t be afraid of asking God questions. Jesus was always gentle with honest questioners.
The journey to dissolved questions is the journey of falling evermore deeply in love with God. It is a matter for another time. For now, be watchful. Look for Beauty. Look for God.
Great thoughts, Mike. I’ve always been struck by the story of Job, who struggles so hard for an answer to his suffering, and of his friends, for whom Job’s questioning threatens to undermine their carefully constructed (but fragile) theology.
Fascinating, too, that Jesus also asks so many questions and answers so few. When I think of His questions, I think immediately of the queries he makes of those who come to test him – whose questions are really not so very different from those of Job. ‘Give us a reason to believe you; prove to us that you are trustworthy.’ Socratically, he replies with questions and leaves them upended.
Nouwen’s comment brings me to mind Orual’s soliloquy in Lewis’ ‘Till We Have Faces’:
“Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say,’Child, to say the very thing you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.’ A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, not let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
We are full of questions, but when laid bare, I don’t know that we can either hear the answers – or that our questions even makes sense.
A question usually attributed to Werner Heisenberg (and which I quoted in my own dissertation): “When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first.” At first blush, one might take this humorously – but doesn’t this also reflect Job’s, and our own questions? These things – suffering, justice, predeterminism, free will, mercy, grace, life, death,etc. – make no sense to me. And by the tone of my question, I suspect that God doesn’t have a good answer for them either, that these things are somehow a mistake, outside his control.
Sorry for the long-winded comment, but so glad to read your thoughts. We so miss you. Hope all’s well for you and Linda!
Thanks for your comments, Stuart. I always appreciate what you have to add! His ways are not our ways and we want to be God. It is a situation ripe for conflict. I believe there is one, final, and foundational question, the answer to which shapes all we think, do, and become. It is a question that comes from God to us: “Who do you say that I am?”
Y’all stay safe!!