Preschoolers often ask questions that are relatively easy to answer:
Mommy, do fish swim around in your tummy with the baby?
Can we dig a hole through to the other side of the earth?
How does Santa get into the house if there isn’t a chimney?
Are there toilets in heaven?
These young ones aren’t looking for deep answers. Complex scientific, philosophical, or theological responses are not necessary. Simple, concise, and to the point works just fine. Don’t get me wrong; they want real answers, just not long explanations. Children are much too busy engaging in their work, that is the thought-provoking world of play, to spend time listening to a long answer.
Adults are different. A simplistic answer does not provide the soul-satisfying nourishment that adults so desperately need, especially when it comes to matters of faith and our relationship with the Almighty.
When faced with hard questions from another believer, it is easy for Christians to glibly respond: Pray about it. Trust God. Have faith. The implication is that the question stems from a deficit in one of these areas. We need to do better than this. Hard questions deserve thoughtful responses, even if it means admitting we don’t always have an answer.
It can be hard enough to answer the spoken question, but do we recognize that the question does not always come in the form of an interrogative? There have been occasions when someone has opened their heart to me and I have gotten a glimpse of inner turmoil. Although these questions were never spoken, I think they were being asked: Is God in control of this situation? Is He aware of what I am going through? Does He even care?
I have also seen people who are in distressing situations have uncharacteristic outbursts of anger. In their anger I see the questions: Where is God now? Why isn’t He coming to my rescue? Why did He allow this to happen? I think that questions can even be heard in silence. Sometimes the subject is so painful it can’t even be raised, so the questions remain unasked. However, with careful listening we may sense that unspoken question and consider how to bring it out into the open.
Listening well takes time and it may include a degree of discomfort for us. It seems to be in our nature to want to ‘fix’ things quickly. We want to avoid the messiness that moves to the surface when we allow others the freedom to share their struggles. And their struggles may raise for us questions that seem better left unnoticed and unasked. Hence, the quick exhortations to pray, trust, and have faith. The ‘spiritual’ answer gives us a sense of relief and we feel free to move on. But what about our friend who raised the question? Has our answer really helped them? Or do we leave them behind, watching us retreat, with their soul still crying out for nourishment?
I think it is the rare person who has never been the one with the questions, the doubts, the disappointment with God. Do you remember how that felt? Did you feel free to express yourself with honesty, or did you recognize that what you were saying was somehow taboo? Have you been on the receiving end of the trite answers? It may have left you with the worrisome sense that there were no satisfying answers to your question. Did you ever have a question met with a hint of hostility? Their response may have had nothing to do with you, but rather with their own uncertainties.
Once, when I was a very young Christian, I went with a group of people to see a faith-healer. It was a large venue with thousands of people in attendance. I was fascinated by the healer’s flowing white robes and her theatrical gestures, but it also made me very uneasy. I was struggling to see how she meshed with the God with whom I was just becoming acquainted. After the service I ventured to express my doubts to an older Christian. In effect, I was asking: What is this all about? What does God think about those flowing robes and the theatrics? I have never forgotten her response. She quickly held up a hand as though to say “Stop right there.” She said to me, “Don’t question the things of God.” Well. That was certainly a conversation stopper. It was not exactly a response designed to settle the soul. For a short while I was afraid I had teetered on the brink of committing the unpardonable sin. I was still in the dark, and I was left with the clear impression that some questions are better left unasked.
However, over the years I have also had friends who listened so well they heard the questions I couldn’t even ask. They were the ones who would introduce the subjects that were simmering beneath the surface of our conversations.
In John 14 Jesus told His disciples that He would ask His father to send a Counselor. The Greek word that is used is ‘paraclete’. It means ‘one called to the side of another’, and contains the idea of helping or counseling. I love the image of the Holy Spirit standing next to me, draping an arm around my shoulders. He is not standing over me shaking His head with a tsk-tsk. No, He is standing at my side, ready to comfort and counsel.
Because I want to be ‘an imitator of God’, I too want to come alongside people and offer comfort and counsel. I want to see people find the answers for which they are searching. Am I willing to be patient as someone pours out their heart? Drawing someone out and allowing them to express themselves is often the first step toward the answer they need. Ask them open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer. Let them know you care about what they are saying by maintaining eye contact, giving nods of encouragement, and offering verbal expressions of support. And finally, ask questions that will point them to the soul-satisfying answers found in Scripture.
Consider Job. Near Eastern protocol dictated that his friends not speak until he did. So the four men sat in silence for seven days and nights; that’s a total of 168 hours. That sounds like a lot of time to formulate words of wisdom to share with Job. When Job did speak they probably heaved a sigh of relief. Finally! And as soon as Job finished speaking they felt free to jump right in. I wonder if they had heard of the maxim, “Silence is golden”. They would have done well to heed it. Their words were devastating to Job, a man who was experiencing ‘the dark night of the soul’. They had a chance to bring healing, but instead their words inflicted pain.
There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (Proverbs 12:18)
It is not our job to judge or look for flaws. That is the prerogative of God. Our job is to point people to the One who can answer their questions, and to do it with love and compassion.
I think that ultimately the answers to hard questions really are as simple as pray, trust God, and have faith. These answers are the right ones. It’s how we get there that makes all the difference.
A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Proverbs 25:11