How to Have Faith in the Face of Unanswered Questions

There are things about God you and I will never understand.

I’m being reminded of this a lot lately. As I teach through the entire Bible, chapter by chapter, questions arise.

Questions I once asked but now know the answers to… Questions I once asked but never found the answers to… Questions I once asked but was too lazy to go find the answers to… Questions I now ask and go find the answers to… Questions I now ask and never find the answers to… Questions I now ask and am too lazy to go find the answers to… And questions those I’m teaching ask that I’ve never considered…and may or may not know the answers to.

[See the analyticalness in that last paragraph? I have to cover every base, every combination and permutation of options. It’s a sickness, really.]

My natural bent is to feel unsettled when I have questions I can’t answer. I like information. I like all the information. Having it gives me a sense of control–a false sense, by the way–and when I don’t know something, I feel uneasy.

This feeling once drove me to totally deny Christianity and the existence of God. Because Jesus couldn’t be proven in a lab, I would not accept His claim to be God as a possibility.

Do you know what changed my mind about Jesus?

I’ll give you a hint: I never got all my questions about Him answered to my satisfaction. I didn’t finally meet someone who could smush Christianity into my tiny box-of-logic.

What changed my mind about Jesus is 1) I realized I needed God, and 2) the God of the Bible made a lot of sense to me. Notice: the Bible didn’t make total sense to me.

As I began to study the Bible with an open mind, God began teaching me about His character. I discovered more and more who He is and what He is like and, conversely, what He isn’t like.

Over time New Testament scriptures proved true in my own life, enhancing my trust in the Bible’s validity, and, in turn, in the Bible’s descriptions of God as wholly trustworthy and good.

I still had plenty of intellectual hurdles I couldn’t clear in regards to Christianity. And I still do. But I’m a lot more comfortable with the unanswered questions than I used to be. Because the questions I can answer–Will God forgive me? Will He abandon me? Does He love me? Is His Word true?–all confirm His character.

So when someone asks a question like, “When babies die, do they go to heaven?” I can say, “I don’t know–the scriptures don’t expressly speak to that–but I know God is good and just and loving, so I trust Him to do the right thing by those babies.”

And when someone asks, “Why did God even give Adam and Eve the option to disobey Him in the garden? Why even plant that tree? He set them up for failure. Who is kidding who?” I can say, “I don’t know why God allows evil. It may not make sense to us, but I know God is wise and in total control, so I trust Him to use evil for good.”

To put it philosophically, the sensibility of God (that is, the fact that He makes sense), does not depend upon man’s (in)ability to completely make sense of God. There are things about Him that will never make sense to us humans. But He has given us enough glimpses of Himself in the scriptures for us to reasonably believe He does, in fact, make sense in all ways. It is not He who is illogical from time to time but us.

And that thought provides me comfort and peace in the midst of unanswered questions.

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Overflow

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:13

Paul wrote this to the Christians in Rome as a blessing after exhorting them to be unified and accepting of one another.

Not unlike the Romans, God is attempting to teach me about the power and freedom of acceptance and trusting Him with the question marks in my life.

This preposition-laden verse catches my eye because Paul is saying a lot of important things in one poorly crafted sentence.

(Can I say that? Can I say his grammar was awful and the English translators need some lessons on when to use commas? I digress.)

It strikes me that God has a job–to fill us–and we have a job–to trust in Him. As we trust, He fills. The two actions are meant to occur simultaneously.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that if we don’t trust, He won’t fill. However, I’m willing to bet that more often than not we have to get the ball rolling by trusting Him first.

Why?

Because of what God is filling us with: all joy and peace.

Dare I say it is probably impossible for us to experience all joy and peace while not trusting Him?

I do.

I dare.

So we start trusting Him, and He fills us, and we skip off into the sunset, hand in hand, in this beautiful unending bliss of simultaneously trusting and filling forever and ever, amen.

At least that’s how it is supposed to be.

