In Praise of Difficult Questions

In a denomination like ours that puts a premium on firmly believing a lengthy list of biblical truths, posing difficult questions can be unwelcome. Harboring spiritual doubts can be frowned upon. Openly expressing skepticism can lead to marginalization. But wrestling with challenging questions is a vital component of a robust Christian experience.

Jesus questioned the teachings of the Pharisees and the Sadducees which opened His mind to a counter-kingdom of humility and love.

Peter questioned the privileged, exclusive attitude of his Jewish culture which led to treating Gentiles like family.

The apostle Paul eventually questioned much of what he had been taught at the prestigious Seminary in Jerusalem which freed him to become the world champion of grace.

Luther questioned the concept of indulgences which lead to posting 95 earth-shaking theses on the church door.

In each case, having the courage to ask difficult questions opened the door to thorough examination and, eventually, greater insight and faith.

Our greatest danger today comes not from asking too many troubling questions, but from the lure of simplistic answers. Our denominational self-image as the world’s foremost purveyor of biblical truth can lead us to think that we must have a succinct, ready answer to all of life’s complex issues, even if those answers are woefully inadequate and unsatisfying. The inevitable result is a shallow faith that is extremely vulnerable. 

Pastor Timothy Keller writes,

“People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection. Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts — not only their own but [those of] their friends’ and neighbors.’”[1]

Being content with a superficial faith is high risk spiritual living. Being a Christian who has periodic doubts is far preferable to being a naïve one.

“Mom and Dad said it, I believe it, and that settles it,” is OK for 4th graders, but what parent would want such thinking for their forty-year-old son or daughter? As our heavenly Father, God also longs for us to explore, to examine fully from every angle.        

Since we are made in the image of our Creator, we need to nurture creative spiritual curiosity that plumbs the depths and openly addresses perplexing, sometimes highly personal, questions and concerns. We need to send a clear message that having doubts and uncertainties is both OK and normal. It should be a common characteristic of mature Christians not just neophyte ones. 

I have sat through countless adult Sabbath School classes where we spent the entire time simply regurgitating what everyone already knew. It sounded like the recital of an Adventist catechism. Put in your quarter and out comes the pithy answer. No personal sharing of struggles or pain. No spiritual grappling or straining.

I think it would be exceedingly refreshing and appropriately humbling for our denomination to publish a Sabbath School Quarterly along the same lines as a course developed by Columbia University called “Ignorance.”

“It celebrates what we don’t know. The gaps in our knowledge. It doesn’t celebrate our knowledge and say “Look how smart we are.” It doesn’t wallpaper over what we don’t know, providing spiritual cover stories that have to be accepted on “Faith.” Instead it spotlights our ignorance, targeting where our intelligent inquiry should be directed.[2]

How amazing it would be if our church leaders openly acknowledged their spiritual uncertainties rather than continually sounding as if they have it all together. How uplifting it would be if churches could learn how to become safe places where people can be honest and transparent about what makes no sense to them spiritually.

Imagine a mother whose thirty-five-year-old son dies of COVID-19. In her grief, she wonders for the first time if God even really exists. Sadly, she is too afraid and embarrassed to express her doubts to fellow church members. She stops coming to Sabbath School and is left to struggle spiritually at home.

How much better if she was able to share her urgent questions and hear the teacher say, “Thank you so much for opening that door for us to discuss. I can’t imagine a more important topic to explore together.”

In a religious community where everyone appears strong no one grows. So rather than automatically assuming that a Christian who expresses doubts is losing their faith, why can’t we assume instead that they are exploring the fuller dimensions of faith? Sanejo Leonard, author of Shaken Faith, writes,

“I don’t think we can fully experience God without wrestling with our faithThe people who are grounded in their faith are the ones who are much more open to questioning. I don’t think God is worried about us losing our faith as we ask questions, as long as we ask those questions towards Him.”

Miguel de Unamuno, Spanish philosopher and poet, observes, “Those who believe that they believe in God, but without any passion in their heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe only in the God-Idea, not in God himself.”

Jesus knew that wrestling with difficult, disturbing questions should be a defining characteristic of all His followers. That is why He set such a powerful example for us by continuously posing questions that blew people’s minds.

“In his book Curious, Tom Hughes points out that in the Gospels, Jesus is asked 183 questions. Do you know how many He answers? Only four. The other questions He responds to with another question, a parable, or a cryptic remark. Do you know how many questions Jesus Himself asks? 307! Hughes goes on to point out that ‘we can slide into thinking that Jesus is interested in always and only ensuring that we have the right answers. The reality turns out to be somewhat different. He seems more interested in ensuring that we are considering the right questions.’”[3]

God is not offended when we take our doubts and uncertainties out from the shadows and bring them into the bright light of day. In fact, He encourages it. He says, “Come let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18 NKJV). What matters to Him even more than the question itself is the fact that we are stretching, striving, willing to explore ambiguity.

Wrestling with our deepest questions and spiritual misgivings is designed by God to be a team effort, offering each other vital empathy, feedback, encouragement, and help.

