My husband is the kind of person who likes to ask hard questions. He doesn’t see much point in small talk. If he’s interested in knowing you then he’s quick to get into the heavy stuff. The ‘what are you living for?’ kind of stuff. The ‘how are you really?’ stuff. All the types of questions that as a ‘nice’ British girl I was culturally conditioned out of asking people in favour of the polite – but usually pretty inane – patter of dinner-party-style chatter.
He’s no different when it comes to faith or dealing with hard questions in the Bible. In fact, the leader of a Christian Bible study for university students once took him aside and asked him if he could just stop with all the hard questions already. Apparently they were ‘confusing’ people. Apparently they were making people (or at least her) uncomfortable.
Hard Questions in the Bible and Institutional Religion
Is this a familiar story to you? Sadly, this kind of negative response from religious leaders to hard questions is all too common.
I myself have experienced many a cosy ‘Christian’ in-crowd where certain views get you ‘in’ and certain doubts or hard questions about the Bible get you pushed out onto the margins. (That being said I’ve also come across my fair share of cosy in-crowds among non-religious groups too – for more on how secular people can be equally ‘religious’ check this post out.)
The satirical online publication The Daily Mash gets this pretty much on point in their article: ‘Six questions Christians don’t like being asked’.
No wonder Christianity is sometimes seen as ‘anti-intellectual’. No wonder Richard Dawkins could feel justified in stating that religion: ‘teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world’.
Yet as Christians we shouldn’t avoid struggling through hard questions about faith. Just because we’re described as the ‘sheep’ to Jesus’ ‘shepherd’ in the Bible doesn’t mean we’re supposed to be docile, crowd-following, mindless and generally sheep-like.
And I’m not the only one to realise this. There are whole movements of Christians (Google ‘Christian deconstruction‘ and ‘exvangelical‘) who are leaving their churches to think through and grapple with their faith away from the disapproving gaze of church leaders.
Far from this questioning demonstrating a lack of Christian faithfulness, this is exactly what we’re supposed to do.
For a model as to how we as Christians should grapple and struggle and sometimes just plain out rage as we try to understand problems relating to faith – read Job. I’ll show you what I mean.
A Study of Job and Hard Questions About Suffering in the Bible
The Book of Job is anything but a polite dinner party conversation. The topic being served up? One of the very topics The Daily Mash picked out as being ripe for awkward silences among Christians: suffering.
Job is suffering. Deeply, horribly, unjustly. His body is falling apart, his children have died and he’s lost everything. His friends come and meet with him and he’s so changed by what he’s been through they hardly recognise him.
Yet to his friends’ credit, and unlike many a polite British dining room when someone brings up something messy or sad (like divorce or serious illness), they don’t awkwardly turn the conversation away to something else. They try their best to be there for him. To start with, they do this by just sitting with him – in a silent show of grief for his situation.
Yet that doesn’t mean there isn’t something extremely disturbing to them about what they see him going through. Something that shakes their beliefs to the core and puts them on edge.
Job is a good man suffering. They can feel everything they’ve been taught about God being shaken, undermined by this simple fact. God blesses good people. He allows suffering to happen to bad people, right? That’s what they’ve always understood, anyway.
The very sight of Job – a disfigured figure of unjust suffering – is difficult for them to deal with. At one point Job has to ask them repeatedly just to look at him (Job 6:28-29) – so difficult is it for them to take in and acknowledge the powerful threat to their faith which the sight of him presents.
Paul and Progressive Spiritual Understanding
How do you respond when what Christians have always taught you to believe doesn’t make sense of what you see?
There are bound to be moments in our lives where this happens. Where the neat and tidy answers we were taught as children in Sunday School or during our introductory Alpha courses don’t satisfy. They aren’t complex enough to make sense of the messy, complicated reality we find ourselves in.
Paul said as much to the Corinthians when he talked about different kinds of spiritual food:
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it.1 Corinthians 3:1
When it comes to understanding the ways of God, there is a progression. We have to start off by learning about God in simple terms – because it would be too overwhelming to be taught everything at once. The ways of God is a pretty overwhelming topic! Then as we mature as Christians we pick up our Bibles and delve in, ready to try to come to terms with the living truth contained within its pages. We’re now ready for solid food.
Progressive Learning in Other Disciplines
This isn’t just true about learning about God. It’s very common in all areas of study.
A frustrating aspect of learning science subjects at school was that I kept discovering that what I‘d learned the year before wasn’t the full story. Instead, it had only been the most complex version of, say, the atom or some biological process that my class was ready for at that level. Yet, if we continued only having that simplified understanding forever, then we would never be able to make sense of difficult related concepts at a university level (if we chose to take science that far).
And so we had to let go. We had to let go of ways of understanding things that, while they had served us well to a point, couldn’t take us any further. If we didn’t, we’d never get the more complete view that we would need in the future.
Job’s Friends Dealing with Hard Questions
So how do Job’s friends respond to the sight of unjust suffering threatening their faith? Do they search for the more complex view that will make sense of what their friend is going through?
They don’t. Instead they go on airing unquestioningly the partial truths, the spiritual milk versions of God that had served them well in earlier stages of their life.
Yet for Job, these answers aren’t enough. They can’t possibly be the full story because they don’t tally up with what he’s experiencing. In this catastrophic phase of his life he has a strong sense of urgency – an urgency to understand the workings of God more complexly than he ever did to help him survive it.
This being so, Job often finds himself apparently contradicting what his friends are telling him about God.
Job’s Hard Questions in the Bible
The first of these chapters, ‘The Wicked Will Suffer’, features Zophar’s perspective on bad people and how, ultimately, they will always get their comeuppance in the end.
The second of these chapters, ‘Job Replies: The Wicked Do Prosper’, features Job describing all the things he sees that don’t fit in with the image of the world Zophar presents. He sees many bad people who live easy, prosperous lives.
Why doesn’t God seem to do anything to get in the way of that?
Where’s the happily ever after that Zophar has told him to expect?
Job doesn’t see it.
There must be a more complete vision of God’s workings when it comes to suffering than this kid’s fairy tale Zophar is telling.
And a more complete vision of God’s workings, there does indeed prove to be.
Next week, we’ll take a look at what this more complete vision looks like and how Job’s pesky questioning was used to help him see it.
Prompts for Thought
Do you have hard questions about the Bible or faith? How do Christians around you respond to them? Do they try to shut you down or reject you? Or do they work to support you as you work through them with God?
What ideas about God have changed or you’ve had to let go of as you’ve matured as a Christian?