Thousands of books, lectures and sermons have addressed the theme of God’s word, or what God has to say to us. What we learn from these sources is about a God who declares things we should believe, or who dictates things we should obey. In this way of thinking, faith seems to be about believing and obeying.
It seems to me very surprising that almost no attention is ever paid to the frequent occasions within the biblical witness when God addresses people with questions. I have been interested in this idea of a God who asks questions and invites us to consider, propose and explore answers to these questions.
The questions God asks are, I suggest, genuine questions. It is not that God knows in advance the correct answer and, like the school teacher, is just checking to make sure that we know too. God’s questions openly invite people to decide what they think and to propose answers, maybe to respond with other questions or ideas. The questions God asks invite response and thus they attribute and recognize our own legitimate place in the world as responsible persons. Inherent in the idea of a God who asks questions is the vision of relationship with God as a continuing conversation. But it is not an easy conversation!
We are not far into the Bible story before we encounter one of the very
demanding questions God asks, in the story about Cain and Abel.
We will never know why God accepted Abel’s offering and not Cain’s. But
in this story we see a very important truth about religion: like Adam
and Eve, when people feel uncomfortable about the questions God asks,
they are tempted to take the fig leaves of religion, to hide from God.
It is the same with Cain. One Old Testament scholar says, about this
story: ‘The terribleness of Cain’s sin…(is this)… he is not caught
in a moment where he is separated from God, lost somewhere in the
busyness of his life: No the terribleness of his sin is that it arises
exactly at the point where he lifts his hands up to God.’ It is right
there, in his prayer and worship: that’s where he sins.
After Cain has killed his brother, we see again the God who comes
looking for friends, ‘dropping in’ for a conversation. Just like in the
garden, where God called to the man and the women, ‘Where are you?’ The
question has now become a social question, ‘Where is your brother?’
Cain of course wants to avoid this question. Just like his father, he
tries an excuse. He doesn’t blame a woman, rather he asserts the great
idea of individual freedom. We’re grown-ups now; we make our own
decisions. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
God asks a question that suggests otherwise: God insists that in
fact we are responsible for one another. God asks us to answer for the
others—the invisible ones, the people who are rarely mentioned in
church or on the TV news: the suffering broken ones, the unwanted, the
unloved, the homosexuals who, if they are not condemned openly are
rejected by our silence, addicts or prostitutes, trapped in their
ways, manipulated, broken; the people of countries like Peru or
Bangladesh, burdened by a debt they cannot pay. These are but a few
hints of the invisible ones. Often they are not killed, they are simply
made invisible. But their blood and their lives cry out to God, and
God asks: Where is your brother? What have you done to him? Where is
your sister? What have you done to her? We are responsible. We are
asked to give an answer!
There are dozens of powerful moments in the biblical stories when
God asks such searching questions. Sometimes they are ethical
challenges, sometimes they are comforting invitations. Perhaps the most
significant of all, for Christians, is the question Jesus posed to
Peter and the other followers: ‘Who do you say I am?’ It’s a
fascinating story, which we read in Mark 8. 27 – 33. Peter declares
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and Jesus commends
his faith. Then Jesus goes on to describe the nature of his mission:
that he is not the expected messiah, a great military general or
messianic potentate. No, he is the suffering messiah, the servant
Christ —and to this Peter makes another declaration, rejecting these
ideas. Then Jesus says: ‘Get behind me Satan’.
Have you ever wondered about this sudden change? At one moment Peter is
declaring the ‘great confession of faith’ and a moment later he is
opposing the things Jesus says are his destiny and purpose. You see, in
conversation with God it is not enough just to have the right words, to
say who Jesus is. That is not really the answer he is seeking. The real
test is to follow, to know what it means to say with all your being
‘Yes, Jesus is the Christ’. That is what it means to answer God’s
A third question God asks is one that I believe powerfully challenges
so much of the very ethos of religion and church life in our time. A
group of women, tired with that impossible weariness that comes with
grief, shuffled their way to the tomb of their beloved Jesus, to anoint
his body, a last deep offering of their love. They were astonished to
find the tomb open and the body gone, and two men in dazzling robes
spoke to them. And here is another question God asks: Why do you seek
the living among the dead?
It is a deeply disturbing question. Am I searching for life, but
looking for it among the dead? Have I found a way to deal with these
disturbing questions, cobbled together a few old fig leaves maybe, a
set of ‘answers’ to protect me from the deeper questions, challenges
and changes that I simply don’t want to have to deal with?
Where is your brother? Why seek the living among the dead? These
are questions God asks. The way we answer these questions is our answer
to the question, Who do you say I am?
The biblical texts referred to in this post are: Genesis 4. 3 – 12; Mark 8. 27 – 33; Luke 24. 1 – 9.
You can read the text by typing in the references here
The idea of a God who asks questions, and the conversational theology developed from this, is exlpored in a number of my academic writings, including the article ‘The Word in Question’ and in my book Wrestling with doubt.