Can I Ask You a Question?
Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost • October 22, 2017
Readings: Isaiah 45:9-12 and Habbakuk 1:2-5
Pastor Jeff Wells
Can I ask you a question? No, really, would you say “yes” if I said, “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” you say. “Why not.” Unless, of course, you think I am going to ask you a really hard question or one that you don’t want to answer. If your child or someone else’s child who you care about asked that same thing – “Can I ask you a question?” – would you say no? Not usually – OK, maybe if you are really busy and stressed or preoccupied. “Not right now” or “Can you hold onto your questions for later?”, you might say. Yet, generally, with children and with most of our family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers, we are inclined to listen to their questions and try to respond. If we have that inclination even with people we don’t know well, how do you think God feels about the questions we pose all the time?
Today, we begin a six-week adventure through a deeply important existential and theological theme focused on posing challenging questions to God. The super title for this series is “Dear God…” and each week we will pose and try to answer a question that affects how we view our relationship with God and shapes how we live our lives. In the weeks to follow, we will address the following questions to God and try to discern God’s answers:
● Why Do You Allow Suffering?
● Do You Really Hear My Prayers?
● Why Should I Be Saved?
● What if I Don't Believe in You?
● Do You Really Have a Plan for My Life?
In addition to Pastor Elyse and me, we have a couple of really wonderful guest preachers coming at the end of the series. The whole series is outlined on our website, Facebook page, and in the newsletter, so I encourage you to look at the schedule and also, when you are not able to be present in worship, to check out the recordings on Facebook or the text of the sermons published each week on our website.
Today, I introduce this series with a reflection on whether it is even appropriate to query God and, if so, are there any limits and how does God respond. Our two scripture lessons show that the Bible is not consistent on this question. In the passage from Isaiah God essentially says, “I am your Creator – who are you to question me?” At an opposite extreme, the prophet Habakkuk, accuses God of not listening and not saving God’s people from oppression, injustice, tyranny, and violence. Here, God does not counter with “Who are you to question me?”, but, rather, says, “If you look, you will be amazed and astonished at what I am doing all around you.” These are not isolated instances, but representative of a spectrum of attitudes in the Bible and that continue to exist in Christian theology and practice about whether and in what circumstances it is appropriate to ask God challenging questions.
Really, if you think about it, it’s a bit laughable to imagine asking, “Dear God...Can I ask you a question?” The response I imagine from God is, “Duh, I’ve been waiting for you to ask! What took you so long?” In fact, if God is all-knowing, and I think she is, then she knows our questions before we ask – knows them all and has heard them all a few billion times before.
We all ask questions of God, don’t we? That includes people of faith who are in traditions that teach it is wrong to doubt or question God – those who say that your faith must be unquestioning. If it is not, you are dissing God and God will be very angry with you. But why would God be angry that we ask questions? If it is true – as we say so often in this space – that God loves us unconditionally and with a love that is greater than we can imagine – if it is true that nothing can separate us from the love of God, then surely God can handle all of our questions. Does God love you less because you have doubts or want to understand something better or even because your question expresses your anger about suffering? Even atheists ask questions of God and often the same questions people of faith want to ask. The difference is non-believers usually ask the questions indirectly, as in, “If there is a God, then why does this being or entity allow so much suffering to occur?” Does God refuse to listen because at that moment the person asking does not believe in God? Of course not. Does God love that person any less because they question God’s existence? Absolutely not.
That’s all a very colloquial way of stating what virtually all progressive theology would hold about asking questions of God. But what is the character of God and God’s relationship with us that makes that true and acceptable and even invited by God? We need to look at that a bit more closely because it will impact how we consider all of the questions that will follow in the next five weeks – and actually, it might impact your whole approach to and experience of God.
Who is God and how does God work in the world? God is not just the creator of the universe and all that is in it, but is the sustainer of all that is – the ground of our being. And, God is love, so love sustains everything. But because God is love and love requires freedom, God created the universe and human beings with radical freedom – a freedom that limits the ways God exercises power. In my view and that of many progressive or process theologians, that means that God not only does not, but cannot, determine events, undermine the laws of nature, or coercively interfere with the decisions of human beings or the workings of atoms, molecules, weather patterns, tectonic plates, or planets and stars. This does not mean that God is distance. No! God is in our experience of every moment of our lives and, in fact, experiences every moment of every atom and subatomic particle. They cannot experience God in the same way as we do, but God experiences them and loves them. This also does not mean that God is weak or ineffectual, just that God’s power is the power of love and gets expressed with the means of love – not with force and violence. Traditional Christian theology has usually asserted that God is all-knowing. Yet, I don’t believe God knows ahead of time what particular choices we will make or which path a hurricane might take among those possible options. But God does know all of the possible choices and outcomes and can see all of them much more clearly than we can. Instead of forcing us to choose one way or another, God uses the ways of love to influence us and the course of every element of the universe – invitation, persuasion, and allure – to move toward the good. That is why I do not normally use the phrase “the will of God,” but rather talk about “God’s desire” for the world. So, God invites, offers guidance, persuades, and lures us toward the choices and directions that God understands are the best for our individual and collective well-being, but allows us total freedom to make our own choices – good, mediocre, or bad. And because God lovingly accompanies us in every moment and every decision in our lives, and God knows all of the decisions, directions, and intentions of every element and every individual in the universe, God can take our mediocre and bad choices, as well as our good decisions, and still work to move the totality collectively toward the good and toward love. God’s relationship with us is one of intense love, caring, and compassion and intimate, constant presence and companionship.
I don’t believe these things about God because of doctrine or church teaching or even the Bible – though I find much inspiration for it in the bible. I believe them because this is how I experience God in my own life and in this community – a loving God who offers inspiration for living and experiencing radical freedom. I experience God as immensely loving – loving us and loving all of creation. That is not provable by scientific inquiry – my experience is shaped by faith – I choose to believe, and that, too, is an expression of the radical freedom God gives us.
It this is true about God’s character and relationship with us, then, “Yes,” God says, “Ask me a question – any question. I have been waiting. In fact, I have been offering you the answers to your questions all along – even before you thought of them. Some of the answers may be beyond your ability to understand right now, but keep asking and keep listening and keep staying in conversation with me and relationship with me. I love you better than a mother or father, than a friend or lover. There is nothing you can ask and no way you can fashion a question that will make me love you less. My deepest desire is to see you learn, grow, find love, and flourish as individuals and as communities of human persons. My favorite thing,” says God, “is to see you make the most of your life and experience love, beauty, wisdom, and joy.”
God welcomes our questions and encourages us to listen and reflect deeply on the answer and – using all the faculties that God and evolution have give us – to try our very best to love and to move in the direction of the good and just. So don’t hold back. Ask God all the questions you have. God won’t necessarily just provide all of the answers directly or immediately, but God is always ready and willing to help us wonder and ponder and grow in the process.