Questions

Here at the half century mark, I find myself looking back as much or more than looking ahead.  It’s not that I want to dwell in the past.  There’s just more of my road behind me than ahead, and while I do enjoy the journey, I also enjoy remembering and reflecting on where I’ve been.  I remember when I was young and questioned everything.  One night, as my family had made the trip to visit my paternal grandparents, I was lying in bed in the cramped, hot upstairs bedroom with the peeling wallpaper and the slanted walls that made standing up difficult except directly under the peak of the roof.  My dad and I were bunking together that trip, and I was full of questions.  “How does the moon shine at night?”  “How does a wasp make a nest?”  Those were two I distinctly remember from that session.  I was young and my mind was a sponge, soaking up every fact I could discover.  (I probably learned a few things along the way I shouldn’t have, but that’s beside the point and a topic for different essay.)

One of the first things I talk about with my intro biology classes is that in science, you have to be curious and be able to ask good questions.  I talk about how young children ask questions naturally.  They want to know and learn everything.  It can be annoying, but it’s also fun.  Somewhere along the way—usually around the middle school years—kids lose their inquisitive nature.  They either have it leached from them by too much technology, or they have it wrung out of them by school curricula that are designed to foster inquiry, but may end up stifling it.  It is particularly unfortunate that girls seem to lose their sense of questioning and wonder to an even greater extent than boys.  At least that has been my experience, watching cohort after cohort of students enter the university.  Were it not for the fact that women now outnumber men 3:2 at my institution, I would likely see far fewer women in my classes. 

I read an article the other day that briefly talked about what happens when we stop asking questions in the realm of faith.  The suggestions were not very positive, and I must say, I fully agreed with the author’s assessment.  When we stop asking questions, we stop growing.  We need people to ask the hard questions in every generation so that we do not become stale and complacent in our knowledge.  We need people who need to know something so fiercely that they will risk their good standing in their church to know it.  Questioning takes courage.  Complacency is for the fearful and cowardly.     

But why are questions so important?  Well, for one thing, questions are a way of learning.  When we have the presence of mind to understand that we don’t know something, we need to fill in that void.  We ask a question.  We may ask ourselves, we may ask a friend, we may ask an expert, or we may ask God.  How so?  By opening our hearts and minds to see all of the possibilities in scripture, not the pat answers handed down by the leaders of bygone generations.  Much of what we accept as doctrine may not be completely rooted in historical and contextual accuracy.  Much of what we accept as doctrine may be little more than the opinion of one or more leaders in the 19th or 20th centuries who was able to yell a little louder, print a few more papers, or gather a few more pew warmers to rubberstamp their conclusions.

If you have ever read the Gospel accounts of the teaching career of Jesus of Nazareth, you would know that he used two very effective teaching methods to reinforce his message:  the parable and the question-and-answer session.  Jesus began mastering this from an early age as is shown in Luke 2.46-52, in the account of his disappearance from his parents’ traveling company, and the occasion of his solo appearance at the Temple.

“46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” 49 And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them.

51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”

In his first great public speaking engagement as recorded in the Matthew 5-7, near the end of the teaching Jesus says,

Matthew 7.7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”

I’m fairly certain Jesus wasn’t talking about material possessions in excess of one’s needs, so contrary to the request in the old song, no Mercedes-Benz requests, please.  I think he was talking about intangibles like knowledge, wisdom, guidance, forgiveness, mercy, peace and grace.  If we never ask for wisdom, as James asserts in James 1, we cannot expect to receive it.  It is logical to assume that while the others in this list may certainly be granted unilaterally, an appropriate request from an honest heart is likely to be heard and fulfilled. 

In general, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Bible would recognize that it is full of questions.  They are there to teach, to clarify, and to focus.  With that in mind, let’s look at a few questions. 

First, consider the scene in Luke 8, where Jesus and his disciples were in a boat, and a storm blew up unexpectedly.  They woke the sleeping teacher, absolutely certain they were all going to die.  He awoke, rebuked the winds and waves, and then asked one of the most important questions anyone could address.  In verse 25, he asks them, “Where is your faith?”  It isn’t that they never had faith, or that they had lost it.  I think he was asking them what or who they put their faith in.  If they truly had faith in him, they would have been less troubled by the weather. 

Another interesting question in the Bible is found in Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8.  After he writes some unknown inscription in the transient medium of the dust, he said in verse 7, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” 

In verse 9, we find him alone with this “sinful” woman standing quietly before him.  When no rocks flew, “10 Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”  It is interesting to see the juxtaposition of the righteous Jesus sitting in the presence of a sinful woman.  From our perspective it may seem odd.  But in that culture in that time, judges and teachers held forth from a seated position, and Jesus was already seated when the scene opened in verse 2.  As a judge, he dismissed her case perhaps on grounds of lack of evidence and the unreliability of the witnesses.  The silence of the retreating Pharisee accusers must have been deafening.  But for once, they got the message.  It is not right to hurl accusations and condemnations at others when we have our own problems to deal with.  Like they say in Minnesota, sweep off your own front porch.     

