Asking Questions

For over 20 years, I held my theology close to my chest.  There were some things that were considered “essentials.”  I often recited what is usually attributed to Augustine, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”  Essentials are considered by many groups as the things that are written in stone—we don’t change them—we don’t even discuss them much—they are the non-negotiable things about our belief system.  I used to encourage people to not argue about them.  What I meant was don’t ask questions!

For my tradition, my people developed the Baptist Faith and Message.  This document did not always exist.  It was originally adopted in 1925, several years after the rise of Fundamentalism in the United States.  It was republished in 1963 and then again in 2000.  So, apparently, the document is not infallible although it claims the Scriptures are—and I have some questions about that.  Protestants, in general, kind despise the hierarchy of the Catholic church.  But, when it comes to doctrinal statements, trust me, most mainline denominations are very structured, and questions are generally discouraged.  Only a few duly elected people can tinker around with the doctrinal statement.

Peter Enns describes this need for certainty:

“Correct thinking provides a sense of certainty. Without it, we fear that faith is on life support at best, dead and buried at worst. And who wants a dead or dying faith? So this fear of losing a handle on certainty leads to a preoccupation with correct thinking, making sure familiar beliefs are defended and supported at all costs. . . A faith like that is stressful and tedious to maintain. Moving toward different ways of thinking, even just trying it on for a while to see how it fits, is perceived as a compromise to faith, or as giving up on faith altogether. But nothing could be further from the truth. Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain a healthy faith—these do not make for a healthy faith in God. In a nutshell, that is the problem. And that is what I mean by the “sin of certainty.”[1]

So, several years ago, I started asking questions with the assumption, “maybe I am wrong.”  What emerged is what I described in my book Apparent Faith: What Fatherhood Taught Me About the Father’s Heart.”  It wasn’t easy, but it paid beautiful dividends in the long run.  Later in this book, I take a closer look at the Beatitudes—not to question their validity, but just to ask new questions.  I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago, and maybe I can gain some fresh insight into their relevancy for me today.  Right now, let’s take a look at a prayer common to many groups these days called The Jesus Prayer.

           Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

Let’s just ask a few questions.  My first question is “where did it originate?”  As a formal prayer, its origins are most likely in the Egyptian Desert by the Egyptian Fathers.  In the Bible, Luke recounts a parable of Jesus where Jesus seems to encourage the disciples to pray like the publican, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”[2]  So, this lends some credibility to most people.  Jesus seemed to be a fan of praying for mercy.  He said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”[3]  This is actually a quote from the prophet Hosea.  But, do we need to pray this every day?  In another place, the Bible says, “His mercies are new every morning.”[4]  Do we really have to ask for them or would a loving God extend that mercy without being asked?  Maybe, Jesus was telling the Pharisee that the Publican was discovering the right way to think.  Was Jesus simply reinforcing his message that he doesn’t require a sacrifice, even to pray—doesn’t he gives mercy freely?

But I still have more questions about this prayer.  My primary question is, “What do I need relief from?”  In other words, “What do I need mercy for?”  Do I still believe that God is going to punish me for my sins?  I am inclined to move away from the doctrine of eternal conscious torment.  I don’t even see God generally as retributive because Jesus didn’t really demonstrate that as a reality of how God works.  Jesus wasn’t inclined to condemn or punish the people, he had mercy and compassion for them.  So, what was He going to do that I don’t want him to?  Can we see why it might be good to ask questions?

This leads me down a different path.  If Jesus said that he desired mercy, I would assume that He generally does what He intends to do.  So, am I praying that God will do what he already intended to do?  If God desires all to be saved (delivered), I would generally assume that, eventually, He is going to do that.  Yes, I said it!  If He desires to exhibit mercy toward me, does it make Him more likely to do it because I pray that he does it?  Does He need me to be willing for Him to have mercy on me for Him to demonstrate mercy toward me?

For my friends that practice this prayer regularly, please don’t interpret this as a criticism.  Asking questions does not negate a belief or practice.  In reality, it does something different.  When we discover a practice or prayer, we receive it with a certain bias.  We accept it’s meaning as whatever our current understanding of it is.  Even if it has been practiced for hundreds of years, we begin practicing it just as we understand it today.  As our understanding grows, our relationship to the practice or prayer also should mature.  To defend rigorously our understanding of the practice, belief or even Scripture, is to plunge into the certainty that Peter Enns warns against.  It can cause us to stagnate and become defensive and doesn’t necessarily lead us in the right direction.

My prayer is that we will keep asking questions.  At first, it can seem like everything is coming unraveled, but we can’t discover the gift inside a package until we unwrap it.  Questions help us discover the deeper and fuller parts of everything.  The eternal treasure is not at surface level and questions help us mine the depths to find the pure gold of our practice, prayers and sacred writings.

Asking questions helps us ask better questions.  Even after I discover the treasure, I still have more questions.  Where did it come from?  How was it used?  What do I observe about it that I never saw before?

In my opinion, the two-year old that asks questions should never be vanquished.  Too many impatient parents inadvertently deter their curious toddlers from the path of discovery by demanding they “stop asking questions!”  Their subtle assertion is, “I will tell you when there is something you need to know” and that implication gets reverberated throughout their future lives.  People tell them what is true, and they repeat it as truth and, like their parents, they get irritated when people ask them clarifying questions.  “Why, why, why..” becomes an annoying distraction from their love-affair with being certain and they squash any questions that arise.  After all, they assume, we know what we believe, and we are persuaded that what we currently assert to be true is as clear as it gets—no questions necessary.  Get on board, let’s get moving—stop slowing us down.  We aren’t due for another doctrinal update for another 20 years.  We will let you know when something changes.

If we really care about what we claim to care about, we should question it!


[1] Peter Enns, The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs

[2] Luke 18:13

[3] Matthew 12:7

[4] Lamentations 3:23


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