This month I feature a short essay that examines one thought, one that I have mentioned frequently in sermons and podcasts, particularly in the past couple of years. The thought is usually in regards to Scripture, and concepts found in Scripture, doctrinal points, and theological theory. Simply put, I challenge my listeners and my readers often to ask questions. Question what they see in the text. Question what they’ve always believed, and most importantly, question God. He’s big, and confident, and unafraid. He can handle himself.
I often encourage you to wrestle with concepts and ideas that are bigger than yourself. Like Jacob in the wilderness, who wrestled all night with the angel, and goes into legend as one who, “Contended with God, and prevailed.” Think of that: a man wrestled with God and won. What does it mean to win in that situation? Jacob has his name changed to Israel and his hip popped out of socket. He went from a cheating, scheming, heel-catcher, to the “One who contends with God.” To contend with God seems to be the highest title a man can be given, for what kind of man can say he can contend with God, and live to tell the tale? To prevail is to have a new identity and to never walk the same way again.
When we wrestle with concepts and ideas that are bigger than ourselves, we are acknowledging that they are worth tackling. We are also putting something on the line. We offer up our own ideas, perceptions, and preconceived notions. We are willing to limp away from the encounter with a new name and a new step. This is the process of brave confrontation.
Based upon our reticence to go down this road, it would see that we wonder if it is permissible to question God at all, or to examine the Scriptures with an inquisitive bend. You don’t have to listen very long to those who tackle this topic to find that many teachers discourage believers from questioning God out of the presupposition that most questions come from a rebellious place, and an untrusting heart where the person isn’t really trying to get an answer, but to make an excuse for behavior or for unbelief. While that may be the case with some, I think it’s probably the minority. I’m optimistic that most questions come from a genuine place, where people truly need answers about things over their head, or out of their purview.
We’ve seen the biblical precedent for wrestling with God, but what about the Scriptures often used to prohibit questioning him? Take Romans 9:20, a popular text used in this argument. Paul writes, “But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” This is in a passage on Israel’s rejection and God’s justice, and the preceding verses describe God as able to show mercy on whom he will. Paul’s question then is not an injunction against wrestling with God, but a warning to his audience to show some humility: they don’t know it all.
My own experience has been that when you discourage questions you create more, and the one’s you create are darker and more probing. When, as a child, I asked an inconvenient question in church, I was often met with something like, “What’s wrong, don’t you believe?” or “Ours is not to question why.” Those answers made me suspicious, like I was being fed a hoax. It’s no wonder the writers of the film version of The Wizard of Oz include the scene in which Toto reveals the man behind the curtain. The wizard’s response, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! The great Oz has spoken!” sounds a little bit like, “Watch the smoke and hear the noise, but don’t ask questions!”
I had a professor in college who would finish the lecture and open the floor for questions. Rarely did anyone raise their hand, such was the nature of uninterested students. One day he told us that our failure to ask questions sent him a couple of messages. He had either so thoroughly covered the material that there was nothing to ask, or we were so lost we didn’t know where to start. Of course, he knew the real answer was probably somewhere closer to apathy on our part, but kudos to him for leaving that one out.
I think we fail to ask questions and to wrestle with big concepts because we feel we have most things figured out. We treat much of theology and Scripture as if the answers are clear, and need only a couple of verses here and there to shore them up. I hear people speak with an almost flippant confidence about things they can’t possible know the real answers to. When is the last time you heard someone talk about what heaven is like, or who populates hell? Have you noticed how much information is “known” about pre-Adamic earth, the fall of Satan, the age of accountability, and the religious tendencies of a future Anti-Christ. And tread carefully if you even question the origin stories as possibly being metaphoric rather than literal. Was there a snake in the Garden that actually talked? Or was a talking snake the ultimate metaphor for deception? Those seem to be good questions, but to dismiss one and embrace the other for fear that such questions are evidence of doubt seems to be like watching the smoke show and ignoring the man behind the curtain, because you’re afraid of who he might be.
There are at least three instances in the Gospels where the text tells us that people stopped asking questions. Interestingly enough, they are three different scenarios in three different gospels, with only John never including such a moment. John is written to convince unbelievers to believe on Jesus, and therefore never includes a moment where people felt uncomfortable asking questions. Take that however you will, but I want to briefly look at each moment and determine why the questions stopped.
Matthew 22:46 says, “And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore.” The phrase, “dare question him,” sounds ominous, but I think it could mean that they were so frustrated with the conversation that they stayed away from future confrontation. This moment came after Christ asked them, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” Jesus is pointing out that David called him “Lord,” indicating the eternal nature of the Son of David. The implications of such were too much for them, so they backed off.
Mark 12:34 says, “But after that no one dared question Him.” There is the “dare” word again. This time, Jesus had answered their question, “What is the first commandment of all?” He responded with love God and love your neighbor. They stop questioning when they saw that he had answered wisely. Apparently their questions were from a place of rebellion, since wisdom ran them off. If you really want your question answered, you don’t run from wisdom; you run to it.
The final example uses basically the same language, in Luke 20:40, “But after that they dared not question Him anymore.” This time, the Sadducees had asked Jesus about the resurrection, which brought us this brilliant answer, “God is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him.” They acknowledge that he has spoken well, and then the questions stop.
Each story is different, but each ending is the same. They ask, he answers, and they are so impressed, depressed, discouraged, or dismayed, they cease talking all together. When the questions stop, we all lose. What if they had asked more questions? What would you ask on top of what they asked? I can think of a couple thousand things I would like to ask. Maybe that’s because I really want answers, and they really wanted to trip him up, but maybe it’s something else as well.
I think it’s difficult to ask pure questions of someone you don’t trust, or of someone with whom you don’t share a relationship. If a stranger asks you a personal question, you may be offended. That information doesn’t belong to them, and they shouldn’t have asked for it. If your spouse asks you the same thing, you answer, or at least you ask them why they want to know, but you aren’t offended. You have relationship. You love them and they love you and you know it. Questions aren’t seen as evidences of doubt nor are they intrusions. They are expressions of two people who want to know more about one another. They are effusions a deeper conversation.
Conversely, when you question the loyalty or integrity or the motive of your relationship partner, then offense comes, because it indicates that you don’t trust them. This is why Paul warns us against questioning God, because in context the question comes from a place of distrust. It is the moment when we question God, not so that we can know the answer, but so that we can make a veiled accusation. It’s a spot in our feast of charity.
Those who “dared ask him nothing else” from Matthew, Mark, and Luke had no sense of relationship. They neither loved Jesus nor were willing to receive his love. Their questions were not to flesh out actual answers, or to grapple with issues larger than themselves. They asked in order to hurt, or to trap, or to mock. Check your motive, but more importantly, check your relationship. If you see God as your Father, and you are his beloved, then you will climb up on his knee and ask whatever. You will grapple with him like a child wrestles with dad in the living room floor; not to win, but to learn how to wrestle properly; how to give and take. You will learn the joy of struggle and the hug that follows. So question and wrestle, and get ready to walk differently. The limp is evidence that you’re getting somewhere.
Grace to you.