To the question, “Has no one condemned you?”, “11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.””  Jesus forgave the sin she had been accused of.  But he also gave her the stipulation not to sin anymore.  He didn’t mean, “Watch out, because the slightest infraction will condemn you from now on.”  He didn’t say, “Cover your tracks and don’t get caught.”  Anyone can make a mistake.  But if we refuse to learn from those mistakes, we stand condemned by our own actions.

One of the most important question and answer exchanges in scripture occurs in Matthew 16, when Jesus asks his disciples what the word on the street was regarding his identity.  In verse 14, the group came up with either John the Baptist, Isaiah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets.  What others said was not important.  In verse 15, Jesus wanted to know if his closest associates had internalized what he had been emphasizing from their earliest contact with him.  “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter’s reply is like the keystone of a gothic arch.  In verse 16, “Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  There had been many prophets, but none as powerful and authoritative as Jesus.  They had called people to righteousness, but none were able to forgive sins.

In the apostolic record, there are also some good questions.  In Acts 8, Philip the Evangelist finds himself in the company of a devout Jewish proselyte who served as the treasury minister in the court of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia.  When Philip is instructed to join the chariot, he saw that the Ethiopian was reading from the book of Isaiah.  He asked him a very important question in verse 30: “Do you understand what you are reading?”

Understanding is a quality or state of being that is important throughout the New Testament.  Philip could have just lit into this man and unloaded on him with both barrels.  But instead of bashing him with scripture and teaching new concepts of which the Ethiopian had no knowledge, Philip first found out where he was, spiritually.  In verse 35, “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.”  And very convincingly, it seems, since the Ethiopian requested baptism as soon as he understood his condition, and as soon as water was available.

How many times did Paul and the other writers use expressions like, “I do not want you to be ignorant,” or “I want you to understand”?  The best way to grow in this realm of knowledge is not to wait for someone to tell us everything, but to truly and actively seek for answers and greater understanding.  And this all begins with asking a question that may be no more complex than the toddlers’ favorite inquiry, “Why?”

While there are many very important questions throughout scripture, one of Paul’s greatest questions appears in his first letter to the Corinthians.  (Well, it was at least the second letter, but it’s the one that comes first in the canon.)  At any rate, he opens his letter noting the division that is rampant among the Corinthian believers.  They had formed parties, composed of some who were disciples of Apollos, some who followed Peter, some who followed Paul and some who claimed (either legitimately or schismatically) to follow Christ. 

Paul offer’s his series of three question in chapter 1, verse 13:  “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”  The second and third questions speak specifically to the issue of the object of loyalty.  He may have been flattered that people were loyal to him.  But he had made no sacrifice for them.  He had founded no religion that demanded his followers become “Paulites.” 

The first question speaks to the heart of people even today.  When we are tempted to withdraw our fellowship from someone with whom we disagree, we should remember this.  What is the foundation of our faith, and that of the other party?  Is it Christ, or is it some systematic interpretation?  Paul says that not everyone will build with equivalent materials.  But if the foundation is solid, we are all still building.    

So many times, I have heard Paul’s discussion in I Corinthians 1 and 3 used to decry the sin of “denominationalism.”  These passages were not about the incipient formation of denominations except in the extended sense that any full break in fellowship begins with division on a smaller scale.  Paul was specifically talking about division among the followers of the Way.  To tear down the temple composed of people, followers, all Christians, is to face condemnation (I Corinthians 3.17).  What if someone is a believer in Christ and is “building” with poorer quality material?  There will come a time when that poor quality will be revealed by fire.  But the honest builder, honestly laboring on the foundation of Christ, will survive the fire.  He will be saved, but his reward may be less than those whose building is more permanent and “fire-proof.”  But from that perspective it is better to enter heaven with nothing than to face the alternative.  Contrary to Milton’s Satan, it is truly better to serve in Heaven, than to reign in Hell.

So, how can people tear down the temple?  One clear application here is the tendency of some zealous activists to try and squelch every question that challenges their doctrines, their practices, or even their foundation.  If the foundation is Christ, there will be no shaking, because he is the solid rock.  If their foundation is their system of extra-scriptural doctrines elevated to equality with Christ, these can easily be shaken.  It is interesting to observe that in many cases, those most ready to join the demolition crew have for themselves the shakiest of foundations.

I have seen wise men and women in my day, and I have seen people with deep understanding.  But I have never seen anyone who has all wisdom and has attained all knowledge.  Paul’s message to the Corinthians is to “mind your own job of building.”  Don’t give up and quit.  To fail to build has the same effect as actively tearing down: it leaves the temple unfinished.

Questions are a means to an end.  They prod us to greater understanding, and honestly applied, will lead us to being stronger in our growing faith.  To pretend to have all knowledge and to prohibit others from using their God-given sense of curiosity and reason is to return to the dark ages, when knowledge was a weapon used to control the masses.  Real growth requires real learning, which requires real questions and leads to real liberty.  Jesus commended little children, perhaps for their trust and faith, but maybe he appreciated their burning desire to learn, and know and grow.  What did Jesus really mean there?  Maybe that’s a question I’ll find an answer to someday.      

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One Response to Questions

  1. Pingback: A Pause to Reflect on Reaching 100 Posts | the trail is the thing

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