Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Asking Emotional Questions

Martin Luther was the founder of the Protestant Reformation, a teacher of theology, and a terrified soul. His decision to enter the ministry came out of fear. He was walking along and a thunderstorm erupted around him. He ran for shelter under a tree and cowered as the storm raged around him. In that moment he vowed to become a monk.

Gideon, from the book of Judges (ch.6-8) is found threshing wheat, which wasn’t too strange, but he was doing it in a winepress. The winepress was deep enough to hold all the grapes and allowed Gideon to do his threshing out of sight of the oppressive Midianites. He was terrified that they would come and take the food his family needed to live. When an angel came and talked to him he protested, saying that he was the weakest of a weak family from a weak tribe. By the way, Gideon’s name means: Mighty Warrior.

Luther went to live in a monastery and studied theology hoping to get rid of his fear. But he felt even more afraid all the time. He constantly worried about sin and confessed so much that his superiors got tired of listening to him. No amount of confession or penance could make Luther feel safe or saved.

When the angel spoke to Gideon he deflected, changed the subject and asked questions. He wanted to know why God would allow the Midianites to rule over Israel. He wanted to know why God would talk to someone as small and weak as him. Fear and doubt made him question everything, even to the point where he asked for proof -- not once but three times.

Luther eventually stopped trying to prove himself safe or saved and changed his focus to the saving power of Jesus. Luther’s doubts and fears were the spark that, ultimately, started the Protestant Reformation that swept through Europe in the sixteenth century. His fear changed the world.

Gideon is famous for putting out the fleece. When God told him to go and attack the Midianites Gideon wanted proof. He wanted assurance that God would be with him. So he put out some fleece and asked that it be covered in dew but the ground around it dry. It was. But that wasn’t good enough for Gideon. He asked for more proof. He asked that the next time the fleece be dry and the ground wet. It was.

Both Luther and Gideon lived with fear and doubt. It crippled them, in a way. But it also gave them the strength to ask questions. Gideon started asking why God would use someone like him, why God would abandon his people and if God would do what he promised. Luther asked questions about salvation, forgiveness and the work of Jesus in the lives of believers. Both of them, through their fear, helped countless others.

Fear, doubt, pain, confusion, mourning, loss and all the similar emotions can feel like a bad thing. They can feel overwhelming, and even wrong. I’ve been told, many times, that doubt is wrong. That we should not fear. If God is with us, we don’t have anything to fear, right? That’s what the bible says, right?

Yes and no. The bible does say that we don’t need to fear, but it does not say that it’s wrong to feel afraid. It says we don’t need to doubt, but it doesn’t say that it’s wrong to doubt.

Theologians talk about the kingdom of God as something that is already, but not yet. That is, it’s already a reality: God rules his kingdom, where his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. But it is not yet fully realized: sin, death and pain still exist in this world and prevent the complete realization of God’s kingdom right now.

We live in this in-between time where God has already made it so we don’t need to fear or doubt, but we are not yet at the time when doubt and fear are erased from the world. It’s not wrong to feel. It’s not wrong to feel doubt. And it’s not wrong to feel doubt toward God. Those feelings can spur important questions that can, like Luther and Gideon, help many people to walk through doubt and fear to find God.


Do you have a phobia? If so, what is it? How does it affect your life?

Have you felt scared enough to hide? What happened?

Some people think that depression exists, in part, to force us to ask the questions of fear and doubt. Do you think that’s accurate? What has your experience been with feeling depressed?

How would it change your life if you saw fear and doubt as God given tools to help yourself and others?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Logical Questions

Rene Descartes wanted to be a soldier. He joined the military and learned engineering. But one cold night everything changed for him. He shut himself up into a small room with a heater to stay warm. In that room he had visions of (not sugarplums but) math, ethics, and philosophy.

Saul wanted to be a Pharisee. He trained under a famous teacher and respected Pharisee. In his training he learned how to debate, reason, and he likely memorized huge chunks of the Hebrew scriptures. Saul did everything he could to defend the Jewish faith from attack -- mostly from other Jews.

Saul had a vision too, but he was on the road to Damascus instead of in a heated room. Saul’s vision undercut the foundation of everything he was doing. Jesus demanded to know why Saul was persecuting him. The result -- eventually -- was that Saul ran away to the desert and hid.

When Rene Descartes left the military, he started writing about mathematics and geometry, but for him it was all connected to philosophy and philosophy could only be discovered through logic. He decided that the foundation of logic couldn’t be in his senses, since they were fallible, so he relied on his own ability to think.

“I think, therefore I am.”

That simple sentence was the beginning point for Descartes and from there he attempted to reason out everything else in philosophy, religion, physics, and mathematics.

After Saul ran away -- and got the new name of Paul -- he re-emerged into the Jewish-religious life of the first century, but not as a defender of the Jewish faith. At least not in the way the his old friends and teachers wanted him to. Paul started building a case for Jesus being the Messiah. His letters are orderly, logical arguments that leave very little leeway for the Jews to keep denying Jesus.

Logic and logical questions are awkward, cumbersome to some people while to others they are the path to truth. For Paul and Descartes logic offered the best path to understanding God. They both looked at the rationality of the world around them and saw that as the best and truest argument for the existence of God and for his working in the world.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is, perhaps, the most logical in the whole of scripture. He sets out a clear progression of thought that, in the end, leads directly to the need for Jesus to save and redeem us all. It feels like the end-product of his struggle to reconcile Pharisaical training with his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus. Remember that Paul spent three years trying to figure everything out after his vision but before he started ministry. During that time he had to bring together his understanding of scripture with his vision of Jesus.

For him, the only logical conclusion was that scripture spoke of Jesus. Logical questions led Paul to tear down his whole belief system and rebuild it around Christ. Descartes did the same thing, but used logic to derive principles of math, geometry, and philosophy that are still in use today.

