Blessed are the Questioners
I was a nosy kid, and it’s a trait I never fully outgrew. I have a distinct memory of eavesdropping on the adults at a family dinner. When I asked what they were discussing my uncle poked an imaginary microphone under my nose. “Are you taking notes, Little Miss Reporter?” As I’ve grown up I’ve tried to turn what some might see as snooping into its gentler cousin, curiosity. Maybe it’s my tendency toward nosiness, but I’m coming to believe that asking good questions is a spiritual discipline.
It’s easy to cultivate curiosity when I read the Bible. There’s so much strangeness there. Sometimes the text includes bizarre specifics—153 fish counted in a net, for example—while other stories contain a vacuum of detail. Miracles are breezed over in a few sentences, with hardly any hint of how witnesses responded or what happened to the person healed. I read the Bible and wonder: Why include certain details but not others? How does what is said—or what is left unsaid—underscore what Jesus pays attention to? It seems to me that God, through Scripture, is inviting us to ask.
How long, Lord? (Psalm 13:1)
Looking at the world makes me ask questions too, but they are different ones. In fact, they are questions that appear first in Scripture and are asked by prophets and the oppressed and Jesus himself: Why? How long, Lord? What can be done?
There is something healing about lamenting this way, something cathartic about begging God for some hint of what God’s up to. Job was good at this—questions were a vehicle for his grief. Jesus was good at this too. He asked over 300, an avalanche more than he answered.
There is something healing about begging God for some hint of what God’s up to.
Questions of lament, like those of Psalm 13 or of Jesus on the cross, give a container to sorrow and confusion. These days I bring God my ringing questions, over and over. I listen to the news and I pray for friends and I drive through my city and I arrive at the same response. Why? How long, Lord?
Why do you hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:14)
In Psalm 88 a singer named Heman brings God his untamed, ragged confusion. As readers, we don’t know the cause of Heman’s torment, only that he’s claustrophobic with grief. While David often laments larger societal problems—the success of the wicked, the oppression of the poor—Heman’s suffering is internal.
Heman begins with faltering praise: Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you. But this praise does a quick about-face and becomes a plea (turn your ear to my cry) and then a litany of agitation. Heman’s anxiety and depression are as close as breath. He is pinned to the ground by waves of sorrow.
Then the questions come. Some are rhetorical and some are simple, like a child’s: Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up to praise you? Why, Lord, do you reject me? Why do you hide your face from me? And then, abruptly: You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend. End of psalm.
Heman’s song gives us permission to sit with our questions, to hold them and listen to what they might have to say to us.
Psalm 88 does not resolve, like many of the lament psalms do. It doesn’t end with any assurance at all—not of God’s goodness or rescue, not even the certainty that God is listening. I find comfort in that. Heman’s song gives us permission to sit with our questions, to hold them and listen to what they might have to say to us.
Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29)
In Volume 4, Sister Allison McCrary speaks about the spiritual practice of asking questions.
“A piece of our role today is not to know the answers,” she says. “People sit in meeting rooms all day trying to come up with answers. I think a more prophetic invitation is, what are the questions we need to be asking ourselves? Exploring the questions can lead to change: lasting change, deeper change, more meaningful change.”
Questions are the door we push on that opens into a new way of seeing. They lead us into rooms we hadn’t entered before. Maybe a window offers a different view; maybe the room contains something we needed. Once we push a door open we have to decide whether or not to step through it. The expert in the law who asked Jesus about his neighbor might not have liked the answer, because it meant his neighbor was everyone. If this is the case, then no one is beyond the range of our care and love.
Questions are the door we push on that opens into a new way of seeing.
When they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, Hugo and Eunice Moya asked God, “Where should we stay?” And God told them, “Here is a good place.” For twenty-five years they have ministered to immigrant families on the border of Texas and Mexico. For most people the border is only a holding zone, a stopping point, a place of poverty where the threat of violence hangs in the air like smoke. For the Moyas it is home. Because they rooted their lives there, Hugo and Eunice are uniquely positioned to care for immigrants and carry God’s love to displaced people.
Reformer Jacqueline Isaac asked, “How can I be a bridge between the West and the Middle East?” This question led her to Egypt, her parents’ homeland, to fight for women’s and disabled rights, and then eventually to advocate for Syrian refugees and survivors of ISIS captivity. When she testified at the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, Jacqueline asked the country for two things: that they declare the acts of ISIS against Christians and Yazidis in Iraq a genocide, and that they grant rescued girls asylum. The House of Commons voted unanimously in favor of Jacqueline’s requests.
In Pattaya, Thailand—arguably the sex capital of the world—Dianna Bautista watched girls from rural areas move to the city to sell their bodies. She asked, “What if women had another way to earn money?” A former celebrity hair stylist, Dianna moved to Pattaya to train former sex workers and trafficking victims to cut hair. Now her students are opening up their own salons and barbershops and training others in dignified work.
These reformers asked questions of the world and of themselves, and their questions opened space for God to flood in.
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life? (Matthew 6:27)
One of my resolutions for 2018 was to become more childlike. I thought about how Jesus tells his followers to become like little children, whose favorite question is “Why?” In becoming like them I wanted to accelerate my sense of wonder.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “It is easier to be heavy than to be light.” It is easier to be the Pharisee than the child who is open, curious, and trusting. Curiosity requires sitting in the unknown but also maintaining wonder at what God might do. I notice this lightness in the reformers we meet, a trust in what God makes possible.
Questions can serve two purposes. They can grow our wonder and anticipation. They can show us a world thrown open to possibility, a world that dazzles. We ask these questions and wait like children in gleeful expectation. And then there are questions that don’t have answers, that don’t necessarily seek answers. They are a form of lament. The deeper inquiry beneath them is always Why.
Curiosity requires sitting in the unknown but also maintaining wonder at what God might do.
Both types of questions can lead us to look for God’s kingdom. We can ask why our neighbors are burdened, and then we can ask how to help shoulder the load. We can ask what can be done for migrant children, or for people who are exploited, or for victims of persecution, and these questions can lead us into action.
Who do you say that I am? (Mark 8:29)
Faced with the news or my neighbor’s suffering down the street, I have no black-and-white answers. All I see is gray; all I have are questions.
When I feel this way, I’m comforted by things that don’t resolve: poetry, for example, or prayers like Heman’s in Psalm 88. But I also don’t want to remain there. I want to ask with the expectation that a different world is possible, that a new order is on its way.
God asked Adam and Eve in the garden, “Where are you?” And God asks us questions today. Who do you say that I am? Why are you afraid? Do you believe I can do this? These questions can be a sending point. They can propel us into a liberated life, one that spills over for our neighbor. They can open us to wonder and carry our grief, and they can teach us to look for the life of the world to come.
Annelise is a San Diego-based journalist and essayist who writes about food, travel, faith, and the terrain between. She earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing through Seattle Pacific University and her work has appeared in The Millions, Brevity, Hidden Compass, Sojourners, and Civil Eats, among others. She is the Editorial Director at Nations Media. View her work or say hello at annelisejolley.com.