I find it interesting that God doesn’t only fill us with joy or peace but with both. Again, perhaps we can’t have one without the other.

I also find it interesting Paul asks God to fill the Romans with all joy and peace. Not some; not a lotAll.

In the same vein, God fills us with these things. He doesn’t just offer a little of each; He gives us as much as we can take.

Paul isn’t shy about praying for an abundance of awesomeness. Maybe I shouldn’t be either…

So we trust God; God fills us with all joy and peace.

But why does Paul want this for the Romans?

Well, the obvious human answer is because joy and peace feel good. Paul must want the Romans to live their best lives now…or then, as the case is.

Maybe. But the scripture says more.

We trust God; God fills us with all joy and peace, “so that you may overflow with hope…”

Ahhhh.

Paul wants the Romans to overflow with hope, and their trusting God is the first step on the path to get there.

When God fills us, on account of our trusting in Him, we overflow with hope. He fills us with all joy and peace, and then we flat spill over with hope.

Wow.

I can’t remember the last time I brimmed with hope. I have to admit it sounds appealing.

Why would Paul want the Romans to overflow with hope?

Maybe because it’s a privilege Christ-followers have that is worth taking advantage of…non-believers don’t have access to the True Source of hope.

And/or maybe because when we reflect hopefulness to the world, they are attracted to Christ in us. Our overflowing with hope is an evangelism tool, if you will, which sounds like a win-win to me.

What’s interesting is the cooperation between God (the Father) and the Holy Spirit in this process. God does the filling with joy and peace, and the Spirit empowers the overflowing of hope. I don’t really know what to do with that observation, but I’m sure Paul stuck it in there for a reason.

All this to say, trusting God sounds like a pretty good idea.

I know, anti-climactic.

How to Reduce Fear and Increase Faith

In Mark 4 Jesus asks His disciples two questions I think He asks you and me pretty regularly, too.

His inquiries are made to the disciples at the end of the story of how He speaks to the wind and the waves in a “furious squall” and they immediately die down.

After calming the storm with just three words, “Quiet! Be still!” Jesus says to His disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:39-40).

It struck me that what Jesus is implying is that if they had faith, they wouldn’t have fear. Faith and fear, then, are opposites.

If we find ourselves fearful about something, the best prayer we can pray, it seems, is, “Lord, increase my faith!”

How does God increase our faith?

First John 4:18 reads, “…perfect love drives out fear…” And this description of what love does comes right after John’s defining what love is: God. “God is love,” (1 John 4:16).

So, God is love – perfect love, of course – and perfect love drives out fear. Logic tells me, then, that God drives out fear. But it’s a particular aspect of who He is that removes fear from our hearts: Love.

If you’re still with me, I believe God increases our faith in Him by driving out the fear in our hearts via His making us more and more aware of His perfect love. 

The better we understand His love for us, the calmer we are and the more easily we trust Him, whatever may come.

I think it’s worth noting Jesus’ second question is, “Do you still have no faith?” He didn’t expect the disciples to have perfect faith, just some faith. But, apparently, they didn’t have any at all.

It would make sense to me that fear and faith are inversely proportional: the more we have of one, the less we have of the other.

I was tempted at first to write they cannot coexist, that when we feel or have one, we cannot feel or have the other. But I don’t think that’s true.

We are fallen and will never have perfect or complete faith in God about anything. Our flesh and Satan whisper doubt to us all the time, scaring us. But the more we focus on God’s love, the louder our faith will be and the quieter our fear will get.

The last part of these questions that caught my eye is the word still. “Do you still have no faith?” I can sense Jesus’ exasperation that after all the disciples had seen Him do, all they’d heard Him say, all they’d experienced with Him, they still didn’t believe Jesus knew what He was doing when He told them to set sail that night? They still didn’t believe Jesus would protect them no matter how terrible the storm got or how soundly He slept?

