Most people know there is a rather intimidating portrait in the Old Testament of a stormy Yahweh thundering from Sinai. It is a portrait to give one healthy pause. It reminds us that “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29), the awful and perfect Judge who can see into the tiniest cranny of conscience and whose fingers twined the very DNA in our bones. Most people also know Scripture is replete with exhortations to humility and reminders that the ways of the Lord are past knowing, and that His judgements are as unsearchable as the great deep. Thus, many a sloppy reader of Scripture has gotten the idea that one of the central messages of the Bible is, “Don’t ask questions or God’ll getcha.”
But for all this tiptoe tread in the presence of the Absolute, there is another theme throughout Scripture as well. For, so far from being forbidden to question God, man is expected and even invited to do so. The creature — sometimes with hesitance, sometimes in anguish, sometimes in curiosity, and sometimes with a sort of shocking familiarity — dares to ask God what is going on here, what He is doing, whether He is just, whether He is loving, why we seem to get such a raw deal at times, why we die, why the wicked appear to get off scot free, why the poor get ripped off, and, in short, what it’s all about, Alfie.
How can this be?
It can be because God takes us seriously as persons, and persons ask questions. Therefore, God calls us to ask questions and even, despite His omniscience and immutability, puts a few questions to us.
Consider Abraham, our father in faith and the great model of trust in God to which both Old and New Testaments point. “Abraham believed God,” say both Genesis and Romans, “and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
So how is Abraham’s trust expressed? In Genesis 19:16-33, we find out. God reveals to Abraham that He will destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet, instead of simply bowing to God’s will as distant, immutable, and unquestionable, Abraham does two enormously significant things. First (v. 23), he draws nearer to God. Then, in that intimacy, he questions God. “What if there are 50 innocent people in the city?” he asks. “Surely you won’t condemn the innocent?” God replies He will not destroy it for their sake.
Then Abraham dickers God down. What if there are 45? Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Ten? Abraham is, in fact, making an appeal to God: attempting to change His mind by reminding Him that His own glory would be impugned if He condemned the just. And in every case, God receives Abraham and his questions and replies that He will not harm the city for the sake of the handful of the innocent. Abraham’s questions, so far from calling down fire from heaven on himself or Sodom, turn out to be the opposite of sin. They are the fruit of his friendship with God and bring him into deeper union with Him.
Strangely, this way of questioning faith is manifest in another Old Testament character we may not necessarily mention in the same breath with Abraham: Job. He, too, is a man consumed with questions for God, many of them very demanding indeed. “I will give myself up to complaint,” he cries out in his pain. “I will speak from the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God: Do not put me in the wrong! Let me know why you oppose me. Is it a pleasure for you to oppress, to spurn the work of your hands, and smile on the plan of the wicked?” (Job 13:3).
Stark, strong words, those. Yet, at the end of the book of Job, we find God smiles on them. Indeed, He smiles on them far more than on Job’s glib, theologically correct friends. For God tells them, after they have just spent 40-odd chapters saying one textbook-perfect thing after another, that they “have not spoken rightly concerning me, as has my servant Job” (Job 42:7).
What has Job spoken rightly, and what have his friends spoken wrongly? From a human perspective, not much. Job has not, like his friends, said polite, pious things about how all his suffering must be due to his sin. But he has done something his friends never dream of doing: He has spoken to God, and not merely about Him. That is, Job stays with God. And in this he has, in his own way, acted like Abraham. He has drawn near to God (and God to him) at the very moment he thinks himself abandoned. His friends, meanwhile, have kept a safe distance from the Almighty, folding Him neatly into the tidy pages of a booklet on moral exhortation. As a result, Job becomes, of all things, their intercessor and high priest before God (Job 42:8-9). By his willingness to draw near, not only he, but even those who have tormented him, enter into union with God. The circle of salvation expands to include not just the petition of Job, but Job’s friends as well.
This pattern repeats and builds in Exodus. In Exodus 32:11-14, Moses pleads for Israel not to be annihilated after they have despised himself and the Lord by the sin of the Golden Calf (just the way Abraham pled for Sodom not to be annihilated). And Moses, too, cries out a question: “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand?” Moses also appeals to God’s own glory. Most amazingly, God, the Immutable One, changes His mind and allows the people, after they have been punished and purified (not annihilated), to enter into His covenant through Moses, whose questioning intercession has saved them. Once again, union with God and questioning God go hand in hand. But here another dimension is added: Not just Moses but all Israel is included in the circle of salvation.
And so it remains through the Old Testament. Jeremiah, fighting to save Israel and receiving nothing but persecution from his countrymen, asks why he was born and, in the midst of his prophetic career, cries out (under inspiration!), “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped; you were too strong for me, and you triumphed” (Jer 20:7). Like Moses and the prophets, Jeremiah demands to know why the Almighty has selected him for all the anguish. Likewise, the Psalms cry out, “O Lord, how long? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealousy burn like fire?” (Ps 79:5) and pose God pointed questions like, “Why, O God, have you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?” (Ps 74:1) after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Yet none of these questions are asked in the rage and rejection of God that one finds in an atheist. Rather, they are again expressions of faith, reminding God (and Israel) that God is good, and that He must therefore act to bring justice out of this evil. “You are my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake you will lead and guide me” (Ps 31:4).
