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.

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.)

How to Be Helped

David makes a simple observation in Psalm 28 that has stuck with me for a couple of weeks now, so perhaps it is important…

He writes, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me,” (Psalm 28:7). 

Now, I don’t know if David believed this when he wrote it and was just stating a fact or if he was struggling with a heavy heart, as he often did, and was rehearsing truth in order to make his heart believe it… (I tend to assume the latter because a) verses 1-3 communicate David is in distress, and b) I am, as it turns out, a pessimist.)

In any case, I’ve been pondering the second half of verse 7 for a few days – my heart trusts in Him, and He helps me. In other translations it reads David’s heart currently trusts in God, and David is helped.

I guess there is a possibility the two ideas – David’s trusting and David’s being helped – were meant to be independent of one another, but experience tells me they usually aren’t.

When my heart has trusted in God in the past, I’ve been helped. Rarely, if ever, have I been helped while my heart was distrusting God. And by “helped” I mean emotionally stabilized and encouraged, not God gives me all the solutions to all of my challenges.

Interpreted that way, the verse presents us a very simple rule of thumb:

How to Be Helped

Simple. Not easy.

The truth is it’s hard for us to trust God most of the time. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Our feelings are loud and our circumstances are pressing and God is invisible and His timetable is not usually ever the same as ours… and we begin to question, quietly, in the corners of our souls where we don’t want church people to see, does God really have my best interest in mind?

The great theologian, Bono, once said, “What you don’t have, you don’t need it now.” But it sure feels like we need a lot of things and people we don’t have… It feels like God has maybe lost track of our needs… let them slip through the cracks…

And it’s when we are feeling like this that we have a choice. Do we want to be helped, or do we want to be hindered? It’s up to us, really. No one else can make the choice for us.

If we want to be helped, “all” we have to do is trust in God. God says He will meet all of our needs. Period. We have to resolve to believe Him (and Bono). If we don’t have something, it’s because we don’t actually need it. Not yet, anyway.

A final word: I suspect some of you might say to me, “I want to be helped. I want to trust God… I just don’t. And I can’t fake like I do…” I know. I lived as a hostage to my own limitations for many years (and frequently revisit that mindset, just to say hello…).

Something that freed me up in moments like that is this instruction: go to God and tell Him, “I want to trust You, but I don’t. Please help me trust You.” That’s it. You don’t have to pretend like you trust Him when you don’t – that’s exhausting, and He knows the truth anyway. Just sit before Him with a transparent heart, and ask Him to help you.

In fact, you might not even want to trust Him right now… maybe you’re hurting and want to hang it all up. Go to Him and tell Him just that – that you don’t want to trust Him – and ask Him to help you to want to trust Him… the crazy thing is, He will. And once He gives you the desire to trust Him, even though you don’t, then you can ask Him for the trust itself.

Whatever your next step is on the road to trusting Him more, as David wrote in verse 7, God is your strength to move forward.

Helping God

There’s a slightly crazy story in the Bible that speaks to the slightly crazy in my life, even though some of the details are a bit different.

Abraham.

God chose this nothing-special-about-him man to be the patriarch through which God would grow His people and, eventually, through which He would birth Christ to save the world.

So God lets Abraham in on this plan when he was 75 years young. He and his wife, Sarah, had no children, but when God made this promise to him, “Abraham believed the Lord,” (Genesis 15:6).

But then life happened.

Days gave way to months, and months gave way to years, and Sarah didn’t conceive. Slowly, their confidence in the Lord’s promise began to waver. Nobody was getting any younger, and, finally, they cracked.

Helping God
Photo by Stuart Miles @freedigitalphotos.net

Eight years later and still childless, probably fairly depressed and in need of a good marriage counselor, Sarah came up with a brilliant plan to “help” God make good on His word. She convinced Abraham to sleep with her servant, and, sure enough, the servant bore Abraham a son, Ishmael, at the ripe old age of 86.

Patting themselves on the back, Abraham and Sarah looked forward excitedly to God extending their family line through Ishmael, making the Abrahams into a great nation, blessing them, and giving them a beautiful land to live in under God’s protection with everything they could ever want.

Until Abraham turned 99 years old and God said, “No, no. You’re mistaken. Ishmael is not going to father My people. That was never My plan. I always intended to bless you with innumerable descendants through your wife, Sarah. You know, the moral way?”

More literally, God said to Abraham, “I will bless [Sarah] and will surely give you a son by her…she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her,” (Genesis 17:15-16).

This time, however, instead of responding in faith to God, Abraham hit the floor and laughed (Genesis 17:17). The text doesn’t explicitly say how Abraham laughed, but it could have very likely been a mocking laugh, as could have Abraham’s rhetorical question he asked under his breath, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old?”

Hold up just a minute there, Abe. Aren’t you the same dude who had his first son at age 86? What really is even the difference? You were old then, and you’re old now. GOD HAS DONE THIS FOR YOU BEFORE. And you’re going to doubt Him now?

Yeah, he is. Just like we do.

Honestly, it had been 13 years since Ishmael was born – 13 years since God had done the improbable in Abraham’s life. That was plenty of time for Abraham to lose the awe over that situation…or to rationalize it away.

Instead of learning from that experience and trusting God anew, Abraham says to God, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” (Genesis 17:18).

