By Paul Koch –
On September 11th, 2001, I was in the midst of my vicarage assignment at Peace Lutheran Church in Bremerton, Washington. That Tuesday morning and the events that unfolded throughout the coming weeks and months, I don’t think I’ll ever forget. If you’ve never been to Bremerton, it is a beautiful town surrounded by military bases: from the massive naval shipyard to the sub base on the Hood Canal to the underwater warfare facility. When terrorists successfully attacked our country, that whole town went on high alert. Fathers and mothers who were deployed were now going to be going to war. It was chaotic, and people began to search for answers. Perhaps their greatest question was, where is God in all of this? Did He care? Was He still in control? Was this some sort of punishment?
Churches across the country swelled in those days following the attacks. After all, when you are searching for answers, the church seems like a logical place to go. We go with our questions before our God. We petition Him to answer, to speak some sense into our confusion and fear. And our questions are not trifling things. We may think that we have a firm understanding of the world and our place in it, but quite often we must come to terms with the fact that there is much that we do not know. There are too many variables in the equation, if you will. The simple answers don’t seem to be good enough to account for everything, and we are stuck with a bunch of unanswered questions.
But there is no guarantee that the church is going to have the answers either. In fact, one of the lessons that I learned quite clearly in the days following 9-11 was that many were tempted to furnish their own answers when God was silent. So-called TV evangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson began to say that this was punishment for the abortionists, gays and lesbians. They answered the questions by pointing their fingers to the immoral and dared to speak for God what He had not declared. But we all do this to some degree or another, perhaps not to that degree. When we are faced with unanswered questions, we begin to imagine our own stories that help us make sense of it. And those stories we tell ourselves often dare to speak for God himself, to know His intent, to establish His purposes for the trials and struggles in our lives.
A silent God, or a God that we don’t fully know, is a scary thing to deal with. I’ve seen it, the fear and the anger. I’ve seen it in your faces when you’re hurt and confused, and God is silent. I’ve been at the bedside of a dying father as his teenage daughter cries out questions that no one can answer. I’ve sat with faithful women who don’t say anything at all, though their minds race to find the reason behind their miscarriage. She wants and prays and hopes that she will at last be a mother, but one more time it seems that it is not meant to be. Too often I’ve been with a man who chokes back the tears as he wonders why his family seems to be falling apart. All he wants is to hold it together, to repair what is broken. But nothing seems to work. The unanswered questions mount up, and the pain is made all the more poignant by the silence of God. To be honest, more than once I’ve walked into this space, into this sanctuary, when no one else is here. And I, too, cry out for answers, for guidance and hope.
Why? Why put me in the lives of these people when I have nothing to say, no answers to give? Why call us your children just to be silent when we really need you? It’s not fair, it’s not right. You’ve given us more than we can handle. So, what are we to do now?
Unanswered questions are the seedbed of doubt. Perhaps it begins when we tell our stories to make sense of it. We create a picture of God that is either terrifying or weak. A God that is petty and cruel or a God that is disengaged and easily pliable to our whims. Is He the God of Falwell and Robertson, judging the sins of the nation by allowing planes to fly into buildings killing thousands? Or is He the God that doesn’t really care about His children? Perhaps He demands more from you, you need to give more or pray more or volunteer more or work more and then He will bless you? Then your prayers will be answered. But we play our games and it doesn’t get any better. And so, doubt creeps in, as our own efforts, our own knowledge, our own desire is stretched to its limit. But we are still left with our unanswered questions.
The story of Job is the story of unanswered questions. It is the story of every Christian who has screamed out to God only to be met with silence. One thing clear in this book is that God is in control. God is the one who directs Satan to His servant Job. God allows him to be led to ruin. To lose all his wealth and comforts and even his own children. In fact, God’s own hand is in on it as Job’s health is destroyed and he finds himself stripped of everything. Job is left sitting in the ash heap and scratching his open sores with broken shards of pottery. And he cries out against his God, he demands answers. When his friends show up they attempt to speak what God has not spoken, to answer Job cries. It must be your fault, some sin that has brought this on. Perhaps it is some reckless boldness that has led to your demise. But Job remains firm. God is just a brutal and uncaring and mean. Why else would He do such a thing? For 36 chapters God remains silent. He doesn’t answer a single charge. The questioning and reasoning of mankind is exhausted.
Then, in the 38th chapter God finally speaks. He answers Job out of a whirlwind and says, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.” And he begins to question Job about the heights and depths of the created order. Was he there when it was established? Was he there when He spoke and the wind and waves obeyed His voice? Can he comprehend the breath and expanse of the heavens? It goes on for 4 chapters. God takes Job on a grand tour and questions him on what he really knows. And yet, God doesn’t answer a single question the Job brought forward. Not a one. Rather, God speaks and reveals who He is: the Almighty, the Maker of the heavens and the earth, the Creator that still governs it all. And what does Job do? He ends up saying, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” Job repents in dust and ashes.
In Mark chapter 4, our Lord is sleeping in a boat as the wind and the waves begin to batter it. Chaos is all around the disciples as they are filled with fear and doubt. They begin to take on water and Jesus is just sleeping away. Now, perhaps they ought to have found some comfort in that. After all, if he isn’t concerned why should they be worried? But the further they go into the storm the greater their anxiety. Finally they rush to him and wake him up shouting, “Do you no care that we are perishing?” Now that is a question, isn’t it? Perhaps it is the real question that we are all asking. But this time the silence doesn’t linger. Jesus rises and does what only God can do, what Job himself was quizzed about. He says, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm on the sea.
Now we might critique the disciples for their actions. Jesus seems to rebuke them a bit for their lack of faith. But I can’t help but think that they did the right thing. They in fact show us something crucial about living a life as a child of God. When faced with uncertainty, when faced with fear and terror and unanswered questions, they went to our Lord. They turned from the unknown God, the God that governs the wind and the waves, and they fled toward the God who was right there in their midst. The God revealed in the flesh as our Lord Jesus Christ. The God who came to save his people from their sins.
We, then, follow suit. We who are faced with the trials and struggles of the faith, who scream out our questions without answers. We don’t need to make up stories of our God. We don’t need to speak where He has not spoken. No, we cry out, we lament and pray and beat our chests. And then we turn, we turn from the unknown God of our imaginations and we cling to the God that has been revealed to you. The God that is known, the God that has spoken into your life, the God that still speaks. He is the one who calms the wind and the waves, who calls you his brothers and sisters. He is the God that promises you this very day that you are loved, you are forgiven, each and every one of you.
Life and salvation are yours. Whatever else you struggle with, no matter what questions you seek answers for, the question of your hope and eternity are actually known. Run there, over and again. Run back to the answer that is found in Christ alone.