Editorial Note: As your read this, please understand I am making statements that I’ve found to be true in my experience. I do not propose to prove these statements, but instead to stimulate thought.
Life is full of questions… Perhaps at no other time in life are we more filled with questions than when difficulties find us.
I recently wrote about the New Chapters of life that we all inevitably encounter, sometimes through our choices and sometimes through what life seems to throw at us. Often, there are multiple things that seem to come at us during some particular season of life.
These times of life usually seem to provide us with challenges for which we simply weren’t prepared.
It is during these seasons that most people begin asking questions.
- Why is this happening to me?
- Why is <he/she/they> doing this?
- Does anyone actually care?
- Why would a loving God allow this to happen?
The questions themselves vary as widely as the circumstances that create these “storms” of life.
Most of these questions have no great or obvious answer. But over time, the questions themselves tend to evolve. From the question “why would a loving God allow this to happen”, in the absence of any real answers, the question becomes “is God really loving?” or even “is there even a God at all?”
By the time you’re asking these questions, most people have a default answer of “no, God isn’t really loving” or “no, there must not really be a God at all”.
How do you console a friend or loved one who is at this point in life? When someone is at this point of asking very fundamental life questions, how do you go about that conversation?
Most of us tend to just give what we believe is “the right answer”. Or at least it’s “the answer” we’re happy with.
- Tomorrow will be a better day.
- Don’t worry about what <he/she/they> think or say.
- Yes, I care about you.
- Bad things happen to all of us.
- Of course there’s a God, and He is loving.
- or, Of course there’s no God. (depending on our particular pursuasion)
The problem is that when someone is genuinely asking these basic questions about life, they are looking for genuine, thoughtful answers.
I can remember when my kids were 3 to 5 years old, and they entered the “why” phase. I understood this was the process by which they were learning, and so this was the opportunity they were giving me to teach them. So, I tried to give them genuine, age-appropriate answers. Of course, the questions continued. And at some point in time, I would get tired of thinking so hard to give them real answers, and I’d try to just satisfy their question without giving a real answer.
Guess what? Somehow they knew I wasn’t really telling them a genuine answer. This would frustrate them, until I decided to once again engage their question for real.
Disingenuous answers are one thing when your kids are drilling you with “Why” questions for hours. But, when someone is struggling with life and they are at a crossroads, disingenuous answers tell them more than you realize:
- I actually don’t care enough to engage your question.
- There is no real answer I can think of, so maybe you’re right; maybe there really is no God.
I realize I’m making this sound like a very quick process, but in reality, there will be a long timeline of questioning and being repeatedly frustrated by either disingenuous answers or no answer at all.
This tends to form a pattern over time, and eventually, people become cynical and give up on these questions, concluding the most pessimistic answer is the answer.
Taking People Seriously
Many years ago, I had a friend who was a volunteer answering phones for a suicide hotline. And, he related to me some training exercises that were used to demonstrate to the volunteers how to help someone who is at that point.
He said, they had a beam there, and it was such that they could lift it up in the air. And, they would blindfold a volunteer, and then walk them up on the beam, and then tell them it was being lifted up to 6 feet in the air. In reality, it was 6 inches off the ground, but the blindfolded volunteer had no idea.
And so the blindfolded volunteer was scared they were going to fall, and the other people (who could see what was happening) were told to offer them comfort as if the beam really was 6 feet off the ground.
Saying, “it’s only 6 inches off the ground” doesn’t really help someone who fully believes it’s 6 feet.
This is a basic principle of communication, one that most of us find incredibly difficult. We need to engage the actual questions people are asking, taking seriously their concerns or fears even if we have in our minds come to the conclusion these concerns or fears are unfounded or unimportant.
In my experience, most people simply don’t want to engage questions they don’t struggle with themselves. Most people simply dismiss these questions because they’ve already concluded the answer is obvious or, worse, unimportant.
Taking Questions Seriously
So far, I’ve been looking at people asking questions because of some difficult life event (through their choices or not), but actually this problem does not begin with a difficult life event.
It is during adolescence and through teen years that most young people begin questioning things they’ve been taught. This can be because their parents routinely used phrases like “because I told you so”, or it can be because they are being confronted by other young people with questions they have never seriously considered.
When a child is very young, if they want to know “why” this or that, you can give them a reason, and without fully working through that answer, they often accept that as a valid answer simply because they trust you. Assuming you are answering out of loving concern for them, there isn’t really anything wrong with this.
But later, as they grow up, they will be confronted with difficult questions, and at some point, they will ask with the sense of “I wonder if Mom or Dad was just wrong”.
During this time, if Mom or Dad (or some other adult they trust) is unwilling to engage the question at a deeper level, and have a genuine discussion, the young person will begin to conclude that Mom or Dad might be wrong, and because they were wrong this time, then that must mean other answers they gave in the past must also be doubted. And off they set on this path to work through these questions on their own, with influences other than Mom or Dad.
