A few years ago I was teaching 800 Kenyan pastors in a hornet-infested barn about the love of God. After sharing a bit of my story and laying the groundwork for living loved, I asked them what questions they might have about God’s love that we could tackle in the next view days.
Immediately the room went visibly tense. The atmosphere grew fearful and deathly quiet. It felt as if they had been threatened and all 800 glared at me with a panicked look on their face. I knew no one was going to ask a question. So, I pushed pause. I told them we were going to take a break and they could get to know the people around them. I then went to the person who had invited me and asked him what had just happened in there.
“They don’t believe you,” he said. Then he told me that the last American speaker that came through paused at one point to see if anyone had any questions. Someone dared to ask one and immediately the speaker chewed him out to silence any other potential questioners. “How dare you ask a question! I’ve explained everything to you need to know and if you don’t get it by now it’s because rebellion is in your heart.”
Ahh. Now I understood. As we gathered back together, I assured them that I really wanted them to ask questions, that we needed to learn together, in their time, not listen to me lecture. I promised not to get angry or defensive, but to create a safe place for us to explore God’s love together. Tentatively at first, they began to respond and their hungry questions took us to some amazing places I would not have thought to take them on my own.
Asking questions is a critical component of spiritual growth. If we can’t ask what we need to ask or struggle openly with the thoughts and questions that plague our minds, how will we ever come to know the reality of the life and love that God holds for us? In Scripture, God often asks questions to stir our thinking. In the Gospels, Jesus responded openly and warmly to the truth-seeking questions that were asked of him. Of course, some asked questions out of malice or seeking to trap him in some way, but Jesus was still patient with them. He didn’t always give them the answer they wanted, but neither did he demean them.
There is nothing more important to your own personal discipleship than having the freedom to ask the questions you need to ask. Too many of us wait for someone to tell us what we should know, instead of looking honestly at our circumstances and asking the questions that will help us discover God’s reality inside us. I met a man in New Zealand whose entire discipleship came about just by asking questions. The man who led him to Christ didn’t give him a set of lessons to teach him to follow God. He just told his newfound friend to ask whatever question he wanted and he would try to answer it as best he could, or that they would find the answer together. Brilliant! That man grew up in a deep and sincere faith. That’s a great way to teach someone, inside their own questions and their own experiences. That’s how his Spirit works in us.
I’m thinking about this because I had lunch with a couple in their sixties who had attended a two-year Bible school in Florida a few years back. On the opening day of class, they were told questions wouldn’t be allowed through their course of study. They would be told what they needed to know and they did not allow students to ask questions of their instructors. I was dumbfounded. How could any school, especially one based on the life of Jesus, not allow people to explore openly? As horrible as that might be for people in their 50s and 60s, it’s especially horrible for students in their teens and twenties who think they are going to teach that stuff to others.
Most of the meetings I’m in these days give a maximum amount of opportunity for people to ask questions, explore the frustrations of their own journey, and really learn what it means to know him and follow him. The kingdom of God can withstand any the honesty of our struggles and the questions we need to ask. It’s hard enough to get Christians to ask questions to begin with. Most of us have been taught there’s a right answer to everything and if you don’t know it already, it’s because you’re not paying attention. Some hesitate to ask something difficult, concerned that I’ll get angry with them. I’ve even offered some groups $100 if someone makes me angry or I get defensive. I want them to know that any meeting I’m in is a safe place to discover and grow. Most of the best questions I’ve been asked came from people who were reticent to ask it because they thought no one else would care about the answer. Almost always everyone does. Don’t we appreciate the person who’s willing to ask the question everyone else wants to ask, but are too afraid to do so?
If you can’t ask questions and struggle with what someone is trying to teach you about God, then you’re not in an environment where the kingdom unfolds. If someone gets angry when you question them, or dare to disagree with them, they are not leaders who can help you discover God’s reality. And if you’re afraid to ask God any question that’s in your heart, you have yet to discover just how loving and gracious he is and how much he wants to help you understand how to live in him.
Yes, there is a difference between asking God questions and questioning God’s character or wisdom. There’s a way to ask questions with humility that will open your heart to see in a fresh way what he wants to show you, and there’s a way to challenge him defiantly that will blind you to what he wants to show you. I’ve done both. He can handle our defiance with a love that understands our pain, but until it gives way to humble surrender, we will not hear his gentle response. How can you surrender when you are angry or disappointed with him? Only one thing sets my heart at rest, to embrace his affection for me and to mistrust my conclusions about him outside that love. That can take some time, but it will open some amazing doors in your own spiritual journey.