Even though it happens with regularity, I am still always amazed at how God works. That’s what I felt on Monday when I looked at this week’s lectionary texts, and, after preaching last Sunday about asking a better question, found this text from Job, who is seeking to do just that.
Job is in a tough place—his whole world has literally collapsed around him and he is asking questions. It’s in the asking of his questions, in the demanding that God shows up with a response, that Job discovers just how it is that God can and will help him live in the chaotic, painful, arduous world he is in.
Indeed, there is much for us to learn from Job’s questions—questions that so often sound like our questions. But the difference in them is the discovery that Job makes.
English comedian and actor Stephen Fry, who is a self-declared atheist, was interviewed by Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne. Byrne said to Fry, “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say?”
Fry responded, “Bone cancer in children; what’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world where there is such misery that’s not our fault? Why should I respect a God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?”
The interview was posted on YouTube, where, within days, it was viewed over 5,000,000 times. Not surprisingly responses to the clip ranged from admiration to anger. Some felt he was attacking religion, others felt he was simply saying what many already think.
You can form your own opinion about Fry’s statement but he did connect with many people when he said he’d question why God did certain things we mortals don’t like. Many of us have likely had similar thoughts.
So just imagine if you could have a face to face talk with God— with the assurance that God would answer one question for you. What question would you ask? Perhaps, you’d ask: Why am I suffering from cancer? Why are some of us capable of child abuse? Why the earthquakes in Nepal, Haiti, Chile? Why the evil of ISIS? Why the unending conflict in the Middle East? Why do you allow the Boko Harum to kill hundreds of innocent women and girls? Why the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide?
There’s almost no limit to the questions we’d ask God, and not just out of idle curiosity, but because all of us experience pain and grief—all common to the human condition.
We are invested in the questions we’d ask and we think, God’s answers will help us deal with this human condition. But they are questions that have but one answer—God didn’t make any of these things to happen…they just happen.
Not very comforting or helpful words I suppose. But fortunately Job’s can be.
Job 23 is part of a larger section (including chapter 24) in which Job, who is suffering tremendously, responds to his friends who are pressing him to repent of the sins they believe he must have committed. They see his losses and misery as evidence that he has done wrong.
Throughout all this Job maintains his innocence, but here he also laments that there’s no place where he can put his case before God to receive a verdict of “Not guilty.” He says, “Oh, that I knew where I might find him … I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me.” In other words, Job wants his day in court with God, and wants God to answer a question for him. And Job seems confident that if he could only get such an audience, he’d be acquitted and vindicated.
And isn’t that how we all feel—what we all want? We want God to answer for all we don’t like about life. Unfortunately that’s not how God works. But that does not mean God is not at work.
If we read the whole book of Job we find that, while God does eventually respond to Job, God never answers Job’s question. And that’s how it often is for us, too. We can pose all kinds of questions, but if we’re waiting for God to answer them, we may have to wait a lifetime. And the reason for this is because some things just don’t have answers—which means we need to stop expecting answers, stop blaming God for all that happens, stop listening to those who do, and find a better way of living within, and through, the chaos and pain that is part of the human condition.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) wrote:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers which cannot be given you, because you would not be able to live them. The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
This is all very poetic, and sounds powerful and transformative, but what does it mean to live the questions? What does it mean to live into the answer? And even more importantly, how do we do it?
One method of “how?” might be that of an unidentified author who wrote for the Co-Intelligence Institute—a non-profit agency that seeks to expand the theory and practices of broadening human intelligence for a more harmonious world. The contributing author tells of being in a dialogue group where one of the exercises was a conversation consisting entirely of questions. The participants could talk about any topic that came up, but could not make statements, only ask questions. The author says she or he— again the author is unidentified— found the experience to be “profoundly transformative.”
It was reported that in such an exercise, several different types of questions will arise, which led the author to say, “There were questions such as: statements masquerading as questions, rhetorical questions, open-ended questions, questions that simply direct attention, strategic questions, questions that modify, overlap or focus on some portion of another question, or link the issues of a previous question to another area of inquiry, etc.”
This author added, “Powerful questions simultaneously open up and focus attention. This exercise is a great opportunity to explore what relationship we can have to questions other than answering them,” which is exactly what we see coming out of Job. He asks his questions, and in asking them he discovers a broader understanding of God.
“Ultimately,” the author writes, “questions can take us deeper into the meaning of our lives.” That is, we don’t have to have the answers in order for our questions to push out the boundaries of our lives. We don’t have to have answers from God to believe that God is at work.
We don’t have to have answers in order to get out of bed in the morning. We just need to have enough breath to ask the questions because in the asking of questions there is energy, desire, drive, fuel, empowerment to live. “When we ask questions in our conversations,” said the author, “we are in dialogue with the people around us. When we live the questions as a way of life, we are in dialogue with life itself.”
And with that said, the author offers an analogy that I absolutely love. They write, “Living into a question is like living with a fruit tree that continually generates fruit for our nourishment— in this case questions. There is never anything final about any particular apple from an apple tree. More will follow. Apples don’t answer, they just nourish. And they are full of seeds, as well.”
Our questions bring about more questions. But what is waiting for us to discover is that our questions—even and maybe particularly the ones that go unanswered—are questions that produce life giving nourishment. Just as God is an unanswered mystery, God is always providing us life giving nourishment.
This concept is not new. Christian groups have used questions for guidance on spiritual journeys for decades. The Methodist church used what was called “accountability clusters” that asked its members questions about their successes and failures in living as God calls. The Quakers still have what they call “queries,” which are a series of questions used for individual and collective reflection, spiritual growth and prayer.
Quaker Martin Grundy tells of one experience, saying, “One query had us considering simply, ‘How do we recognize what we are called to be obedient to?’ As people spoke to it, the silence deepened and lengthened between speakers. Finally, the speaking ceased altogether, and we were wrapped together in quietness and love. The clerk ended the meeting, but we were loath to leave. We were in the presence of God, and found it good.”
In the end, perhaps that’s what we should expect from our questions for God—not answers, but a dialogue with life and the experience of God’s profound presence.
If you watch the Stephen Fry interview, you may be struck by the passion with which he posed his question to God. There’s a palpable, personal anger there that leaves this outspoken atheist looking a little like a Job figure, in spite of himself. The problem though is that he is likely to never experience this dialogue, discovery, or the presence of God, because he’s not initiating the conversation from a point of faith—he’s convinced there is no God.
Job, on the other hand, had a question for God and though he got no answer, he remained convinced that God was real, and, eventually, his questions put him in a position to be confronted, nourished, and helped—by God.
When we ask our questions—like that of Job—and stop listening to the irrational baseless responses that come from the superficial know-it-alls—and instead try to love the questions as we live into them; and permit the questions to push us to places of energy, desire, drive, and empowerment to live; then we can, like Job, begin to gain a sense of God’s presence that is deeper and far more life giving than we ever imagined.
So may we, like Job, ask our questions, and demand that God respond. For by do so, we may not get answers, but we will get the nourishment we need to live. All by asking, and living, our questions. Amen.