Recently I was on a long car trip with one of my boys. We listened to music, and chatted, and stopped for Chick-fil-A. I was in mommy heaven having my busy teenager all to myself, until the conversation turned to a topic that is controversial out in the world. I assumed the topic would not be controversial in my home because I raised my children to know the truth according to the Bible, right? But here was my thoughtful, insightful, tenderhearted kid, raising questions about an issue that seemed completely clear to me.
I started arguing so hard I was sweating. I whacked him over the head, figuratively speaking, with the sixth commandment. He tried to protest that he was just questioning, not throwing out everything I’d ever taught him. Of course the more upset I got, the more he dug in his heels. The conversation ended with my exasperated proclamation: “I just can’t talk with you about this right now!”
I knew I had blown it, but his questioning scared me. I assumed if he questioned this issue, he would question others, and that led me straight to the worry that he could abandon his faith altogether. That was not in fact what was happening, but my overreaction not only ended all hope of a good conversation, it left him annoyed and me afraid.
I thought of that car ride again when I read this article by my colleague Kris Fernhout. Writing as a youth pastor to the kids he leads, Kris made a comment that struck me with cold hard conviction:
“I’m sorry that I’m often more concerned about you knowing the right answer than about making sure you had a safe place to ask hard questions.”
I confess I have parented to (what I think is) the “right answer.” I have patted myself on the back whenever I heard one of my children say something that seemed to prove I taught them well. Certainly it is my responsibility to guide them, to point out when they’re wrong. I fear their questions because questions seem to suggest doubt, and doubt can be a slippery slope. However, my fear only nudges them down that hill farther and faster. I have to learn to trust God and not my own ability as a mom.
That fear actually reveals my own doubts. Do I think that God can’t handle their questions (or mine)? That He will reject us because we ask for explanations? That His goodness won’t stand up against scrutiny? Asking questions is actually a mark of respect and trust. Think about it. I only ask questions of someone who can give me an answer, someone whose understanding and authority is greater than mine.
God can handle our questions. Christian journalist Philip Yancey remarks that Christians “tend to ignore the Old Testament, which is where many of the questions (and questioners) are. The Old Testament proves that God honors questioners. Remember, grumpy Job emerges as the hero of that book, not his theologically defensive friends.” David was the first to prophetically utter the question Jesus echoed, the hardest question of all: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Psalm 22:1)
Jesus created a safe place to ask hard questions. Nowhere is this more evident than in his relationship with the disciple Thomas. Thomas adored Jesus (John 11:16). He witnessed many of His greatest miracles, including the resurrection of Lazarus. But Thomas was not afraid to tell Jesus he didn’t understand.
At the Last Supper, Jesus encouraged His disciples. He told them He was going to prepare a place for them, and that they would know where He was and how to get there. Thomas challenged Jesus respectfully but urgently: “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) Thomas knew Who Jesus was, yet he found Jesus completely approachable. He questioned because he really did want to know where Jesus was going and how he could get to Him. His question is met with one of the most beautiful answers in all Scripture: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)
Thomas was not done with his questions. He was even more puzzled when his friends saw Jesus after the Resurrection, and he did not. He didn’t believe them, and declared that he would not believe until he put his own finger in the nail prints on Jesus’ hands and his own hand into Jesus’s wounded side. Thomas was a man who wanted to understand everything before he believed.
Maybe Thomas had an idol of practicality (I’ll believe it when I see it). Maybe he worshipped common sense (dead people usually stay dead). Maybe Thomas thought he was smarter than everyone else (I’m no fool – I am going to stay out of this resurrection nonsense). Whatever the case, Jesus let Thomas wait eight days before revealing Himself to the doubting disciple.
Eight days of wondering must have been awful. All his friends were rejoicing because they had seen the risen Jesus, and Thomas was left lonely, clutching his doubts. But then Jesus met Thomas in his doubt and gave him what he needed. He urged Thomas to do exactly what Thomas said he wanted, to put his finger in the nailprints and his hand in Jesus’ side. Astonished and humbled, Thomas sets doubt aside for good, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)
Jesus knew that He would ascend to the Father, and Thomas would be the only one who would have his doubts answered in such a concrete way. His gentle rebuke to Thomas is an encouragement to those of us who come after him: “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)
Jesus is the one who rescues us from unbelief. We cannot do that for ourselves or anyone else. If someone I love is struggling with doubt or questions, it is not up to me to convince them of the truth, though I do have a responsibility to speak it. There are things we can do, however, that encourage doubters and questioners who observe our lives.
Leave room for mystery and questions; don’t be afraid of “I don’t know.” Acting like you have all the answers is just plain prideful and wrong, and it makes the questioner feel isolated and alone. The consequences of suppressing honest questions can be severe. Philip Yancey describes the oppressive church atmosphere of his youth: “If you doubted or questioned, you sinned. I learned to conform, as you must in a church like that. Meanwhile those deep doubts, those deep questions, didn’t get answered in a satisfactory way. The danger of such a church like that is that… you don’t really resolve the doubts. They tend to resurface in a more toxic form.”
Live out your faith with honesty. Don’t pretend you have felt #blessedandgrateful since the moment you came to Christ, that the hard things of this world can’t touch you now. Yancey again: “Christians tend to be propagandists. We want to convince others, put on a brave face, inspire… So Christians naturally tend to hide behind a thin veneer of cheerfulness and health, while they surely doubt and hurt.” If I really believe, as the bumper sticker says, that my God is bigger than my storm, then I am not afraid to acknowledge the storm.
Persevere with your doubting one. Demonstrate that “love that will not let me go.” That is how Jesus loved Thomas; that is how He loves us still.
And one day every question will be answered, as we will no longer walk by faith, but by glorious sight! (2 Corinthians 5:7)