Brandon Andress observes,

“The Church of the future is one in which we walk alongside each other patiently and graciously in love, wrestling together through the tough questions, finding peace in our unknowing, and embracing long-suffering as a community through times of doubt.

This Church will be known, not as a uniform entity comprised of perfect people with all the right answers that one needs to emulate. But rather, a diverse community with open doors that welcomes, and is not afraid of, honest questioning, seeking, and dialogue.”[4]

Within such a compassionate community, we can face the fact that not everything is as black and white or as settled as some would have us believe. We can seek help from fellow Christians in resolving our personal spiritual struggles because we feel it is safe to do so, because we feel we can trust one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. 

For the Christian, facing and investigating our uncertainties and doubts can have three possible outcomes. It can lead to the abandonment of some things we used to believe. But if what we believed is, in fact, true it can also take us much farther in the right direction. Finally, if the issue remains unresolved, it can teach us how to live with mystery. It all begins with taking the risk of venturing out, which is the only way that faith can become more permanent, more durable, and solid.

Sheri Bell writes, “Go ahead, admit your doubt. Just don’t stop there. Take action. Tell God your doubts and ask His help in finding truthful answers. He’s gonna love it. Just like He loves you.”[5]

Scott Heaton adds, “So let your doubt breathe in open air. Explore it to its fullest extent. Truth will be truth.”[6]

 

Notes & References:

 

Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Kim has recently started an exciting new ministry to teachers at www.hi54teachers.com, which is currently accepting donations.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

 

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/11030
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I have thought the same thing. I’ve wondered why people aren’t bored repeating the same thing over and over, the same discussions I remember from 40 years ago.

I like this response from Jesus:

Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you understand from it?” (Luke 10:26 [engerv2006eb])

Here is the one who inspired Scripture, God incarnate asking “How do you read it?” Here is given an example of how to approach Bible study from the one who wrote it.

But I remember stern bible teachers who wouldn’t tolerate questioning their interpretation. How did this happen?

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Is the quote from Miguel de Unamuno from “El Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida”? I would like to know the source. Thank you.

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I personally find that the more I study and read, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Every answer I find seems to come with a dozen new questions. It forces me to recognize that I am only saved by faith God, not by my understanding.
Thank you for sharing your experience.

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Wow: Kim Allan Johnson is dope.

I love this quote from Timothy Keller:

And this:

I’d add one more name to his list of heroes:

Desmond Ford raised profoundly penetrating questions, the key result of which being his 1980 opus, Daniel 8:14, the Day of Atonement, and the Investigative Judgment.

Here’s exclusive footage of the exchange he had with the SDA Church, afterward, at Glacier View. (That’s the church on the right.)

They didn’t like that answer, so they tossed him a year’s pay and told him to get lost!

Des told me that, in the kitchen of his comfy home in Brisbane. I was outraged.

When I asked him how such mistreatment felt, after giving decades of service to the church, he said with a big smile, “How can I be angry with men who haven’t the time to read?” :smiley:

HA

3 Likes

Did the teachings of the Pharisees and the Sadducees open Christ’s mind?

Is that a Laodicean community? The one that Jesus said is so self-sufficient that it thinks that it needs nothing?

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The quote from Miguel de Unamuno can be found in:

“The Big Question: Is Doubt Necessary for Spiritual Growth?”

by Hilary Ribons

Desmond Ford was scholar of the Bible and history. Neal Wilson depended on the moving target of Ellen White’s pretentious imagination.

3 Likes

I’ve always been a questioner. Most of the time I’ve learned from it. But there are times as one grows older one concludes if too much questioning can be damaging. Right now I have grown tired of so much negativity, I just want to have my own private relationship with God–no questions asked. Surely we are in the last days when the church disappoints us, leaders disappoint us, our nation and its people disappoint us, experts disappoint us, and we fall for every crazy rumor and news report on every media source that feeds our bias. We claim to have the “Christian” truth about our nation, yet hate those who don’t see it the same way. There is violence on both sides, mobs, dishonesty, destruction, stereotyping, white and black racism, distrust, accusation.
I have spent too many nights with Miguel de Unamuno’s idea of belief, and I am tired.

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Hey, the last 12 months have been rough. I don’t remember the last day “without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation.”

The last thing a ton of people need right now is even more uncertainty. You do what you want to do to get through. Nobody’s going to rag on you for that.

We’ve got eternity to learn (and an entire universe for a classroom). No wonder Paul said we only know in part now. I can’t help but wonder how many things the Lord’s going to tell me “Well, it was a really cute train of thought. And not terribly accurate, but at least you tried. Let’s got for a walk, I’ve got all day to explain.”

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Insightful as always, Kim. We can certainly learn so much from the Jews who value the question more than the answer:

“In Judaism, to be without questions is not a sign of faith, but of lack of depth. As for the child who does not know how to ask, you must begin to teach him how . . . The very features of Jewish life one generation finds difficult, the next generation may find the most meaningful of all. Faith is not opposed to questions, but it is opposed to the shallow certainty that what we understand is all there is.” *Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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