The Church

Ask, Seek, Knock: Questioning God and Explaining Circumcision to a Four-Year-Old

I’ve found myself asking a lot of questions over the last few days and weeks. As we have started looking for jobs and a new place to call home I’ve been asking God and asking myself what I should pursue and what things are important in choosing a new location. I’ve also been asking a lot of questions about God and about faith. My small group discussed hell at our last meeting (just, you know, your typical casual Friday night conversation) and it raised so many of the questions that I’ve been grappling with over the past several years about God’s goodness, his plan for creating the world, and why he allows so much of what happens here on earth. And as if it wasn’t hard enough to be trying to figure out all of my own great questions about life, a large part of my day job lately has been trying to answer other difficult questions on the level of a four-year-old. Here’s a sample of a few conversations I’ve had with Sami over the last several weeks.

Me (reading from the Illustrated Children’s Bible): And on the eighth day they took the baby to be circumcised and they gave him the name Jesus

*side note: why the heck would you feel the need to include that in the Illustrated Children’s Bible?!

Sami: What’s circum-skied?

Me: Ummm….it’s a special sign between God and his people?

Sami: Do I have it?

Me: Ummm…only boys had it (No, I am not even about to get into female circumcision)

Sami: Do they still get circumsigned?

Me: Yes….

Sami: Where?

Me: At the hospital when they are born

Sami: Does Dylan have it?

Me: Yes…

Sami (completely out of the blue): I am so glad that Abraham Lincoln helped the brown people. What did he help them do?

Sami: I would never drive my car to hell! (also out of the blue)

Me: Well, that’s good, but you know, hell’s not really somewhere you can drive to.

Sami: Well, where is it?

Me: It’s kind of like heaven because you can’t go there while you are still alive on earth. Only souls.

Sami: A long time ago they used to put people in boxes when they died and put them in the ground.

Me: Well, they still kind of do that

Sami: Will they do that to me when I die?

Me: Probably. But you won’t need your body anymore because you will be in heaven with Jesus so it won’t matter. (Talking quickly so she doesn’t freak out about being buried)

Sami: I’m just really worried about my friend Olivia

Me: Why?

Sami: Because she moved to Bloomington…what if she dies there? She won’t be able to go to heaven.

Me: I’m pretty sure people who live in Bloomington can still go to heaven.

Sami: Why did God make the bad people? (Perhaps there was a context for this one in her mind, but it was very unclear.)

Or, my personal favorite conversation:

Sami: How old are you?

Me: I am about to be 23. (This was right before my birthday a few months ago)

Sami: Maybe when you turn 23 you’ll get taller

Me: I don’t think so. I think I’m pretty much done growing taller.

Sami: That is so sad! Why would God do that?!

(Note: I am 5’3”. I’m no giant, but I’m definitely not the shortest woman she’s ever seen)

Me: I don’t know Sam. Maybe he just likes short ladies.

Most of the time, I just want to look at her and tell her honestly, “I really don’t know! Stop asking me questions!” But instead I do my best to think of an answer that is true to the best of my knowledge and is also on her comprehension level. (A challenge, believe me, because Sam is often not the quickest at connecting A to B.) It can be difficult (although admittedly hilarious) to try to answer these questions, especially since I am not her mother and I don’t want to explain anything to her in a way her parents wouldn’t agree with, but ultimately I think it’s important for her to ask questions. I think it is OK for her to want an explanation for things or to admit that she doesn’t understand something and to ask for help.

A few days ago my husband and I were discussing the failure of the evangelical church to communicate this very thing. I have never been to a church service (particularly the church I grew up in) where anyone expressed that it is ok to question scripture, doctrine, or even God himself. The general view seems to be that questioning is the opposite of faith and a very slippery slope towards losing your faith altogether. As a result the evangelical church has formulated pat answers to complex and difficult questions about faith, God and Christianity. (For example: “Why did God allow the incredible devastation of the earthquake in Japan?” “God is sovereign, so it must be a part of his bigger plan that we can’t see right now.” Technically true, but incredibly unsatisfying.) Frankly, I am of the opinion that if just asking some questions about Christianity were enough to make me lose my faith, perhaps it wasn’t worth having in the first place. On the other hand, choosing to ignore the questions does nothing except create shallow (or blind) faith.

