Do you feel safe with Jesus?
I think most of us trust him to take care of us and provide for us. But do you trust him enough to ask him raw, honest questions?
Jesus is no stranger to hard questions. In fact, he frequently asked them. The Gospels are filled with Jesus asking questions of his hearers. Jesus masterfully used questions to reveal both more of himself and the heart of the hearer. What often takes place as a result is a deeper knowing and more intimate relationship with Jesus. Take for example his exchange with Peter in Mark 8:27-29.
Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
Asking hard questions requires vulnerability for both the asker and the person being asked. Too often we hide behind ‘politeness’ and refuse to ask people we love the questions that expose darkness. It is the relationship and the ‘deeper knowing’ that results from such questions that make them so vital. Jesus once again set an example for us in his relationship with Peter.
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17 NRSV)
I experienced the revealing power of hard questions first hand through my relationship with my sister-in-law. Almost two years ago exactly, I experienced my first miscarriage at 10 weeks pregnant. I learned that a miscarriage is not a one-time event or trauma but an ongoing, seemingly never ending, source of pain.
For the two months after it happened, I thought I had allowed myself to fully grieve the loss. As we were celebrating the following Thanksgiving with my husband’s family, my sister in law pointed out that my baby would have been due the following week and asked how I was feeling. I immediately started crying and experienced emotion I was previously unaware was still inside me. For the next month, my grief over the loss resumed.
At first, I’ll admit I was upset with her for bringing it up again because I did not want to feel the pain again. Now, I’m incredibly grateful to her for helping me fully grieve the loss. Often concerning painful events such as miscarriages, we hesitate to ask hard questions out of fear of the pain they will cause without realizing the safety and healing that can ultimately result from the asking.
The same comfort and healing we experience through asking questions in human relationships is available to us when we ask God our most honest questions. Once again, Jesus is our ultimate example. As Jesus was praying in the garden of Gethsemane preparing to go to the cross, he didn’t hesitate to ask God some hard questions. Read the full passage below and hear the deep cries of his heart to the Father. ‘Can you spare me the suffering that is to come?’ ‘Isn’t there another way?’
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”
And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.
Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” (Matthew 26:36-46 NRSV)
We know that God did not give Jesus the answers he had hoped for. However, we do know that he walked out of Gethsemane different than when he walked in. So how did Jesus ‘cope’ with the suffering he experienced on the cross? Did he sing worship music while hanging on the cross to dull the pain? Did he boast about having the ultimate victory? No, in the moment of his greatest suffering, without any reservation, he expressed (loudly) his fear, anger, and frustration to God in the form of a question:
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. (Matthew 27:45-49 NRSV)
Another Biblical figure we look to as an example in times of suffering is of course Job. Job was full of questions for God, even to the point of questioning his own existence. ‘Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?’ (Job 3:11 NRSV). Have you ever suffered to the point of regretting ever being born? If so, you are not alone.
What are human beings, that you make so much of them,
that you set your mind on them,
visit them every morning,
test them every moment?
Will you not look away from me for a while,
let me alone until I swallow my spittle?
If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity?
Why have you made me your target?
Why have I become a burden to you? (Job 7:17-20 NRSV)
How did God respond to Job? Did God answer his questions? No, God asked questions of Job. In fact, he spends the majority of four chapters (Job 38-41) asking questions of Job in return. The end result was a deeper relationship, deeper understanding, and ultimately Job’s comfort. ‘You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you’ (Job 42:4-5). After you take some time to ask God your difficult questions, take some time to listen to his response. What question(s) is God asking you?
Faith over Fear?
‘Faith over fear!’ is a common theme from pulpits these days. What if expressing our fear to God in prayer is an act of faith? Doing so demonstrates that we have faith that he is caring and compassionate towards us in our suffering. It shows that we have faith that he will not reject or condemn us simply for being afraid. We wouldn’t express our fears to God if we didn’t have faith that our cries for help will move him to action on our behalf.What if expressing our fear to God in prayer is an act of faith? Click To Tweet
Let me offer a better alternative: ‘Courage overcomes fear’. What fuels our courage? Divine Purpose. Prof. Wright talks in great detail throughout many of the N.T. Wright Online courses about our vocation as being God’s image bearers: reflecting God to the world. Our example demonstrates to people who God is. What image of him are you reflecting? An angry God? A distant and apathetic God? Or the God who wants us to cast our burdens on him because he cares for us! Now more than ever, we need to show the world the God who is not afraid of our hard questions.
I have always felt enormous pressure as a minister, an ambassador of Christ, to always have a divine answer for hurting people. I have always prayed for the Holy Spirit to supernaturally reveal to me the exact scripture verse or word of encouragement that someone needs to hear to alleviate their suffering. You may have seen Prof. Wright’s recent article in Time Magazine titled ‘Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus’. This article resonated with me deeply. After 10 years of ministering to those enslaved by addiction or experiencing homelessness, I have learned the hard way that asking questions is always better than giving answers.
Recently I was talking on the phone with a friend who was explaining to me the deep impact childhood abuse still has on her thinking and behavior. As I listened to the horrors she has endured, I wanted to help but I had no answers for her, all I had were questions. We spoke for about an hour, after which I was certain I had offered her nothing of value. Later she sent me an email thanking me and told me, ‘The Lord really used you the other day to be a safe-space.’ I was floored by her response as I was reminded of the power that simply asking honest questions could have. The safety we both experienced in this difficult conversation was the outcome of vulnerability and acceptance within the relationship. Remember back to Jesus’ time praying in Gethsemane. Even though he didn’t get the answer he wanted and even though he would not be spared the coming suffering, Jesus found safety in his relationship with the Father.
This global pandemic offers all of us new opportunities for empathy and the chance to be a ‘safe-space’. Maybe part of our struggle to be a ‘safe-space’ for others is that we do not view Jesus as a safe space for us. We are afraid or ashamed to let him into our darkest emotions and ask him our burning questions. We forget that Jesus experienced many emotions we have labeled as ‘negative’: anger, grief, despair, fear, betrayal, and loneliness. We must remember that there is no sin or shame in experiencing these ‘negative’ emotions. They are in fact, essential. They are the birthplace of our questions.
What does Jesus expect of his Church during this time of crisis? You do not need to have all the answers, but you should embrace the questions. Honest questions are the keys to unlocking the ‘safe-spaces’ we are all longing for. Boldly let Jesus enter the space of your anger, grief, fear, and loneliness, and experience a side of him you have may have never known before. Find the safety and comfort you have been searching for in being known fully and still accepted by Jesus. Then, use that knowledge to authentically reflect him to the world.