Thursday, December 21, 2006

The hard questions

We have a problem in the church where as soon as you start contemplating questions out loud that spring more from honest struggle than orthodox thought, you get cluck-clucked into silence. Yet I’ve known lots of people who wonder, for instance, if God is evil, or if he’s just up there toying with us, or if he’s playing some kind of cruel joke. I’ve heard lots of gay Christian people ask why God has allowed them to be homosexual, thus consigning them to the hardships and ostracization that come along with that. (Even if you believe, as many do, that God created you gay, it only pushes the question back a step to why God would knowingly create someone to be a part of such a persecuted minority.) But you don’t have to be homosexual to be able to relate to having such questions. I think everyone who walks by faith has to deal with them at some level or other.

I’m still recovering from an emotionally draining study on Job I did for a women’s retreat last October. But I also came away inspired by Job’s gutsy confrontation of hard questions, where he pretty much accuses God of wronging him, of trashing his life for no good reason. See, normally when we study Job at church, we hear about the first part of the book, how God took everything away from Job, and how Job responded submissively and did not abandon his faith. But then the whole middle section, where Job’s three friends argue with him and Job starts asking tough questions, gets glossed over really quickly. Instead we skip to the end, where God appears to Job in the whirlwind, Job puts his hand over his mouth, God restores Job’s family life and wealth, and Job rides off into the sunset.

The reason the middle section gets glossed over is that it’s too gnarly to deal with. Job accuses God of being unjust, perverse, sadistic, you name it. Plus, it is dissatisfying because God doesn’t answer Job point by point. In the end it is faith that buoys Job, for in the midst of these accusations he brings, he is also clinging to the hope that God will give him answers. Yet when God does finally answer Job, God points merely to himself. And not mainly to his acts of moral goodness, as you would expect, but to the evidence of his greatness, wisdom and power. So Job is left to decide. Are his questions and his anger and his perplexity so great that they ought to outweigh his faith in the God who created all these wonders?

I think this is what it’s like for us too. I don’t think it does us any good to run from the hard questions. Job didn’t. I think we have to bravely ask them and determine what we really think. Do we really think God is evil? Cruel? Sadistic? In my own ponderings I’ve decided that I won’t answer those questions based on someone else’s relationship with God. You can always ask why God allows people to starve or get tortured or become orphaned or whatever. But that’s how God is dealing with another person’s life, not mine, and besides you will always meet people who’ve been through really bad stuff who can tell you with all honesty that God has been good to them. How God works in other people’s lives will always remain a mystery to those of us who aren’t them. As Aslan says in the Chronicles of Narnia: “That’s his/her story. That’s not your story.”

When I look at my own "story" I see that God has been good to me. Overwhelmingly good, far beyond what I deserve. The times I question his goodness are when I’ve asked him for something that I thought was good and I felt I got something evil in return. To borrow from Jesus’ words, I asked for bread and feel like I got a snake back. Likewise, I’ve known plenty of people who have prayed for years for God to take away their homosexuality, God didn’t do it, and they had to deal with all the consequences of that. I’ve known gay people who entered into opposite sex marriages, thinking they were submitting to God’s creation design, only to have it blow up in their faces years down the road. They too feel like they got a snake in return for their sincere, godly prayers.

Again, I don’t know why these things happen in other people’s lives. But there is one thing I’ve learned in my own life from walking by faith these twenty years, namely, that I can’t tell at any given moment how things will turn out, or whether there is a greater purpose for this apparent evil that’s befallen me. Faith pushes forward, seeking to know the good that will come out of it. My faith, for reasons that are often a mystery to me, cannot rest satisfied with the conclusion that God hates me and is out there screwing up my life. Even during the times I think that, I know deep down that I don’t really believe it, and I find myself waiting around for further developments. And I find that the things I do know about God, his great love for me, how he gave his Son to die for my sins, how the wonders he displays in his creation point to the far greater wonders of heaven, all these certainties draw my faith forward, and make me unwilling to wallow permanently in the apparent despair of passing circumstances.

So I weigh my certainty in the goodness of God against the doubts I have which are tentative, and I can only conclude that I ought to wait and hope. While it is not the answer, from the perspective of faith it is answer enough, enough to keep me seeking what the next chapter in my story might hold.