I think asking God questions is as much a part of having a relationship with him as giving thanks and singing praise. I know that I can’t understand everything and there will never be a point at which everything makes sense to me. I am ok with that. But I am hopeful that if I keep asking the questions, God will answer me the way I try to answer Sami—giving me just enough for my comprehension level—but with infinite gentleness, patience, and compassion. “For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Mt. 7:8) But you know what happens to those who don’t ask/seek/knock? They build themselves a little lean-to beside the mansion’s doors and then spend their lives convincing themselves that the house of sticks they built is the real thing.

Confessions: On Bad CCM Lyrics and Doubt

Confession: I don’t know if it makes me a bad Christian to say this, but there are times when I am listening to K-LOVE driving down the road and I just have to turn it off because I find it so irritating (and not just when they are doing fundraising.) I completely believe that the songwriters have great intentions and that many people are blessed by these songs, but sometimes I just can’t believe they got away with some of those lyrics. My husband and I have often ranted to each other that it is possible to write intelligent, true, and powerful lyrics about God. Look at some of the great hymns. I don’t think you should be able to cop-out on writing good lyrics just because your song is about God.

For example, Kutless’s “That’s What Faith Can Do” contains the lyrics, “It doesn’t matter what you’ve heard/Impossible is not a word/It’s just a reason for someone not to try.” Ok, this makes no sense. Last time I checked, “impossible” is actually a word.. See what I did there. I just used it. I think what he’s looking for is more like “impossible is just a word, not a reason for someone not to try.”

Here’s another great one, Natalie Grant’s “Human”: “I’m human/You’re human/ We are…we are human” It’s a power anthem, and you’ve gotta love that, but these lyrics make it like a Christian version of Rebecca Black’s “Friday.”

But a personal favorite has to be Amy Grant’s, “Better than a Hallelujah” : “We pour out or miseries, God just hears a melody…” So…God rejoices when we suffer and hears our cries of agony as sweet, sweet music?

The redeeming factor in this song for me is that although I think she butchered the delivery, I understand what Amy’s trying to say and I couldn’t agree more. I think God does appreciate our honesty and humility before him. I think he delights in our coming to him with needs instead of only coming to him when we feel like we’ve got everything under control. I think God welcomes our questions, our doubts, and our fears as readily as he welcomes our praises. And right now I am so very glad he does.

Confession: I struggle with doubt. While a part of me remains steadfastly convinced of God’s goodness, his love for me and all people, and his plan for my life, another part of me wonders if it’s true. There are moments when my faith is so real to me that everything around me radiates the truth of it. And there are moments when I just can’t seem to make sense of it and it all seems just a little too ridiculous.

I used to be afraid of the doubt, and especially afraid to express it to anyone. Like if I said it out loud, I’d be renouncing my faith or turning my back on God. I especially feared that anyone I shared Doubt with would think I was experiencing serious spiritual crisis and try to rehabilitate me. Or simply be frightened of me. And of course, I’ve felt it would be the ultimate failure in being a godly wife. But lately I’ve been seeing it a little differently. I’ve been thinking about Doubt as a gift, perhaps even a friend.

Doubt reminds me that I am not God. If I was God, I wouldn’t doubt…I’d know. And the fact that I don’t know reminds me why I need a God who does know. Everything. Doubt reminds me of how small I am and how much I still don’t know. Mostly though, I’ve been comforted to realize that God is not surprised by my doubts. I think he expects them. When Christ was resurrected, Thomas refused to believe it was true until he had seen the wounds on his hands and put his hand into Christ’s side. We always cite this as such an embarrassing story for Thomas, but I don’t think it has to be seen that way. Consider how Jesus responds when he appears to Thomas. He says to him, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” I think Thomas genuinely wanted to believe, but he struggled with doubt and the doubt got the best of him. Jesus makes it clear that it was better for those who believed without having to see, and yet…he still chooses to appear to Thomas. He still chooses to address Thomas’s doubts and to dispel them.

Sometimes I believe wholeheartedly. But sometimes, like Thomas, I want to believe but I struggle with doubt. I’m going to try something new. Instead of denying my doubts I am going to embrace them. I am even going to explore them. And I am going to wait for Christ to appear.