All of this is very normal, of course. But it’s helpful for us to see this trend is very real so we can recognize that there may have been a point in time when we could have taken their questions seriously, but having chosen not to engage them in those difficult conversations, we see our kids asking question assuming the things they’ve been taught are simply wrong.
Ultimately, this process is called critical thinking. Asking questions about fundamental assumptions. This isn’t a bad thing, but without being engaged in a true discussion or even debate, it is likely many of the conclusions will lack necessary and even critical information or perspective.
To state it another way, if a person is considering two wrong perspectives and never happens to consider another more correct perspective, then they are unlikely to draw valid (true) conclusions. So, if we are unwilling or unable to engage these questions thoughtfully, we are essentially depriving them of the perspective we have learned through our own life experience.
For some, the process of thinking critically through foundational questions can lead to a secure belief that what they had previously learned was in fact correct, or at least close to correct.
This is actually an important part of developing one’s beliefs. If one is allowed to question things and is engaged in a thoughtful, genuine discussion, then this process will usually lead to confirming beliefs.
Shifting Sands (or Liquefaction)
This idea of revisiting foundational understanding of things is not reserved for young people, though that is a time in life when the foundation is often either solidified or it becomes destabilized.
Since most people don’t like to engage questions they don’t struggle with themselves, it is not at all uncommon that these questions, or unsatisfactory answers, will lead to other more fundamental questions. This cascading effect can result in a complete tumbling of all basic beliefs about life, like a house of cards.
There are a set of beliefs that usually find themselves as foundational to the rest of life. Usually, these beliefs are matters of faith, often called “religious beliefs”.
It is these beliefs, on which the “issues of life” hinge, that are usually responsible for that liquefaction effect.
As these beliefs are questioned, without satisfactory answers or genuine engagement, a level of distrust grows, and the more difficult it becomes to have a constructive conversation or debate.
The term “deconstructionism” has been applied to this fundamental turning away from ones faith. However, “deconstruction” is an active voice verb, and to me, it seems to place “blame” on the one who is questioning, even to the point of passing judgment, for merely asking questions and not finding answers.
Actually, if judgment is to be passed, in my opinion, it should be passed on those who failed to engage the difficult questions which then resulted in this fundamental shift, this liquefaction that results in near wholesale rejection of formerly firmly held beliefs.
Where do we go from here?
The picture I paint may look rather bleak. Once someone has turned from beliefs at this foundational level, it becomes very difficult to even open the door for discussion once again.
So, what to do? Do we “write off” these “deconstructionists” as irretrievable?
This question really calls for yet another post later, but in short, we need to approach such people differently.
- We need learn to allow our beliefs to be questioned at a level that may be uncomfortable.
- We need to learn to begin with, “I can see where you’re coming from.”
- We need to learn to probe our deepest understanding.
- We need to realize that we can be wrong.
- We need to start there.
Of course, as a Bible believing Christian, I believe truth is found in the Bible. However, I must maintain an understanding that while I do believe the Bible is the source of God’s truth, that doesn’t mean everyone will agree. And, I must also distinguish between truth in the Bible and my understanding of that truth.
And, I come back to the realization that I can be wrong. And so, while I believe scripture is inerrant, my understanding of truth found in scripture can be wrong.
When I am truly at that point, I will find myself working through difficult questions of my own, and that is when I can begin to engage someone else who is asking their difficult questions.
Let me ask you one question:
- If what I believe is actually true, then will it harm me to probe deep questions only to find that I’ve confirmed my beliefs?
I lied. Let me ask one more question:
- If, after probing deep questions, I conclude that my understanding was wrong, and I then have opportunity to refine my understanding, then am I not on more firm ground than I was before?
Fears or Doubts?
The real question isn’t what to do about people who ask questions.
The real question is, why is it that we are not willing to ask these of ourselves?
I submit that it is either because of unspoken fear of being wrong or unspoken doubt.
As for me, I would rather ask questions and engage in genuine discussion in order to come to firm conclusions than to live without a true foundation only to find that an earthquake results in total liquefaction followed by total collapse.
Because the Bible says so…
As I’ve stated, I am a Bible believing Christian. And, I believe God’s Word is without error, meaning (in layman’s terms) that what God says in His Word, the 66 books of the Bible, is absolutely true and reliable.
The critical thing is that you can’t merely reply “because the Bible says so” if you’ve acknowledged that it’s possible your understanding of what the Bible actually says might be wrong.
And so, where questions of faith are concerned, what I am actually pursuing is a correct understanding of God’s Word.
For me, having already decided that I believe God’s Word to be the authority for the questions that matter, this becomes my pursuit.
I will dive further into this pursuit in a future post.
Consider those who question your beliefs noble.
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.Acts 17:11 (ESV)
Be ready to give an answer.
“… 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 …”1 Peter 3:15 (ESV)