I Don’t Know…

I spent a good portion of my adult life working in positions where my value rested in my ability to impart knowledge and answer questions. As a teacher, my job was to guide students into a base of knowledge about the English language (and especially spoken communication) so that they would be prepared to adequately speak, read, write, explain, defend, and use it. I was expected to know enough about grammar, spelling, connotations of words, nonverbal communication, sound logic (and fallacies to avoid), presentation, tone of voice, etc., to enable students to improve their communication and use language more effectively in their careers, academic endeavors, business dealings, and even in personal relationships. If they had questions about word choices, written or spoken directions, propaganda techniques, advertising tricks, euphemisms, or a hundred other topics, I was expected to have an answer– and one that would shape their ability to succeed.
When I made the transition to working in a public library, my job was to have answers– which books were at the appropriate reading level for various elementary students; where could someone find information about manatees; who wrote the Captain Underpants books (Dav Pilkey); did our library loan out encyclopedia volumes or sets of early reader books; could our library borrow a rare book from another library; what was the capital of Uganda (Kampala); did we have books that might help a child coping with the loss of a pet, or a parent struggling with toilet-training their toddler; where could someone find … the list was endless and extraordinarily varied. My job was to have an answer– or know where to find it.

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At no time was it expected that I would simply answer “I don’t know.” Even if I didn’t know in the moment, I was expected to search until I found an answer that was sufficient and satisfactory. However, in each case, I found situations where my “answer,” while satisfactory to me, and even to everyone else I had dealt with, was not enough to satisfy the person in front of me. Sometimes, I had misunderstood the question and given an answer to what I heard or assumed I had heard. I needed to listen some more, or ask for clarification before I could answer the question correctly. Sometimes, the other person was looking for an answer that didn’t exist– either they wanted confirmation of a falsehood they believed to be true, or they wanted a single, absolute answer to a question that was complex and open-ended. In rare cases, there were questions for which I could find no satisfactory answer– it doesn’t mean that there was none, but I had not found it, nor had I found someone else who could find it in the time allowed. I might find an answer that was not satisfactory, or I might find seven possible answers, but not one that stood out from the others, or I would find nothing but dead ends.


The Apostle Peter tells each follower of Christ:

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

1 Peter 3:15 & 16 (NIV via biblegateway.com)–emphasis added
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This does not mean that we must completely satisfy everyone who asks– the curious neighbor who knows nothing of the Bible and has dozens of confusing questions, or the nay-saying agnostic with a single “gotcha” question. Nor must we fight and fuss and pound the Bible until we “win” every theological and metaphysical argument–because we won’t! There are many things about the Bible, about Spiritual matters, etc., for which we will not have absolute or definitive answers–and neither will they! (That’s why they ask, sometimes.) And those things that satisfy our longings, our questions, our doubts– sometimes don’t meet the needs of the one who is asking, not because the answers are deficient, but because we are all different in our needs, and understanding, and experiences.

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Some people will listen to us merely to scoff and try to make us lose heart or make us look foolish. Others are afraid that our answer will make them feel lost or guilty. Some people have been hurt by others who have used the Bible as a cudgel or a whip– bringing shame, judgment, and contention wherever they go. We must not expect that our answers, our arguments, even our favorite scripture verses– that WE are enough to satisfy the questions, the doubts, and the spiritual needs of everyone we meet.

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What we should always have is an answer for the hope that is in us– why have we chosen to believe? Why do we choose to trust when we do not know all the answers? And our answers should be given with gentleness and respect– not arrogance and snide judgment. I don’t have hope because I know answers to tough questions. In order to have that kind of hope, I would need to know all the answers to all the questions– even those I haven’t asked or imagined! I don’t know about the future– I can’t explain why God allows evil (there are compelling arguments for some reasons, but no absolute answer that stops the question)–I don’t know how God’s Spirit moves, or why He drew me to Himself. I cannot “prove” God to someone who is determined to deny Him– not because God doesn’t exist, but because He will not force anyone to accept Him in this life, and especially not because I said a few words based on my limited understanding. My job is not to explain God–only God is big enough and wise enough to do that– but to reflect His character in a changed nature, and to explain what God has done in my life to effect that change. My hope is in the ONE I choose to trust– the ONE who does have the answers! God has not promised to answer all our “what ifs” or our “whys”– but He has promised to answer all our needs, and to BE the answer in every situation, no matter how daunting.

Why Ask Why?

I’ve been asking myself “why?” a lot lately in regards to this blog.  Why am I spending my time writing about prayer?  Wouldn’t I be better served to spend my time productively– making something useful, keeping the apartment cleaner, going to the gym–even spending more time in prayer instead of dissecting it and babbling on to an invisible audience?

