The faith I grew up with was full of questions that began with “how” and “what”. How can I please God? What does God demand of me so that I can be more holy? The biggest question of them all? What do I have to believe to be saved and how do I recognise those who are not? It was all very mechanical.
It’s true that asking how and what can help us consolidate,discern and grow. They are questions of measurement and explanation which is why they also form the basis of inspection regimes full of tick lists. They seek to define the standards of goodness and badness by which the inspected are measured. It has taken me a long time to realise that following Jesus is more than just passing a periodic inspection.
Still, many faithful people are happy to oblige. An imam once told me that life is like an MOT (the British annual vehicle roadworthiness inspection). When your time comes to stand before God the Judge, your headlights and brakes better be in working order. I’m pretty sure that my Sunday school teachers would probably have agreed. How and what makes for strange bedfellows.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life”, asks a rich young man in the gospel of Matthew. He tells Jesus that he’s done everything else right; he’s kept all the commandments and is a clean living boy. But he senses that he’s missed a step somewhere. So he’s hedging his bets by seeking the opinion of this hip new teacher.
Jesus’ response is to probe the reason why the young man is there. Though he doesn’t say it he is really asking, “Why come to me if you’ve done everything right?” Nonetheless, he scratches his head and comes up with an answer: “try this on for size: go and sell everything”. Being rich was an accepted sign of God’s blessing; Jesus was telling him to chuck in that theology and find eternal life by faith instead.
The young man goes away sad; this wasn’t the solution he wanted. In fact it sounded like a joke.
Christians over the centuries have regularly accepted the young man’s approach over Jesus’. We itch for real success in every aspect of our lives. We itch for The Answer. If we just knew the right thing to do, everything else would fall into place.
Dealing with God on a How and What basis puts us constantly in the position of being people on a treasure hunt. What do I have to do now? Always feeling we have to give an answer that sorts everything out leaves us eternally vulnerable to missteps and disappointment.
I remember once driving through the Oregon desert with my wife. The only radio station we could get was a Christian one featuring a guy called the “Bible Answer Man”. People would write in their questions and he would…well his title says it all. On this hot and dusty day he was asked if there were dinosaurs on the ark and if there were, what happened to them.
“Yes, there may have been,” he said boldly. “But they are not around now because the flood waters changed the environment so much, they couldn’t live in it any longer and so they died out”. To this day, that remains the best, concise explanation of natural selection I have ever heard. By wanting things tidied up so that we feel better and complete, we miss the point. The most die hard fundamentalist ends up sounding like Richard Dawkins.
However, we discover more about the mystery of ourselves and the mystery that is God by being truly biblical and asking more “why” questions. Why are we here? Why are we so destructive and yet so capable of love? Why should I care about famine victims? Why do we love? I can explore these questions and live out what I discover.
Jesus was pretty comfortable with why questions because he knew that they led to pragmatic answers. For instance, read the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Which question fits better: what must I do to make God love me or Why does God still love me, even though I fall short of the mark?
Maybe the latter question leads me to ask more questions: why do I fall short of the mark? What might life be like if I consciously cut back on what causes me to fall short of the mark?
We might be tempted to create a tick box laden plan of how not to fall short any more and try to make it look like salvation. But if it’s got tick boxes, it’s probably not salvation.
When God says “Thou Shalt Not” it is meant to cause me to ask “why not?” and then begin answering the question for myself so that I own the question and the answer. Why not covet? Because it leads to all kinds of rubbish for people, nations, foreign policy, corporations and relationships. Now maybe I understand God hates coveting because of what it does to the thing he loves the most: us.
The risk we run by letting “why” be our first question is messier lives, lives less defined by power, ambition, and wealth and seeing people as means to an end. That can only be a good thing for the world.
The Psalmist hit the nail on the head when he asked God why he cared so much about humanity. It’s a good question and fortunately we have
an eternity to answer it.