Why didn’t they have faith in their teacher who was obviously divinely anointed?

Because in the moment they forgot everything they knew about Him. They forgot the miracles they’d witnessed Him perform, the healings they’d seen Him do, the wise teachings they’d heard from His mouth, and the hints He’d been dropping that He was the Messiah.

Instead of recalling the truths about Jesus – the things that would have given them faith – the disciples focused on the wind and the waves threatening their lives. They focused on the fear.

We have to train our minds to remember all the ways Jesus has been faithful to us throughout our lives. We have to think about all we’ve been through with Him, how He has blessed us and protected us in the past. Especially in the middle of a fear-inducing storm, we have to focus our thoughts on His impeccable character and unfailing love for us.

To reduce fear and increase faith in our lives, we need to study His perfect love and remember all He has brought us through.  

Relying on God

If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. – 1 John 4:15-16

The chick on the Bible study video, Kelly Minter, honed in on the word “know” this morning… she pointed out the Greek is more specific. “Know” here doesn’t mean intellectual assent, like I know my telephone number. Rather, this particular “know” means to understand as a result of experiencing, like I know my husband as a result of interacting with him daily and deeply for 10+ years.

We are to know the love God has for us because we’ve experienced it.

Bible study lady was making a fascinating point, and she proceeded to examine other times John uses both kinds of “knows”, but I found myself zeroing in on a different word in verse 16: rely.

We know and rely on the love God has for us…

It struck me that rely is a verb. It’s an action. To rely on God is an action we have to deliberately take or it won’t be done.

As I pondered what it is to rely on something, it also struck me that it can’t be done halfway. You either rely on something, or you don’t. But you don’t “sorta” rely on something. To “kind of” rely on something is to not rely on it at all.

Sometimes I get hungry. But I hate cooking. So I go to a restaurant and rely on people there to cook something for me. Except on Christmas Day. I know that 99% of restaurants are closed on Christmas Day, so I don’t rely on them to feed me then. (I rely on my mother-in-law then, but that’s neither here nor there…) What I’ve never done is “sorta” relied on a cook at a restaurant to feed me. I’ve never brought my own sack lunch, just in case my meal was burned or the chef got sick. I’m either all in or all out, wholly depending upon the restaurant or not depending on it at all.

In fact, I can’t think of one situation in which I’ve ever “kind of” relied on something.

So when John tells us to rely on the love God has for us, I’m fairly certain he means to whole-heartedly count on that love. Which we can do, logically, given that we know His love is trustworthy from past personal experience.  

We are being called to trust God’s love 100%. We are being commanded to put all of our hope in the fact that God loves us… no matter the trials that may come… no matter the suffering we will endure… no matter the bleakness of the current state of affairs. We can and should totally rely on God’s love for us.

Two emotions surface for me thinking about this concept:

First, I have a sense of utter desperation. Waking up to the news telling me about the slaughter of Christians all over the world countless times in the past six months is enough to make me feel like I can’t rely on anything for safety and protection from the evil in this world. If people are executed in American churches, the “safest” places on earth to worship, where else are we going to go to protect ourselves? My feeling of desperation says, “Thank God we can rely on the love God has for us because we can’t rely on anything else…” 

Thankfully, though, that first sentiment quickly gives way to another: peace. The love of God is not some consolation prize. We don’t merely rely on His love because that’s all we’ve got to choose from. (We can find plenty of other woeful substitutes with which to self-medicate… or so I’ve been told…) No, we stake our lives on God’s love for us, trusting Him and Him alone to take care of us in all the right ways at all the right times, because His love is rock-solid. It is wholly trustworthy to support us and nurture us all the days of our lives. The fact that I can rely on something as infallible as the love of God for all my needs is a reassurance like no other.

But just because it makes sense and brings me peace, it doesn’t mean relying on God’s love for me is easy. It’s not because relying on God isn’t my default setting. I’m a fallen human, just like you, so I’ve been programmed to rely on me. And that’s what I do unless I make the intentional decision to consciously rely on God. And the moment I stop focusing my thoughts on doing so, I slip right back into “self-sufficiency” without even realizing it.