How God Screws Up Algebra

I recently read a status from a pastor at the church I grew up in. It was reminding people to come to church believing for miracles as they brought their “miracle offerings.” Having grown up in this church I know that the “miracle offering” is a yearly event where the pastors encourage people to bring in offerings “in faith” and see what God does in their lives as a result of their obedience. Then throughout the campaign (my term, not theirs) they share “success stories” of people who gave and were blessed unexpectedly (often financially.) I will allow that I have not been in this church for 5 plus years and things may have changed in how this is approached, but the point is not to attack this particular church, it’s to expose this particular branch of bad theology and how it has affected me.

This makes me sad. While I certainly believe that God is all-powerful and delights in doing miraculous things in our lives, a “miracle offering” for a “miracle we’re believing for” just feeds an unhealthy and unbiblical view of God and how he operates. It is the “if…then” mentality. It reduces an amazing, dynamic relationship with a living God to an equation… “If I do x (give money, serve here, pray harder, etc) God will do y (bless me financially, bless my family, answer my prayers, etc.)” One of my best friends is a mathematician. She’ll tell you that empirically, this type of equation should work every time. But use God as one of the variables and it screws up everything. God is not a puppet to be manipulated by our actions. Our sole motivation in giving, serving, praying, worshiping should be about how we can lay down our lives for the king of glory and allow ourselves to be used however He sees fit. When did it become about what we can get out of it?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t believe that God wants to bless us. He does. Scripture is full of passages that say exactly that. And I also believe that our obedience to God is crucial. BUT…the blessings we receive are still unmerited and undeserved. They are not the reward we receive for our good behavior. They are gifts lavished upon us by a God who delights in us, even though we could never earn them. I can think of no greater example than this, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Our obedience to God should be out of our love, devotion, gratitude, etc. not out of the hope that we can force God’s hand of blessing because we’re keeping our end of the bargain. This is kind of a parenting basic. If your kid only obeys you if you bribe them with candy, you have a problem.

I honestly find it really freeing to have moved away from these kinds of beliefs. (And my family is no longer in that church, by the way.) This kind of thinking put so much pressure on me to always do the right thing so that I could be sure of God’s blessing. Talk about a skewed picture of the grace of God! It’s not that I thought my salvation was dependent on my actions, but I certainly thought God’s blessings were. And it also led to a tremendous amount of guilt. It caused me to take responsibility for things that were often not my responsibility. If you follow this line of thinking through, it not only implies that our actions control God’s blessings, but also that if I was struggling or not sensing God’s abundant blessings it must be because I had not done the right things. If I changed my input, I could get the output I wanted. Not that I ever would have verbalized it that way (nor would this church.) But still…

Old thought patterns are difficult to break and I sometimes find myself slipping subconsciously back into this mindset. I’ve found myself doing it about our potential move to a new part of the country this summer. Without being tied to a particular grad school, we are essentially free to move anywhere we want. It’s very exciting to get to choose, but I’ve found myself growing anxious. I’ve thought What if we move to the wrong place? What if we pick a spot and it ends up being the wrong decision and we are miserable? Then we only have ourselves to blame. Somehow, in my subconscious I had taken over that mindset that it was all up to us. That we had to select the perfect place and if we failed, God wouldn’t be there for us and we’d only have ourselves to blame. As though we were in control.

A few days ago I was having a conversation with my mom about my younger sister. She is graduating from high school in May and deciding on a college. It has been a particularly stressful decision for my family. She was a scholarship to a school that, on paper, is everything she ever wanted in a college, but she just never felt right about going there. My mom especially has been struggling to figure out what will be the best thing for her, but has just felt unsure. In a God-inspired moment in my conversation with her I said, “Mom, remember that there is no place Maggi can go that God is not already there. It’s not as if you are looking for the place where God is so you can make sure Maggi follows him there. The Holy Spirit is living inside of her. He will be with her wherever she goes.”

As soon as the words came out of my mouth I knew I had said them because I needed to hear them. Just change the names around. There is no place Jonathan and I can go that God is not already there. The Holy Spirit lives inside of us.

For my friends wrestling with uncertainty (and who have made it all the way through this post), I hope this is as comforting to you as it was to me. There is no place you can go that God is not already there. You don’t have to look for the place where God is and follow him there. The Holy Spirit lives inside of you and he will be with you wherever you go.