Monday, November 24, 2014

Questioning God

TITLE: QUESTIONING GOD
SCRIPTURE: Job 38:1-3
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: November 24th, 2014

1Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: 2"Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? 3Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me."

I have been following with some interest an open letter online about why a former believer left her faith. It contains various reasons and faults with the Christian religion. Most of all, it stems from a tragic loss of her father, which was made worse by certain insensitive comments that tried to explain it all.

At the same time, I have just read through twenty-four earnest and honest reflections of faith from the standpoints of atheists, believers, agnostics, and various perspectives. Many of them had one thing in common: Faith Under Trial. Some of these respondents who had "left the faith" were raised in rather religious circumstances. They go to Church. They followed the educational processes. They essentially kept with their parental expectations. Until one day, the water bag broke. Skepticism gives birth to sarcasm, followed by plain dismissal of formerly held beliefs. All it takes is a shaking down of the nice image of a big and friendly God who is all loving and all providing. Whether it is cancer, loss of a family member or a friend, or some tragic circumstances, at some juncture, we will all intersect with the pain-and-suffering station of life.  When that happens, questions turn into doubt; doubt turns to fear; and for self-professed "former" believers, fear coupled with frustrations soon turn one away from God.
  • "God, where are You?"
  • "God, why is this happening to me?"
  • "God, are you there?"
  • "God, hello? You there? Why don't You pick up my prayer?"
  • "God, God, God? Why are You so quiet? I'll try again tomorrow."
  • "God? You'll probably sleeping."
  • "God? Are you real?"
  • "God? Maybe there is no such thing as God."

It really reminds me of the story of a professor who declared to his class that if there is a God, to make the whiteboard marker disappear. After three calls, and with no answer from above, the professor promptly underlined his conclusion that there is no God. My normal response would be: If the whiteboard marker had really disappear, is God really God? For if the professor had gotten every whim and fancy he had asked for, it's the professor who is god.

My experience with skeptics and former believers tell me that very often, it is not God himself but the messengers who misapplied their good intentions. Such is the case with Su-Lyn Boo, who suffered the tragic loss of her dad at the age of 16. After mentioning this, the rest of her rant is about the Bible being anti-feminist, with burdensome sexual prohibitions, and how in not getting "satisfactory answers" from her church, she concluded "God became unnecessary." Honestly, her story is nothing really new. There are others who had traveled this route of skepticism before. People like the dad of apologist, Greg Boyd, who writes:
".... If God created this world and cares about it, why is there so damn much suffering in it? In your letter your answer was that God can’t be held responsible because He gave man the freedom to choose to do right or wrong. But, Greg, I don’t feel that the question can be swept away so easily. When the freedom to decide to do harm results in pain and suffering to innocent people, God is simply not the “loving” God you make Him out to be! ..... The point is, this world doesn’t look at all like the kind of world we’d have if there were an all-powerful, all-loving God behind it. And I don’t see that your explanation of freedom improves the situation much." (Letter from Greg Boyd's Dad in Letters From a Skeptic, p)
Reply from Greg to his dad's question of Freedom and Suffering
It was an honest question that demanded an honest answer. In some way, the dad was right. We cannot survive on easy answers, especially to the tough questions of life. It is also important not to treat questions of faith and doubt like cockroaches and bugs that are waiting to be sprayed down quickly by insecticide. What Philip Yancey says is true. Many of life's travails about pain and suffering will also raise the question that will never go away: "Why?"In fact, of all the letters he had received in his illustrious writing career, there is one book that raises more interest than others: "Where is God when it hurts?" Before Yancey, there was another famous book that created a tsunami of interest: The Jewish Rabbi, Harold Kushner's "When Bad Things Happen to Good People."

Those of us with a scientific background or infected by the technological culture would gravitate easily to trying to explain things away quickly and effortlessly.
  • Where there is a will there is a way.
  • There is always a reason for something.
  • There must be some sort of a way out of this mess.
  • The answer is somewhere out there.
This was exactly what the three good friends of Job, namely Bildad, Eliphaz, and Zophar all did: Explaining away the difficult questions of faith. It took God a series of questions to silence all of them, through Job himself. For if they all know so much, and if they all know all the profound answers to life, they might as well call themselves gods.

One of my favourite theologians, Walter Brueggemann captures the purpose of the Church aptly by saying: "The business of the Church is poetry." This contrasts with people using the Church as an answering machine to help "solve" our human issues. If the Church is that kind of a machine, why aren't all churches filled to the brim? One observation strikes me. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, churches and many religious centers were full. I wonder why.

I find Gerald Mays's words very comforting to know that there are wise and mature believers who take time not to bark up the wrong tree of "coping," but to walk the distance with people in pain and suffering.
"In my psychiatric practice how many times did I help patients cope with their feelings, tame the power of their emotions? I no longer believe that was helpful. Even when I assisted people in uncovering long-buried emotions, I seldom encouraged them to savor the life-juice of the feelings themselves: the rich dark love-nature of grief, the warming fire of anger, the subtle luminosity of loneliness, the pure gut-driving power of sexual desire, or the exquisite clarity of fear. Instead, for the most part, I helped them cope. I have come to hate that word, because to cope with something you have to separate yourself from it. You make it your antagonist, your enemy. Like management, coping is a taming word, sometimes even a warfare word. Wild, untamed emotions are full of life-spirit, vibrant with the energy of being. They don't have to be acted out, but neither do they need to be tamed. They are part of our inner wilderness; they can be just what they are. God save me from coping. God help me join, not separate. Help me be with and in, not apart from. Show me the way to savoring, not controlling. Dear God, hear my prayers: make me forever copeless." (Gerald G. May, The Wisdom of Wilderness, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006, p34-35)
If the Church is in the business of poetry, why are we not encouraging more poets and more song writers? Why are we content to print copious volumes of scientific evidence, theological arguments, explanations, and various defenses against skepticism and sarcasm? We need poets. We need psalmists. We need song writers. If the issue of pain and suffering is so big and wide, arguments alone can only cover some ground. Other expressions of humanity can cover additional ground. Even science and many other persuasive atheistic, agnostic, secularist, even stoic explanations can make an impression or two, but they are still inadequate. These are but buckets of sand in the middle of an extensive beach or a small boat in a giant lake. I would venture to say that questions of faith and doubt while trying to prove the non-existence of God, may very well be a subtle way of confessing that man alone can only do so much. We all need God.

Perhaps, this song by Daniel O'Donnell captures the essence of how God holds us, and keeps us in His heart.

I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard My people cry. All who dwell in dark and sin, My hand will save. I who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright. Who will bear My light to them? Whom shall I send? Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord? I have heard You calling in the night. I will go Lord, if You lead me. I will hold Your people in my heart.
We may not be able to solve people's problems, but we can certainly be a friend always. We can pray for them and for us that wisdom prevails. We can make room for each other to try to shine various perspectives of faith and doubt. Most of all, in our search for answers, may we never be so arrogant to say that we know all the answers. For doubt is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it points to something much bigger than ourselves. I suppose, at the end of the long book of Job, all of us would need to grapple not with questions about God or to God, but about God questioning us! Will we be ready? I hope so.

By the way, the story of how the lady walked away from her faith is still ongoing. There is a really good response from her own mother here.

THOUGHT:  "It seems to me that Christianity doesn’t in any way lessen suffering. What it does is enable you to take it, to face it, to work through it, and eventually to convert it." (Philip Yancey)



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