Since I can’t rely on myself to rely on God’s love for me, it’s apropos to end with this: I’m going to rely on God’s love for me to help me rely on God’s love for me.

(I think those are His favorite kind of requests, by the way… when we stop pretending like we can do any single positive thing without Him wholly equipping us to do so… we are a desperate people… thank God we have a God who loves us and who not only allows us to rely on Him, He invites us to rely on Him.)

Security

Right before he died, Moses gave a blessing to each tribe of Israel (Deuteronomy 33).

I’m not sure what avenue he used to do this – did he speak the blessings or write them down? Did he communicate them to some large general assembly or to just a select group of leaders? Did each tribe have representatives present to receive the blessings, or did they have to wait to learn of their blessings via the Israeli Postal Service?

Regardless, one of the shorter blessings caught my eye today.

Deuteronomy 33:12 reads, “About [the tribe of] Benjamin [Moses] said: ‘Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.'”

While this gem was initially written to Benjamin, it is not an applicational stretch to say it was (secondarily) written to you and me, too.

Why isn’t it a stretch?

Because a) you and I and all followers of Christ are the modern day “beloved[s] of the Lord”, and b) God does not change.

God loves us, ergo, we are His beloved. That one’s easy to see, right? We are “the one[s] the Lord loves”, and, as such, we can “rest secure in him”. Other translations read “dwell in safety by him”. Both renditions carry within them a sense of transcendent peace that can quiet an anxious soul with His presence…if we let it.

Why can we rest secure in Him?

Because our unchanging God shields His beloved – us – all day long. Not part of the day, all day. He doesn’t take a lunch break or get distracted by His Twitter feed from time to time. No, all day He actively shields you and me.

What does He shield us from?

All manner of that which is not in our best interest (Romans 8:28; Jeremiah 29:11).

How does He do this? I think He protects us by putting us at “rest between his shoulders”.

What in the world does that mean?

I didn’t know, so I asked some old guys (i.e., free online commentaries written by now deceased gentlemen). Jameison, Fausset, and Brown, and Matthew Henry both give a geographical explanation for what is meant by “rest between his shoulders” that you probably aren’t interested in. Essentially, as I understand it, the Temple God inhabited was built on Mt. Moriah, which lay within Benjamin’s borders. The correlating imagery, then, is that the Temple itself represented God’s head and the mountain represented His shoulders. More to the point, the people of Benjamin literally “dwel[t] in safety by [God]”, in the shadow of the mountain (or of His metaphorical shoulders, if you prefer), which is just a fancy way of saying they dwelt under His holy protection.

So it is with us. As we – “the one[s] the Lord loves” – “rest between his shoulders”, it just means that He is protecting us from all manner of that which is not in our best interest.

So we got that going for us…which is nice.

I love this blessing for a couple of reasons.

The first is I just love the Hebrew concept of the patriarch speaking a blessing over his children. Fathers were supposed to speak life-giving words to their first-borns (although, as a second-born myself, I do believe I would’ve pulled a Jacob and snatched that blessing right out my brother’s ears and my dad’s mouth, but that’s a different post entirely). Verbally blessing their children was a normal thing back then. And while I am sure it didn’t go down how I like to picture it – a warm, sentimental moment during which the father cupped his son’s face in his hands and spoke full-bodied words of love and affirmation – the fact that it went down at all makes my heart smile.

But I love this blessing in Deuteronomy in particular because it’s an invitation for me to rest secure in my heavenly Father’s presence. As the Holy Spirit speaks to me through this scripture, it’s even better than a patriarch’s blessing; it’s a blessing from the Lord Himself.

And He’s saying it to you, too. He’s cupping your face in a warm, sentimental moment and saying, “Rest secure in Me, for I shield you all day long, and you rest between My shoulders.”