In this way, they become the questions not just of the writer, but of the whole nation. And so, the answers God gives likewise become answers not merely to the prophets and psalmists, but to the nation as well. All Israel, the good and the bad, having been brought into relationship with God through Moses and his questions, is brought ever more deeply into relationship with God through the ones He chooses, both priest and prophet, to voice the questions of the people and His own answers (and questions) for them.
For, of course, God has a few questions of his own. “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been foretold to you from the beginning? Have you not understood?” asks the prophet Isaiah (Is 40:21). “Dare a man rob God?” asks God through the prophet Malachi (Mal 3:8). “Hear now, house of Israel! Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair?” asks God through the prophet Ezekiel (Ez 18:25). Why all the inquisitiveness on the part of Omniscience? For the same reason He encourages our questions: that we may know Him and ourselves better. All the questions of God find their fountainhead in the question He put to Adam long ago: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). All of them are asked in order that we may come out of hiding and draw near to Him.
This ever-expanding and deepening call to relationship finds its consummation in Jesus Christ. For He too receives and asks questions in the ancient tradition of Abraham, Moses, and the prophets. Like them, He does so that others may be drawn into the circle of salvation.
“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” asks Peter (Mt 18:21). “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” asks John the Baptist (Lk 7:19). “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” ask the Pharisees (Mk 2:16). “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” ask the disciples (Mt 18:1). “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” asks the rich young man (Lk 18:18). “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?” asks Martha (Lk 10:40). “How can a person once grown old be born again?” asks Nicodemus (Jn 3:4). “Why were these things not sold and the money given to the poor?” asks Judas Iscariot. In all these questions, both the faithful and the faithless, Jesus is the focal point, acting as prophet, priest ,and king — and, in His turn, drawing even His enemies into the circle of redemption where they must make a decision about Him. For, in the end, He puts to everyone the question He put to His disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?” (Lk 9:20). By His questions to us, as much as by our questions to Him, He reveals both His heart and ours.
Nowhere is this dynamic more stark than in the Passion. When Jesus reveals that one of the disciples will betray Him, they all react with horror, each of them asking with genuine terror, “Is it I, Lord?” (Mt 26:20-25). They ask because, like the psalmist, they desire that He “probe me and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts. See if my way is crooked, and lead me in the way of old” (Ps 139:23-24). In short, they ask in order to draw near, to know the truth about themselves, no matter how frightening. But when Judas asks, “Is it I?” he does so to obscure the truth about himself, to blend into the crowd, to remain indistinguishable from the rest of the disciples. Like Adam, he chooses to hide from God (Gen 3:8-10). And, in hiding, he is revealed by another question: “Are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Lk 22:48).
The following afternoon, because of Judas’s choice, Christ crucified will gasp out an even more terrible question that fuses the faith of Abraham and the faithlessness of Judas in one unthinkable moment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). Jesus, crucified for the sins even of Judas, will experience in body and soul the separation from God that Judas (and all of us) have merited in Adam. Yet paradoxically, even in His abandonment, Christ crucified speaks to God with the faith of Abraham. He calls him not merely “God,” but “my God.” He remains intimate even in despair. Like Job, like Jeremiah, like the author of Psalm 22 whom Jesus quotes, our Lord stays with God the Father. In so doing, He carries in His marrow all the questions, faithless and faithful, man and woman have ever put to God. He who does not know sin becomes sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21) and “share in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). The circle of salvation now extends to the whole world.
And that is the secret at the heart of this God who calls us to trust and yet question. For God, all along, has meant to give us — all of us — Himself and, with Himself, the power to give ourselves to Him as His Son does, if we will accept Him. He treats us like persons who are “little Christs” sharing in the infinite life of the Three Persons of the Godhead, if only we will not refuse the offer. For, in the words of C. S. Lewis, He aims to make each human being a creature that, “if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship” — perfected and completed to share in the great eternal exchange of love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is why, as Lewis also observes, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”
That, in the end, is why Abraham and his children were welcomed with all their questions. For it really is true that God loved them, therefore it could not but be true that He took them (and their questions) seriously and treated them as persons destined for eternity. None were rebuked for tugging God’s sleeve, and none discovered anything that destroyed their faith, so long as they drew near to God as Abraham did. For there is not and never can be a question harder than the one Jesus of Nazareth put to His Father as He hung crucified. Therefore, we are urged to be like great figures of Scripture and, above all, like Jesus Christ; to draw near and to ask, for in doing so He will draw near to us (Jas 4:8). And we too shall be children of Abraham — and children of God.
Image: Job, Leon Bonnat