[[This was originally a Facebook note, written in September 2012. I thought I’d post it here as a starting point, because it explains why I’m doing so much asking and not much answering at the moment.]]
My dad is a little odd, and so as well as postcards on our fridge and a sign that says ‘Mad House’ on the kitchen door, we also have a cartoon in our downstairs toilet – you can see it here:http://www.cartoonchurch.com/content/cc/i-have/
Being someone who would place themselves on the left hand side of this cartoon, both evangelical and vaguely charismatic, I’ve come to think it’s a shame that we tend to consider questioning a ‘liberal’ thing to do. (I also think there’s a place for crossing ourselves and such things in evangelical worship, but that’s another story.) The rest of us are missing out, perhaps through fear.
A few years ago I heard a testimony from a young woman at my church who had lived in a Muslim country, and grown up in a Muslim tradition in which she felt there was no space for questions and for doubts. Not knowing nearly enough about Islam I couldn’t comment on how true this is of Islamic teaching as a whole, but at least in the experience of this young woman, to question God would be among the worst things she could do. She spoke of the freedom she found in discovering that the God of the Bible was big enough to take our questions, our doubts, our wonderings and our confusion.
When I heard this, it rung true in my experience. I had some friends who were, in their own ways, interested in my faith. Some tentatively curious, others more opinionated and up for debate. The advice I was given by older Christians was to encourage them to question – that it’s good to be questioning who we are, why we’re here, and what the world is about. It’s even better to question who Jesus was, how we know, why he might have come and if we can trust him. It’s good to ask what relevance God could possibly have for my life and whether I want in. Evangelicals love questioning, when it’s done by people who don’t know Jesus, because we trust that in the midst of their searching and questioning, God will meet them with answers, with truth that will draw them to him.
But what about those of us who are on the ‘other side’ of that process? Those of us who have asked who Jesus is, why he came and whether we can trust him, and who have concluded that all signs point to yes? What is our attitude to questions then? In my experience, we’re more inclined towards fear when Christians start to ask questions. Just think of the way we talk about those initial questions of those who are not Christians, questions like “Why so much suffering?” “Is God homophobic?” “What about when good people don’t believe the right thing?” We consider these ‘stumbling blocks’, barriers that need to be broken down before someone is willing to consider Jesus. We address these issues over lunchtime talks of our mission weeks before the focus on the important questions about Jesus in the evenings.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that at all, because these are real and important questions that need to be taken seriously alongside our conversations with people about Jesus Christ. But the implication is that these are questions for the not-yet-Christian, which the now-become-Christian won’t need to ask anymore. After all, they’ve been answered in a series of lunchtime talks. So when a follower of Jesus starts to ask questions like these, or keeps asking the questions even having heard the lunchtime talk answers, when a Christian goes through personal experiences that leave them struggling to accept the black and white answers they once had and needs to explore the grey, the evangelical instinct kicks in. It’s like there’s a little radar system in conservative churches, so we can home in on those who are wrestling with big questions, and sort out their confusion. With all the best intentions in the world, we want to sit them down and remind them of what they heard at that lunchtime talk a few years ago. To take them back to the clear cut, Biblical view that they used to find made perfect sense. While doing so might be helpful in some situations, and I know I have been really encouraged by friends who’ve wisely opened up the Bible with me and reminded me of the things that God says to us there, we also risk losing something very important and very Biblical – the art of questioning.
As my friend giving her testimony found, the God we meet in the Bible is big enough to take our questions, our frustrations, our experiences and our confusion – and He even gives us models in the Bible of how to question! Start reading the Psalms, the prophets, stories of people God called throughout the history of his people, and you can’t escape the cries and the questions – “why the suffering, God? How long, God? What are you doing, God? Is this what you meant, God? Has something gone wrong, God? I don’t understand, God.” The remarkable thing is that these questioners are not turned away by God but loved by Him. They don’t always get the answers they want; sometimes the answer isn’t the important thing. But God uses the questions – sometimes the answers are so surprising that they force God’s people to press in closer and depend on him more (see Habakkuk 1:5 – “you won’t believe the answer even if I tell you. Look and be amazed.”) Sometimes the very process of questioning and crying out to God is what leads to a deeper understanding of all He’s been doing, and lead us to more confident prayer (try Psalm 13 or 74). The point is, God can take our questions, we only have to open the Bible to see that.
So in our well intentioned encouragements, in our barrier-breaking talks, in our walk alongside friends who seem to have landed in a patch of grey – please let’s not seek to rid the journey of questions, let’s not leave all the puzzling to our more liberal brothers and sisters. If God is big enough to handle them, we’d hope our churches can be too. Perhaps we could pray that God will show us more of Himself even through our questions, as He did so many times for those who wondered long before us.