Among the liturgical texts for Holy Week is a surprising number of questions. “What will you give me?” Judas asks the Sanhedrin. “If you could not even watch with me one hour,” Christ asks his disciples, “why then did you promise to die for my sake?” “What evil has he done?” Pilate petitions the gathered crowd.
More surprising than these questions are those directed to God. “Why do you vanish from my sight, O Lamb of God?” the Theotokos asks. “How shall I bury you, my God?” Joseph of Arimathea wonders. At length comes the sharpest question, one Christ borrows from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These texts together raise a difficult question: can we question God?
Often our initial impulse is to answer “no.” After all, he is the Creator and we his creatures. He is the potter, we the clay (Rom. 9:28). He is the Absolute and we the merely contingent. What right have we, then, to pose questions to God? How could we here below presume to have any claim upon him there above? Just here we recall the voice that thunders from heaven in the book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!” (38:4). Not only do questions presume doubt, and doubt unbelief. More, the very act of questioning presumes a relation between us and God that forgets the gap that yawns between heaven and earth. Thus God’s retort to Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (40:2).
Equally scriptural, however, are the questions that pepper the liturgical texts of Holy Week. Indeed, many of the texts quote scripture by rote. Those with eyes to see will notice that questioning God actually runs like a read thread across the canon of scripture—Old Testament and New alike. Abraham pleads on behalf of Sodom’s righteous (Gen. 18:16-33); Moses asks God why he has been chosen (Ex. 3:11); Habakkuk asks why God remains unresponsive to his nation’s suffering (Hab. 1:1-4); the Psalmist wonders how long God will hide his face (Ps. 13:1-2). The very name “Israel,” remember—given to Jacob upon his nocturnal wrestling match with an angel (Gen. 32:28)—means “one who struggles with God.”
Not all questioning, it seems, is borne of distrust, disrespect, or disbelief. Abraham pleads only because he first learned of God’s mercy over his own life (Gen. 12:1-5). Moses asks his question in order better to learn the saving nature of God, learning in turn God’s very name (Ex. 3;13-22). Habakkuk petitions heaven only because he expects an answer (Hab. 2:1). The Psalmist too asks after God’s absence only because he already knows of God’s salvation (Ps. 13:5-6). Even goodly Job demands answers only out of the conviction that God will supply them (for which, by the by, God commends him for “speaking well” at 42:7).
Here scripture confirms a truth we already know from our own lives. Don’t we pose questions to our parents—or otherwise invite them of our own children? Don’t those questions presume a deep trust between questioner and the one questioned? Questions, it turns out, make sense only against a framework of shared accountability, of mutual trust—even of love. A parent who cannot abide her child’s questions, receiving every question as an affront to rather than a confirmation of her authority, would a poor parent make. More, that parent would thereby undermine the very authority she sought to defend exactly by revealing it to be precarious, frail, and insecure.
And so it goes, scripture suggests, with God. Small and petty would be the god who could not suffer questions from his children. But then any creator whose frail ego could not weather the plaints of his creatures would almost certainly not be a god worthy of worship. Fortunately, this is not the god that our God turns out to be. Any deity threatened by questions reveals himself immediately to be a mere “god” rather than the God of Israel, Isaac, and Jacob, the one revealed in and as Jesus Christ.
Not that there aren’t spiritual dangers to questioning. More attention to scripture yields a key distinction between asking questions in faith and asking questions in disbelief. Scripture handily gives us archetypes of each, actually. Consider the Theotokos on the one hand and her cousin by marriage Zechariah on the other. Both, you will remember, are visited by an angel who announces the miraculous children they are to bear—Jesus to Mary the virgin and John the Baptist to Zechariah and Elizabeth, well beyond child-bearing years. Both too ask questions, if differently.
When Gabriel speaks to Mary, her question is borne of faith. She asks not whether a virgin birth is possible or how she can know it. Instead, she asks only how it will happen. “How can this be,” she asks, “since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). Zechariah reacts otherwise. He asks not how this miracle will occur, but rather how he can know that it will (“How will I know this is so?” [Luke 1:18]), for which reason Gabriel strikes him mute and therefore unable to question.
The fundamental difference here is faith. The Theotokos, knowing God’s salvific and miraculous deeds, asks only how, given her virginity, God will accomplish his ends. But Zechariah, a priest who ought better to know and trust God’s miraculous acts across Israel’s history, asks how he can know for sure. The trouble here is not the asking of the question. No, it is rather that the question asked betrays ignorance of and disbelief in the God questioned.
So yes, the Bible suggests that we can question God. At least on the condition, anyway, that our question is asked in faith rather than in disbelief. As ever, the model here is the Theotokos. However difficult her questions of distress in the liturgical texts of Holy Week texts, they are also followed by assurance of an answer. “Speak some word to me, O Word,” she demands. “Do not pass me by in silence!” The very question reveals her faith in the God who is the Word spoken to us.
Some of us (on the old calendar, anyway) approach Thomas Sunday. As we do, we would do well to remember the character of St Thomas the Twin’s doubt. He did not refuse to believe in God. Neither did he refuse belief in the resurrection. What he refused was rather belief in a non-bodily resurrection, in a Christ who had returned as a mere ghost without Golgotha’s wounds. Such a “resurrection,” St Thomas knew, would not be the same one Christ himself prophesied earlier in the same Gospel (John 2:19). Thomas’s question was therefore asked in faith in Christ’s own message. And for his question he was granted the most exalted revelation of Christ’s identity: to “doubting Thomas” alone in the Gospel of John is entrusted the confession “my Lord and my God!”
“Ask, therefore,” the Lord instructs his disciples, “and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you” (Matt. 7:7).
Justin Shaun Coyle, Ph.D.