It’s Clear Above the Clouds

If I had to guess, I’ve flown about 100 times in my life. As a military kid, flying was a way of life. Whether we were moving halfway around the world or traveling to visit extended family members we weren’t privileged to live near, I spent more time at 34,000 feet by the time I was 12 than most people do in their whole lives.

All that to say, I’m familiar with the process.

Yet, every single time I ascend in an airplane, I am filled with wonder. Good wonder, mostly. (I have bad wonder too – how do people taller than 5’6″ and more than 115 lbs use the lavatories, for instance.)

My flights Thursday and Sunday were no different. Like a child on her first flight, I peered out the oval window almost the entire time, waxing philosophical.

During the initial climbs I pondered, as I always do, how it is that the human brain came up with this extreme way to defy gravity. I imagine God was laughing as gleefully as the Wright brothers were when they finally got their contraption off the ground. The joy of creating and the thrill of invention is something God is quite familiar with.

Then, as we passed through the clouds, I thought, as I always do, how mysterious clouds are. They look so soft and fluffy, like cotton stuffing from a child’s teddy bear, yet we physically pass through them as if they are phantoms. I’m not up on the science, so perhaps that’s why it perplexes me that we can see clouds but we can’t feel clouds…

photo (2)

After we passed through the clouds, we were, as it were, above the clouds. We settled in at cruising altitude and sped across the round surface of the earth at over 600 miles per hour, but it felt like we were crawling… another enigma that always comes to mind when I’m flying.

It’s at this point I always think about how close, relatively speaking, I am to space. The clouds beneath me, the light blue sky bleeding imperceptibly into navy blue, I suppose, as a result of the dark, atmospheric blanket hugging our little world – it’s miraculous to me that the average human (astronauts not withstanding) can safely and successfully travel that far off the ground…

photo (1)These are the things that run through my mind on each and every flight I take. But that’s not it. There’s always more. I always have at least one unique revelation when I’m hurtling through the sky in awe.

(For instance, when I was 13 years old, flying alone, peering out the window, I decided the deceptive nature of clouds was a symbol for life – nothing is as it seems, and everything is a disappointing facade. I was delightful back then 🙂 )

Thursday’s flight was no different. With my forehead pressed against the plexiglass (I hope someone cleaned that before I got on the plane), staring straight out at the bluest of sky, I realized something.

It’s always clear above the clouds. 

When planes take off, assuming it isn’t an entirely clear day, they are below the clouds, and their goal is to get above the clouds to make a smooth ride for the passengers. Pilots may disagree with me, (and they certainly would be qualified to do so), but I personally have never been on a flight where we didn’t get above the clouds and discover every single time that it was clear up there.

We pass through the clouds, sometimes being unable to see anything at all and often uncomfortably bumping our way to higher elevation. But once we get up there, it’s clear… always.

And so the spiritual analogy practically writes itself.

There are real clouds in our lives. I spend most of my time living under them, fretting about the storms they potentially hold. Sometimes I climb inside them, disoriented as to which way is up, blindly searching for safe ground to return to. But rarely do I successfully navigate through them to higher, clearer, peaceful sky.

The Lord doesn’t want us to stay beneath the clouds, too afraid to deal with the painful things within us and that life has in store for us. The truth is, we can’t avoid all pain. If we don’t go through the clouds, sometimes the clouds come down to us – all the way down to the ground in a thick haze of fog.

And the Lord doesn’t want us to get stuck in the clouds – to begin to unwrap the parts of ourselves that need His healing, to begin to embrace the painful parts of life that are meant to grow us into Christ’s image – only to get turned around and fearful when confusion sets in. If we scramble back to the “safety” the ground has to offer, those clouds will still be there, looming, waiting for us to gather up the courage to try to deal with them again…

God wants us to persevere, pushing through the clouds, trusting that He is guiding us by our right hands, leading us to clear, peaceful skies above the clouds.  He wants us to trust Him with our hearts, our pain, our scary circumstances, our needs, our wants, our everything – even when we can’t see – and to allow Him to bring us to the place of His peace that surpasses understanding.

