July 4, 2007

Private Questions

Matthew 17 tells the extraordinary story of a father who brings his possessed son to Jesus in order that he might be healed. As he hands Jesus his boy, he also hands him this report: "I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him." Jesus mutters something about the faithlessness of his followers and then—mercifully!—heals the boy in a flash. What interests me just now in this tale is what happens a little later: "The disciples came to Jesus privately and said, Why could we not cast it out?" (v. 19)

Private why questions—along with the disciples, most of us have them. There exist for many of us persistent questions about ourselves, our lot in life, or about the nature of things, questions that we only reveal under the blanket of assured privacy, if then. The disciples had failed the boy publically, so they must query Jesus about their bankruptcy privately. Not dissimilarly, many a Christian seems to feel a great burden to wear a cool, confident and consistent faith out in the open, but in private is quite riddled with questions and uncertainties. More subtly, I notice pastorally how often someone precedes their heartfelt, quite legitimate question of faith with the self-deprecating sidebar, "I know this is a stupid question, but …" Even more troubling: "I know we are not supposed to question things, but …" (I hear this one most often around matters of grief and sorrow.)

But a pastor must ask: When did why questions become off limits for the people of Jesus-faith? When did the earnest query become a marker for doubting disbelief? When did trusting Christ as Lord and Savior stop meaning that one is a "steward of God's mysteries" (1 Corinthians 4:1, emphasis mine) and start meaning that one must have all matters of reality, justice, and truth sown up tightly in one's understanding? It just seems to me that a person who never has a why question is a person either no longer living or no longer paying attention. Of all the things circling around Blacksburg these days, only weeks after the terrible events of April 16, certainly some of them are questions of why? And I would hope that the Christians of that village are leading the way in those prayers, even as they also minister to many hurts.

To be sure, I can appreciate what folks are worried about with why questions. No one wants to get stuck in an endless loop of disheartening uncertainty. Furthermore, there is a kind of questioning of God that is not so interested in answers as it is in entrenching doubt. Frigid, encrusted questions shot at heaven out of cynicism or despair; questions born, not of faith, but of spiritual frostiness. When a scoffer asks a believer, "Why would a good God allow this to happen?" it is important to determine if she really wants to know or if she is simply hoping it will make you squirm. We Christians are sympathetic to the former, but not the latter.

And of course neither do I have in view here the kind of questioning that assumes one has a leg up on God. Our prayers are not about the business of trapping God, as if such a thing were even possible. I suspect one reason people sequester their why questions is to avoid provoking God's very righteous reply. No one wants to be old Job, who has to endure God's billowing responses from the "whirlwind" to his queries (see Job 38-40). I once asked someone if they were struggling with any why questions after a personal tragedy. "I have them, but I'm not asking them. I am afraid I might get an answer." Fair enough.

But there is a kind of why question that is a deep prayer of trust and hope, not a threat either to our faith or to God's infinitude. I notice in the Psalter that why questions appear almost three dozen times (Ps. 2:1; 10:1, 13; 22:1; 42:5, 9, 11; 43:2, 5; 44:23f; 49:5; 52:1; 68:16; 74:1, 11; 79:10; 80:12; 88:14; 114:5; 115:2). The Psalter—that canonized collection of prayers intended to be the language we borrow to engage the living God. That the whys would be canonized in our Old Testament suggests remarkable permission to pray in a mode that asks God what in the world is going on—literally. Furthermore, I notice that the disciples fervently ask Jesus why he was a sleeping during the horrendous storm in Mark 4, and I notice a dozen other examples of the disciples bringing their queries to the Lord (Matt. 13:10; 17:10, 19; 26:8; Mk. 9:28; Jn. 4:27, to name a few). Bottom line: I believe it is permissible to join the psalmist and the disciples in making our why questions a matter of deep prayer and pondering.

Why, O Lord, did the Tech shooter have to take so many lives down with him? How can a person become so lost, so ill as to undercut your indelible gift of life? Why do these events always feel so hopelessly random? Why are these actions allowed to transpire at all? Why must tragedy transpire in order for people to rise to the calling of community and compassion?

To pray in this way is not to "question" God's power or providence, it is in fact to trust very deeply in it. I heap up all my whys to the living God because I know that the Godhead is the proper place for them. I heap them to God, already aware that there are in fact answers to my questions—in God's life, if nowhere else. The one who gives me life, and life abundant in Christ Jesus, is surely the only proper one to receive and hear my pleas for understanding and wisdom. Furthermore, if the church is indeed a priesthood of all believers, then that priesthood moves in two directions: yes, the more obvious mediating of God's word to one another and to the world, but also the mediating of the world's questions of why (along with everyone other kind of prayer on behalf of others). It is because of our trust in God that we ask, not because we doubt God's goodness or grace in the first place.

As a child asks why to a parent in order to grow in understanding and wisdom, so the church prays why in order to mature as God's covenant people, and to be better stewards of our witness to Christ and his presence among those who suffer. After a tragedy that shakes our confidence, the chief difference between a God-scoffer and God-child is not so much the content of our questions as it is the disposition of our heart, the posture of our prayers. The derider might be asking why to distance himself from God; I'm asking why to draw even closer.

Will answers come to our questions as we pray them? Maybe not. Some questions run as deep and long as the history of humanity. But then again, maybe they do. I can bear witness to the truth that earnest prayer, coupled with diligent reading of the scripture, bathed in a mode of worship and praise, can in fact ferret out new insights and a palpable peace. (Once, while wrestling in my mind over the state of the world's madness, overcome with worry, I stumbled onto 1 Peter 3:9. Suddenly, I was swept up in a certain new peace. Even more, I found new insight into what the Lord might be up to in allowing the creation to languish a little longer: Had the Lord not delayed this long, you and I would not know God's grace.) Yet even if answers do not come so readily, our prayers and ponderings are still important. First, to squelch our genuine questions is not only to hide them from God—impossible!—but also to hide them from ourselves. It's just good to be honest with ourselves, lest our faith become mostly about convincing ourselves we are in control and less about trusting God alone. But second, it's good to the keep the channels open, the pathway cleared between the church and the Triune God. Praying is simply what we do, and our ponderous questions about the nature of things are but one way we open our ourselves before the reality of God. Whether we pray …

Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (Psalm 44)


Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me. (Psalm 23)

… either way, we are praying to the Lord alone.

Sisters and brothers, we look forward to a day when God will be all in all, when the troubles and trials that threaten the church and creation are subdued by God's lasting peace, and when our why questions of God (Why do these things happen?) will fully and finally give way to God's why questions of us (Why do you look for the living among the dead?). The day of resurrection, the day of the Lord—God's final answer to all our pressing questions.