unanswered questions

My Unanswered Questions

November 19, 2019
Those of us who speak or write for a living often do so with an air of confidence.  We want people to believe that we are credible representatives of the discipline or community on whose behalf we speak.  We want people to believe that we actually know what we are talking about. When we seek to inform or influence. In other words, we want people to listen to us.

But in our zeal to demonstrate our competence, we who lead the church sometimes forget that it is just as important that people see our humanity.  Part of being human is being finite.  

Why do people need to know these things about us?  It is because the people we lead have questions, too.  They face conundrums that are difficult to resolve even if they are clear-headed and quick-witted.  They wrestle with questions that have stumped the greatest of minds. They struggle with doubts that humble even the stoutest of hearts.  And the only way that they will know how to face these challenges with courage, cheerfulness, and conviction is if they see us do it.

So, that is what I am going to do today.  Below, you will see a list of questions that vex my own soul (along with some explanatory notes).  The questions are not listed in any particular order, although I have tried to put the most emotionally challenging ones towards the top of the list.  I do not intend for you to provide answers to these questions. Rather, what I want is for you to wrestle with them in your own mind and heart. I want you to see if you can get inside my skin and understand why these questions are so troublesome for me.  And, I would be glad to see you share one or two of your own troublesome questions.

So, here are some of my unanswered questions.

 

  • If God is real, and if there really is “power in the name of Jesus,” then why is it that spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study seem to be so ineffective in delivering people from long-term sin issues?  Let me illustrate what I am talking about with an example.  The Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University did a long-term study on the impact of a disciplined program of prayer and Bible study on same-sex attraction.  They found that study participants were better able to separate their attraction from their identity after participating in such a program, but the program had no measurable impact on the attraction itself.  Of course, many of us do not need a research study to tell us something like this, and we know that it does not simply apply to same-sex attraction. We have wrestled hard with sin, and, in spite of our best efforts, we have sometimes lost more than we have won.  Why don’t we win more often, and why do the interventions of modern psychology seem to be more effective than our direct requests to God for help? (Of course, as Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson points out in the first chapter of his book Anatomy of the Soul, some have had the same kinds of questions about the supposed ineffectiveness of psychotherapy.  So, we Christians are not the only ones who face hard questions because of the recalcitrance of the human mind.)
  • How do we subvert a society that seems increasingly addicted to outrage, contempt, and vengeance without denying justice to those who really need it?  I am a “law and order” guy.  I believe in punishing people who do bad things.  I even believe that many of our current attitudes about punishment are well-intentioned but misguided.  But even a neanderthal like me looks around at our current cultural climate with alarm. Every infraction seems to be a “code red” situation, at least to someone.  Outrage is stirred up, even before all the facts are in, and the persistent American sin of hubris is capitalized upon to produce contempt for wrongdoers. People are stripped of their humanity and used as mere pawns in someone else’s power game.  All the while, historically disenfranchised groups are left wondering when they will ever get the justice they deserve, for all the vitriolic rhetoric has done little but stir up animosity between true believers and angry critics. I used to think I knew how to arbitrate these disputes, but now I am not sure.  The desire for vengeance is hard-wired into all of us, and it is not always wrong. But God reserves vengeance for himself for a reason, and I am not sure that I have the intellectual capacity or the moral fiber to both work for justice and subvert the deadly powers that motivate people to revenge. And yet, that is precisely what God demands that I do.
  • What if I cannot, in the end, overcome all of the baggage that I have brought with me into the Christian faith—the unhealed wounds, the unmet longings, the history that inevitably limits and colors my ability to see clearly?  We all come into the Christian faith with experiential, emotional, and perhaps even genetic baggage.  That baggage often manifests itself in wounds that just won’t heal and in desires that either will not or cannot be met in this life.  And too often, we cope with this baggage in unproductive ways (i.e., sin). We all have read those wonderful passages of Scripture that seem to promise us that God will not abandon us in our brokenness.  But we have also read those passages of Scripture that call us to account for our sinfulness and that even seem to use our sinfulness as evidence that we do not belong to God. How do we make sense of all of this, especially in light of the fact that both we ourselves and the people we lead will likely not overcome all of this baggage in our lifetimes?  How do we find an assurance that does not embolden us to sin but that is robust enough to stand up to the inevitable brokenness that afflicts our lives?
  • How do we reach a culture that is increasingly offended by our preaching, that has no interest in our programs, and that has no need of our pastoral care?  I have Tod Bolsinger, author of Canoeing the Mountains and a vice president at Fuller Seminary, to thank for plopping this question into my lap.  Bolsinger points out that “preaching, programs, and pastoral care” are increasingly irrelevant to the lives of real-world people in North America.  So, he argues, we must find new ways of reaching our culture—new paradigms for our shared life together as followers of Jesus and new ways of understanding and communicating our identity in Christ.  The trouble is that I have spent an entire lifetime becoming an expert in these old ways, and I don’t know if I have the energy or the bandwidth to keep up with all the ways that the world is changing.  Fortunately, when I asked him about this, Bolsinger threw me a lifeline. He reminded me of the work done by Fuller Youth Institute to help churches “grow younger.” The Fuller Youth Institute has done great work in the past, and I look forward to reading Growing Young to see what insights they have about this question. 
  • What will happen if we in the church decide that our political convictions are too important to us to compromise on them with Millennials?  Some research has suggested that Millennials, in particular, have serious reservations about the way that many churches have engaged in politics.  But what happens if we decide that Millennials themselves are thoroughly misguided politically and need the church’s correction? And what happens if they refuse to accept that correction, seeing it as an imposition upon their freedom or as the short-sighted bigotry of generations that are just not “with it?”  To be clear, I happen to agree with Millennials about the way that some churches pursued their goals in the 2016 presidential election, but this question matters to me because 1) I don’t believe that churches ought to be beholden to any particular group’s truth-claims and 2) because the research that I have seen suggests to me that Millennials do not have a corner on the market when it comes to political truth.  NOTE: We must be careful not to treat individuals as if they only matter as a representative of a demographic group, and we must not treat demographic groups as if they are monolithic.  Moreover, I need to have more conversations with real, live Millennials—ones where I genuinely listen to their concerns. You probably need those too.

 

 

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