It’s not that the clouds aren’t there anymore when you’re flying at 34,000 feet. They are. You just have a different perspective on them. The storms they contain aren’t so threatening when they are below you. And when we are truly trusting God, allowing Him to infuse our hearts with His peace, the broken parts of ourselves and our lives don’t seem quite so consuming anymore.

“For I am the LORD your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.”

Isaiah 41:13

Us Versus Them

In any kind of conflict, we humans instinctively feel defensive. Whether it’s a tiff with a spouse, a disagreement with a friend, or an argument with a boss, we immediately adopt an “us versus them” mentality. It’s just how we’re wired.

Which would be fine if that were how God is wired too. But it’s not.

In that passage we all hate, Jesus said we’re to forgive other believers who hurt us 70 times 7 times, by which He was implying as many times as it takes (Matthew 18:21-22). Why? Because Jesus has forgiven us a million times over – there is nothing He hasn’t forgiven us for – and He wants us to offer the same grace to others (Colossians 3:13).

And He doesn’t want us to just forgive them and part ways. He wants us to forgive them and continue in relationship with them (so far as it depends on us – Romans 12:18). (The obvious exception – when abuse is involved.) I know this because that’s what He does with us. And the longer we spend on this earth, the more like Him we should become (Romans 8:29).

He also tells us Christians to love one another as He has loved us… which begs the question – how has He loved us (John 13:34)? Unconditionally. He literally died for us, and He calls us to figuratively give up our lives for one another. 

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul pens a whopper of a passage. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” (Ephesians 4:2-3).

Completely humble?

Every effort?

But what if I’m tired of trying? What if the other party doesn’t care? Worse, what if the other party continues to hurt me or show no regard for my feelings?

How long do I have to bear with them? Surely there is a statute of limitations… As much as my humanity would love to say there is, I don’t see one in scripture… Jesus’ “bearing with me” and all my crap doesn’t have a time limit. And neither should our bearing with one another.

But wouldn’t it be more “peaceful” for two people in seemingly irresolvable conflict to part ways? Let’s call that what it really is – to divide. Shouldn’t two believers who can’t work things out split up in order to “keep the peace”? After all, “keeping the peace” is biblical… (Romans 12:18)

As much I as I wish it did, that just doesn’t seem congruent with “keeping the unity”… Logically, how can that which is divided also be unified, simultaneously? By definition, it can’t.

Might I propose that between two believers, there ought not be such a thing as “irreconcilable differences”? By the power of the Spirit, at least one of the parties ought to be able to extend grace, humility, love, and mercy… as many times as it takes… and since we can only be responsible for our own actions in any given conflict, our choosing to be the party that makes every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit is all that’s in our control. We can choose to obey scripture, despite our feelings, and despite the other person’s choices.

But if the other person doesn’t seem to care at all about “keeping the unity”, that can make for a pretty crummy situation.

So what then? Are we to just remain in a bunch of miserable relationships – us versus the ridiculous them?

I don’t think so.

After his tall order of how we ought to behave, Paul says, “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all and through all,” Ephesians 4:4-6.

You see, there is no “us” or “them”. At least there shouldn’t be. Not in the body of believers. We are one.

The people we disagree with – we’re one with them.

The people who hurt our feelings – we’re one with them too.

The believers who outright hurt us time and time again – one.

We must make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. The Church depends on it. The Gospel depends on it. We have to forsake the “us versus them” mentality that we reflexively assume when someone crosses us.

We believers are one, whether we feel like it or not. We should be rooting for one another to succeed, spurring each other on to love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, and encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Lord, by Your power, may everything we do and say contribute to the unity of Your Body, the Church. We are one. May we act like it.