Logic gives us a path to walk and a way to trace and share our conclusions. Without the logic of Descartes spelled out in writing we may not have connected mathematics and geometry and we may have lost out on all sorts of applications, like space travel, 3D printing, and GPS navigation. But because Descartes decided to share all the steps on his logical path, we can follow along behind him and get to the same conclusions.

Paul’s world was realigned the moment Jesus appeared to him in a vision. He didn’t have to work through all the logic; he didn’t have to write it all down. But, he did so that others could follow along behind him. He probably also wanted to see where he’d been and where he was going.

Think of logic and logical questions like a breadcrumb trail. We can use it to help others follow and to help ourselves figure out where we’ve gone. Logic doesn’t give us the sense of adventure to step into the dark forest, but it does help us to make the trip safely and consistently.

Logic has its cousins that aren’t so helpful tough. Rationalization can seem like logic, but its purpose is to justify staying the same rather than explain change. If Paul had decided to reject the vision of Jesus and keep persecuting Christians, he would have had to rationalize quite a bit (he shouldn’t have eaten that burrito before going on a long trip) to justify doing the same thing.

Logical fallacies masquerade as logic, but lead to the wrong conclusions. They are dead-ends on the trail. For example, the slippery slope fallacy assumes that one thing will, inevitably cause another unrelated thing so we shouldn’t let the first thing happen. Or the no-true-Scotsman fallacy which say that no one who is a part of a group has certain characteristics to anyone with those characteristics must not be a part of that group.

Logic is powerful and helpful, but not only way to find answers or to ask questions.  


How did (do) you feel when you’re forced to show your work on math problems in school? Does it help you? Why do you think that is?

How do you feel about logical arguments?
In science?
In math?
In history?
In art?
In religion?

Does reading Romans help you? In what way? If not, why not?

Have you ever been convinced of something by logic? If so, what? If not, why?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Asking Questions

I remember being taught that there are no dumb questions. I took that lesson to heart as an elementary school student. One day, before classes started, several students were waiting by the door, huddled under the awning to avoid the ubiquitous winter rain of Tacoma. I overheard the conversation of a few older students and didn’t understand one of the words they’d used. I asked what it meant. They laughed at me. I think I was in the fourth grade.

We don’t know much about the life of Habakkuk. We think that he lived in Jerusalem during the rise of the Babylonian Empire and that he witnessed chunks of Judea being conquered. There’s also a strong suspicion that Habakkuk was a worship leader, possibly even at the Temple in Jerusalem. We don’t know for sure, but it makes sense in light of what he has to say and how he responds to God.

Despite what we’re told in an official capacity, it appears that there are dumb questions, at least according to the fifth graders who made fun of me. I wasn’t made fun of, but when I got to graduate school I was still the only one asking questions. I would sit in class listening to the professor lecture and be unable to resist asking a question -- either to clarify the point or challenge the conclusion. For some reason I believed that questioning was okay even though the other students avoided it.

As Habakkuk looked at the world around him he had only questions. He saw violence, death, destruction, and injustice and couldn’t help but ask the question: Why? Why would all this be happening? Why would God allow his people to suffer? Why would God use the evil Babylonians? Why?

God answered him.

We get the message loud and clear from our peers, from our bosses, from our teachers, and from our preachers that asking questions is not allowed. It’s as if we hit an age of no-more-questioning beyond which we just need to stop that part of our brain and listen to others who already have everything figured out. Schools are set up that way: take in information and regurgitate it onto a test. Jobs are set up that way: learn your task and do it forever without changing. Peer-groups are set up that way: don’t question what makes something cool or you’ll become uncool. Churches are set up that way: faith is the unquestioning adherence to what someone else has already figured out. There’s no need for you to ask questions anymore. You’re not a toddler. Grow up and get over that childish habit.

Habakkuk had the temerity to ask God why all these bad things were happening. He hadn’t learned his lesson. He hadn’t stopped questioning altogether.

God’s response: You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.

That’s it. That’s what Habakkuk got for his questioning. He heard that he wouldn’t be able to figure it out with his tiny brain. It makes me think of the fifth graders laughing at me because I didn’t know a word. Questioning didn’t work. God’s answer wasn’t one.

So Habakkuk asked again. The nerve. He got a response from God -- which I never have -- and had the nerve to ask again. This time he nearly accuses God. He tells God that the Babylonians are evil and that God’s goodness isn’t compatible with them.

God responds. Again.

This time God tells Habakkuk that he’s right. God still has standards. He still holds people to the commands he’s given. He still demands that people treat each other with dignity and respect. He still abhors abuse. God is still the same God that Habakkuk has been worshipping and leading others to worship.

In the midst of all this God tells Habakkuk: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Hab. 2.4).

The odd thing is that “faith” is often used to descry questioning. I’ve been told that my questioning about God and religion is the opposite of faith. But here is God responding to his servant and telling him to live by faith. You would think that if God thought questions were bad he would have either ignored Habakkuk or rebuked him for questioning. Neither happens.

The end of God’s response is this: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.” (Hab. 2.20).

That is the summary of God’s answer to Habakkuk’s questions. Not a rebuke, not ignoring him, but the promise of his presence.


If you were guaranteed to get an answer to one question, who would you ask and what would the question be?

Have you asked a question and then learned that it wasn’t okay? How did that feel? How has that affected your desire to ask questions?

Why do you think it’s not okay to ask questions in many environments? How is it helpful to limit questions?

Have you felt like it’s not permitted to ask questions of God? What caused you to feel that way (or to not feel that way)? Do you think your situation is the norm for most people?

If you were guaranteed to get an answer from God, what would you ask?