Abraham is bargaining with God! He’s trying to help God out again… “No, no, God. Making my super old and, up until now, totally barren wife pregnant would be way too much effort. Just use the boy I already have to carry out your grand plan of redemption!” When you think about it, that’s pretty kind of Abraham to look out for God like that… he was just trying to spare the Almighty the stress of having to figure out a way to make a woman who shouldn’t be able to get pregnant conceive.

Now, if I were God, my patience with this Abraham guy would be all but over. Yes, he has had faith at times, but, by and large, he has mucked things up over and over, taken matters into his own hands, and thinks he knows better than Me the majority of the time. I’d be ready to exercise my holy judgment right about now.

But God doesn’t do that.

God pours out grace.

“Then God said, ‘Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers,'” (Genesis 17:19-20).

Do you see what God did there? He answered Abraham’s prayer for Ishmael.

Abraham loved Ishmael dearly and wanted the best for him. He asked God to bless Ishmael. Now, true, Abraham was thinking that blessing should come instead of God blessing Sarah’s future son. But God, rich in love and mercy, blessed Ishmael in addition to blessing Sarah’s son. A lot of times we think, “Poor Ishmael! He was conceived in a sinful way because his dad didn’t trust God, and then he got gypped out of his inheritance when Isaac came along.” But we forget that God loved Ishmael as much as He loved Isaac. Abraham asked God to take care of Ishmael, and God did (although, not quite like Abraham had in mind.)

So what can we learn from this story? It’s okay to “help” God keep His promises, and He may even doubly bless you for doing so? That’s probably not the takeaway.

I think the morals of the story are more along the lines of a) God can be trusted, b) He doesn’t need our suggestions, c) He shows us more grace and mercy than we deserve when we don’t trust Him, d) He is okay with us telling Him what’s really on our minds, e) He makes wrong choices work out for our good, but not without allowing the natural consequences to break our hearts, and f) nothing is too hard for God.

If I’m honest, I’m a little too much like Abraham. I have faith at times, but, mostly, I doubt God’s power and trustworthiness. I doubt God’s intelligence and try to “help” Him by suggesting ways He should work my life out for me. I forget God’s track record of provision and follow through in my life and in the lives of others. And, like, Abraham, I need to stop distrusting and start waiting patiently for the Lord to unfold His perfect plan. 

You too?

Trust

So, to understate things, Israel had some trust issues with the Lord. (I’m glad to know I’m not the only one.)

The Old Testament spends a lot of time chronicling the ways in which Israel failed to believe God would/could take care of them, despite His promise that He would and His continual actions that showed He would.  They were quick to blame Him when they experienced the fall out of their own unfaithful actions (…this is starting to sound like someone else I know…).

In one particular instance (Isaiah 50:1), an exiled Israel dared to accuse God of abandoning them, comparing Him to a man who divorces his wife and a father who sells his children to pay off his debts (an acceptable practice back then).

God is quick to flip the tables on Israel, correcting their out of touch spin they’d put on the situation. He tells them, essentially, “Oh, you’ve been ‘abandoned’ all right, but not because left you; I gave you warning upon warning upon warning to stop committing idolatry, but you wouldn’t listen. Your stubborn hearts left Me, and now you’re experiencing the natural consequences of the choices you’ve made,” (Isaiah 50:1-2).

If the story had ended here, it’d be nothing more than a he-said-she-said middle school break up. Yes, Israel would’ve been guilty of breaking their covenant with God to only worship and fully obey Him, but God also would’ve been guilty of breaking His end of the deal to never leave or forsake Israel.

Frankly, I don’t have time for a God like that.

Can I say that?

I don’t need a “God” who isn’t true to His word (even when I’m not true to mine). I’ve got plenty of humans that can let me down in that regard (in fact, all of them can, myself included). An untrustworthy, undependable God is not something I am in the market for.

But the story didn’t end there… after God gives the exiled Israel their reality check, something intriguing happens.

He says, “Was my arm too short to ransom you? Do I lack the strength to rescue you?”

Do you see it?

God switches verb tenses.

The first question is past tense – was God unable to save Israel from whatever problems they were experiencing, “forcing” them to run to false gods?

The second question is present tense – is God too weak to rescue Israel from her current bondage in Babylon?

Of course, the answer to both questions is no, so the switch in verb tense not only highlights God’s sufficiency in Israel’s past and present situations, it screams the theme of the entire Bible, “REDEMPTION IS COMING!”

Rescue is imminent! God is with us – He always has been – and He is ready to rescue and redeem the hard parts of our lives – of our souls – when we’re ready for Him to. God has never been insufficient in our pasts, and He isn’t insufficient now!

Yes, this is prophecy referring to Israel’s physical rescue from slavery in Babylon. Yes, this is prophecy referring to mankind’s eternal salvation through the person of Jesus Christ. But I believe it is also prophecy referring to the Lord’s rescuing of believers from their everyday trials and tribulations.

The Lord is going to redeem this whole messed up world one day. When He returns, Christ will right it all. But in the meantime, He wants to redeem the individual heartaches we have and stupid choices we make in each of our lives, one by one.

Does He lack the strength to rescue you? Presently? Now?

No, His strength never diminishes. He is the omnipotent One.

Do you lack the strength to trust Him to rescue you? That’s okay. He doesn’t call you to trust perfectly, and His rescuing of you doesn’t depend upon your ability to do so. But being able to trust Him sure makes things easier on you. So ask Him to help you.

“Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God,” (Isaiah 50:10).