My last post talked about the tension of questioning God. If we are lucky we have grown up in a spiritual situation that allowed us to question faith with security – to know that questions are the heart of seeking God.
But often we come unstuck when someone questions us. We question ourselves all the time, but from others it can feel like we need to get our answer ‘right’ and this can be an obstacle to embracing the tension or healing conflict.
The next three posts are about allowing certain types of questions: starting with why questioning God can be helpful, moving through discussion of being challenged ourselves, and then finally into how we might practically lay down our barriers to help hear ideas different to our own.
As always I start with my own experience – but this time I’ll do some Bible! (I haven’t talked much Bible so its about time!)
I’ve been struck by the language I have used for questioning so far. Often we talk about ‘questioning our faith’ rather than ‘questioning God’ or ‘questioning our tradition/church’. Our language implies that the issue is our own understanding or our own experience. We center ourselves and we see the problem as ours to fix.
With the issue of questioning God I can see where it comes from – God is perfect, and God’s perfection is key to many peoples primary understanding of who God is to such an extent that questioning that perfection would be one of those strands (that I have mentioned before) where we wonder -if we pull it might the whole thing unravel? But in my life and travelling with my illness I have had to become ok with questioning God themself* and with questioning my tradition/church on their attitudes. I have gone through blaming myself for my illness, and I did not cause it, and so I needed to be ok with throwing the question directly at God – Why?
To deal with such a question requires me to feel safe enough with God, and the idea that that I can ask a question that is in many ways accusatory? For in asking ‘why?’ I am confronting the deep fear that this is a negative thing and God might have done it – if I go into this conversation with God assuming that I am the problem because it cant be God that did something bad, I am not truly asking the question and maybe I will not get the answer I need. I wonder if I am actually allowed to ask that question honestly. I think that being able to fully ask the question enables me to hear God’s full answer about my illness, whereas if I only as ‘what did I do wrong?’ or pretend that God must be perfect so my understanding is at fault, I’m not actually listening to God or allowing God to fully answer.
I’m not saying that God is not perfect – please don’t misread this – my point is rather that we have to be allowed to query the perfection of God, particularly in conversation with God, to be able to hear the answer we need. True communication must be honest. The Hebrew bible is littered with people who wrestle with God for either their rights or understanding and our gospels contain stories of people challenging Jesus goodness directly because it is knowing God that gives the freedom to have a real conversation.
I want to take a moment to think of one woman who threw her grief at Jesus. Lets do some biblical study:
In John 11 Martha says to Jesus “Lord, If you had been here, [lazarus] would not have died.” Because we have been reading John’s gospel we are privy to Jesus declaration to his disciples that Lazarus is going to be all right that that this is for the glory of God. We often read Martha’s speech as a statement with little emotion – lazarus would not have died, and even now you could ask God an he would change it.
But Martha is not in on Jesus plan as we are. Mary we are told is at home in mourning. The family all consider Lazarus dead, and the fact that Jesus did not come when asked but waited for days is manifested in this statement of grief. Martha does not even wait for Jesus to arrive at the house, she goes out to Jesus and throws her grief and anger at him. “If you had been here he would not be dead! And you could change this now if you wanted!” We underestimate Martha’s relationship and faith if we do not see it from her moment of grief. She does not meekly say ‘I know you are the son of God so this must be God’s will’ rather because she knows the Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, she feels able to express her grief and frustration at the event.
In John’s gospel it is Martha that first confesses the fullness of the person of Jesus as Christ, not one of the male disciples. Her close relationship with Jesus (John has Jesus visit Mary, Martha and Lazarus a number of times) allows her the freedom to fully challenge Jesus on why her brother has died. Her expression allows for the challenge of an alternative – why did he have to die? Couldn’t this have been a different way? When I read this from the perspective of this sister, I hear her pain in the questioning, and the genuine nature of it and as she was not only a follower of Christ but a friend of Jesus the feeling of being let down – “I know you and who you are, you could have done this differently!”.
Jesus conversation with Martha starts at her pain, and leads her through her known theology into a moment of resurrection. He tells her Lazarus will rise again, and she answers with what she knows – her learned theology “yes he will rise again on the last day” – but Jesus takes the space, hears her grief and widens her viewpoint. He leads her to restate what she believes about him and Martha makes the grand statement “Yes, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming in to the world.”
This belief is not a new belief for Martha, rather it is the belief that allowed her to challenge Jesus, and having said it she is reminded that coming to Jesus is important so she goes and calls her sister, Mary. Mary too knows and believes in who Jesus is. Though not declared in words Mary has annointed Jesus with perfume showing her deep understanding of his position as ‘the annointed’, the Messiah. Like her sister this depth of knowledge allows her pain to come forward, her grief to be expressed.
For both the sisters, but particularly Martha, it is only in being able to be angry that she is then brought into a fuller conversation and revelation of Jesus. The conversation opened up by her anger and grief, leads her to declare her truth – that Jesus is the Son of God – becoming in fact the first person to declare Jesus identity in this way. If Jesus identity as the Son of God made him too perfect to question, too holy to be angry at, too ideal to manage grief that challenges his actions, then Martha would have sat quietly enduring her grief alone.
I have started here, because I wish to approach what happens when we ourselves are questioned by others. The questioning here is not an accusation that Jesus is lacking in power, her doubt does not challenge the goodness of God – rather it is the opposite, it affirms it. It states who Christ is as challenges Christ to be Christ for her.
I will next be talking about how we feel when we are questioned. Talking about the ideal images of ourselves or theology that stop us from hearing criticism. But if we can allow that God can be questioned in this way- then we should be able to allow ourselves to be questioned and challenged. Can we come to see challenges to our behaviour as calls to be more fully who we are meant to be in God’s image, rather than hold criticism of who we are?
*i use ‘them’ ‘they’ and ‘themself’ for God as much as possible as I wish to move beyond conversations about gendered nature of God or persons within the trinity. Though this opinion, that God is genderless or more that God encompasses all genders and is bigger than gender, is not new, most of the time even those who adhere to this idea academically still use male pronouns. I have studied a lot on the issue of binary language for God. I have used ‘she’ for God but that too is difficult – it most often still equates to an essentialist idea of gender roles: that God has both male and female, where maleness is the patriarchal, ruling qualities and femaleness the motherly, nurturing qualities. I wish to avoid this construction of maleness and femaleness. It has been damaging in my own life, and is confusing when we talk about being made in the image of God – particularly right now with the discussions and tensions within culture in general. So until we have better understanding between us all about how sex and gender work in society, and how those roles work within God, I will use gender neutral language for God – they, them, themselves/self – in an attempt to be inclusive and encourage you to think of yourself as made in the image of God no matter how you feel about your body/gender/sex.