This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Living without the answers

God’s answers to our questions may lead us to a deeper faith.

Years ago I saw a poster with the following words: “For every difficult social problem, there is a simple answer … and it’s wrong!” I decided it was true: There are no simple, one-size-fits-all answers to difficult social problems.

Take world hunger or drug addiction or racism. How wonderful if these ills that plague humanity could be solved by writing a book or passing a law or creating a government program. But as good and necessary as books and laws and programs may be, solving the problem is not that simple.

The same is true when it comes to questions about faith, such as, Why is there pain? Where does evil come from? What is God’s will for my life? We long for an answer that makes sense, a simple answer that will lay to rest our uncertainties, our doubts. And for Christians there is indeed such an answer. You may remember seeing it as part of a nationwide campaign by a Christian group some years ago: “Christ is the answer.”

But whenever I saw those words, I found myself getting angry. I believe Christ is the answer, but I also believe it is dangerous, unloving, even unChrist-like, to toss those four words around—like so much verbal confetti.

When somebody is dealing with a deep-seated problem or a personal crisis or asking questions that are a cry of the soul, about the worst thing you can do is to say, “Oh, don’t worry, just have faith, just believe that Christ is the answer.” I have known people who have done that with the best of intentions and in so doing have inflicted terrible damage on the one they wanted to help.

The Bible does not offer simplistic answers to the troubling questions we face. The Psalms contain great testimonies of faith. The poetry of Psalm 23 is beautiful, for example. But the Psalms also contain testimonies of doubt and anguish: “How long, O Lord, how long?” That question is repeated three times in Psalm 13. You can tell from those words that the suffering has been going on for a long time. And though the Psalm ends with an affirmation of faith, it is a faith that has been sorely tested, has come through the fire, has had to learn what it means to live without the answers.

The apostle Paul had that kind of faith. His accomplishments for the cause of Christ are staggering: a founder of churches all across the Roman Empire, a writer of magnificent letters that, nearly 2,000 years after he wrote them, still have the power to comfort and convict. Yet Paul had to learn an important lesson from the Lord. It had to do with what Paul called “a thorn in the flesh.”

There have been many guesses about what Paul’s thorn in the flesh might have been—epilepsy, poor eyesight, sexual temptation. Three times he implored the Lord to take it from him, and the Lord did not give him the answer he wanted. For a time, we don’t know how long, there was no answer. Then finally the Lord did answer Paul’s prayer.

Your own search: Try to remember a time in your life when you asked God for an answer. You asked God to make someone well, perhaps a grandparent or a parent. Or you prayed for something similar as a grownup. You prayed for it constantly, fervently. You promised God you’d do anything, if only God would say yes to your request. Then you waited for the answer. You waited and waited. But an answer didn’t come. God was silent, or if God was speaking, you couldn’t hear the answer.

What happened then? Did you keep asking, did you decide to ask in a different way or did you stop asking altogether? What did it mean for you to live without an answer?

One of my friends, a director of pastoral care at a health-care center, says many people have simple answers to life’s difficulties until the questions appear in bold fashion in their own lives. He says: “You may think you know about divorce, the death of a child, suicide, homosexuality, abortion, depression, unemployment or a runaway child until it happens to you or your loved ones. When it does, you realize how little you knew, how little you know. Life may be simple in the armchair, on the sofa or in the grandstand. On the playing field, it is complex and downright difficult.”

Anyone who has wrestled with God in the darkness—beseeching God for something—knows that satisfactory answers are sometimes hard to come by.

In fact, what God sometimes sends us in re-sponse to our questions is even more questions. That’s often what Jesus did when he was confronted with a question. Once a rich young man came to Jesus with a heartfelt question: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded first with a question of his own: “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”

Jesus is the great question asker:

“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25).

“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath?” (Mark 3:4).

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3).

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (Luke 10:36).

How God answers: Again and again, Jesus listened to those who came to him for answers, then turned them around to look at their own lives and at the world around them. Not because he didn’t have the answers but because he wanted them to look deeper, to engage more fully in their own life and the lives of others. He wanted them to encounter God in the depth of their questions.

Perhaps this is why the answers you and I often desire from God are not forthcoming. We cannot know the mind of God, but when we look at the way Jesus often spoke about God, how he related to the people who came to him, telling them stories that surely left them scratching their heads, answering their questions with questions of his own, we catch glimpses of how God deals with many of the questions in our own hearts.

You and I want answers, and sometimes we do not get them. Sometimes we receive answers, but not the ones we hoped for. It was that kind of answer Paul got when the Lord finally responded to his request to take away the thorn in his flesh. Paul tells us the answer the Lord gave was: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

That wasn’t the answer Paul wanted, but it changed him, transformed his understanding about how God was at work in his life. And Paul could at last say, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Paul discovered what we may discover by the grace of God—that indeed “Christ is the answer.” But if you get to the point where you can say that, you will have walked through the fire. It will not do to say, “Christ is the answer” to someone else with even a hint of arrogance.

If you say it at all, it will likely be spoken to yourself, in a whisper, and there may be tears streaming down your face when you say it. And as you say it, you will be learning the truth that Paul learned, that the grace of the Lord is sufficient for you, that the power of the Lord is made perfect in weakness. Your weakness, my weakness, the weakness of all those who often find themselves living without the answers they crave.

What is given to us, finally, is better than the answers we ask for. We are given the presence, the blessing of the One who is himself the Holy Answer to every question.

Kenneth L. Gibble lives in Greencastle, Pa.

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