But the truth is that I began writing this blog in response to another question, a more basic question thrown at me (not personally, but thrown out to all who believe in the power of prayer)–  “WHY?”  They weren’t asking the question because they really wanted to know my reasons for praying; instead, they wanted to make me feel ashamed and embarrassed, to doubt God’s goodness and my faith.  In fact, they weren’t asking “WHY” so much as asking “HOW”.  How can you continue to believe in God and continue praying in light of random shootings, manifest injustices, rampant corruption, and senseless tragedies?  How can you say that God is good, when people continue to get away with evil?  If God exists, where is he, and how can you just sit back and trust in him?

The fact that I DO continue to trust God doesn’t mean I don’t have questions and concerns, and even righteous anger about the state of the world and the tragedies that fill it.  The questions come pouring out, sometimes keeping me awake at night, sometimes catching me at a raw moment and they are important questions.  To pretend that I never wrestle or struggle with the questions is to say that good and evil, justice and mercy, that God himself– none of it really matters enough to seek an answer.  God forbid!!

But there is a vast difference in asking “Why?” and asking “How? or How come?”

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Consider a small child who asks, “Why is the sky blue?”  (Don’t you just love the inquisitiveness of small children?)  “Well…” I can explain that the sky itself isn’t really blue…I can go on to talk about scientific principals– the property of light, refraction through water molecules and dust particles, and more..I can point out that the sky doesn’t always appear blue, etc.  At the end of my long and factual discourse (assuming the child hasn’t already interrupted), s/he is likely to simply shake their head and ask, “But, why?”  WHY?  Because I haven’t really answered the heart of the question.  I explained HOW, not WHY.

Now suppose I don’t feel like being pedantic, and I answer “Because.”  You can guess what comes next.  The child will ask, “Because WHY?”  Because “Because” isn’t a sufficiently satisfactory answer.  The child wants more; he/she yearns for more comprehension; more understanding.

As an adult, we find this kind of questioning frustrating and annoying.  I think it is because we have been conditioned to think that questions either have a “How come” explanation that sweeps away much of the wonder and mystery, or a “because” answer that leaves us unsatisfied.

As an adult, I may well ask, “Why is there evil in the world?”  This is an important question; one I should be asking.  Experts can and will give me all kinds of “how” answers– how the brain is wired, how emotions work, how society has failed various groups of people, how political structures create oppression, how religion teaches intolerance, how poor diet or lack of sunny days … there are a million explanation of “how” evil exists or why it persists.  And many of these explanations contradict each other, so they can’t even give a conclusive answer.  But just throwing up my hands, and saying, “just because” does nothing to answer my question OR provide understanding that could help alleviate the effects of evil in the world.  “Because” communicates my powerlessness to comprehend.

BUT

Something amazing happens when I stop merely asking people for answers to these questions and start asking God.  I don’t get a magical, comprehensive, incontrovertible answer to life’s thorny questions.  God doesn’t send me a “cheat sheet” with all the “right” answers.  I’m not suddenly an expert on good and evil or what should be done to eliminate crime and disease and poverty.  I still have to wade through the “how come” explanations and use my limited judgment to decide what course of action I can take to try to make a positive difference.  And I will make some mistakes along the way.  But when GOD says, “Because”, there is an authority, a majesty, and a wisdom that can never be present in my answer.  I say “because,” because I have no more to say; no better answer.  God says, “Because,” because HE IS the cause!  And he gives explanations in his word for many of my questions– even if I don’t like the answers!  He doesn’t explain “how come” the sky is blue– he causes it to be blue.  “Why is the sky blue?”  God says so.  “But why?”  Because He is God and I am not.  God explains “how come” there is evil in the world– it’s called SIN–but he doesn’t leave it there.  “Why?”  Because we have the free will to choose good or evil.  “Why?”  Because God wants willing obedience and loving companionship with us.  “Why?” Because God is love!  “So why does he allow evil to continue?”  Because he has a plan that involves redemption and restoration and renewal.  He is the cause of this plan, it’s author and finisher.  Moreover, he is the cause of my desire to ask “why?”, to seek for a more fulfilling answer, to yearn for a solution to the very evil that prompts my questions.

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I won’t stop asking “why.”  Not because I don’t have any answer, or because I don’t know the answer.  It’s just that the answer is so much bigger, so much better, so much MORE than I can handle in the shortness of this lifetime.  And it’s important that I not only keep asking the question, but that I keep defending the answer.

 

1 Peter 3:14-16 English Standard Version (ESV)

14 But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, 15 but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, 16 having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

 

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