The Power to Love Hard Questions
John C. Rankin
(February 3, 2013)
The ministry of TEI International is based on “the power to love hard questions.” It is in asking questions of an awesome universe at age 14 – having grown up in an agnostic Unitarian context – that I ran into the presence of the living God. And in several decades of public policy ministry, I have found that an unbridled freedom to pose questions opens up freedom for people to truly consider the nature of the Bible on its own terms, and thus, to encounter the person of Jesus.
The power to love hard questions is biblically unique. In all pagan religions, and Islam and Mormonism especially, as well as in secular constructs, questions are restricted by those who hold power. And the hospitality of biblical people to the questions of those who believe otherwise is at the essence of the Gospel. This is at the root of my Mars Hill Forum series (marshillforums.org).
As I address in my book, The Six Pillars of Biblical Power (available at the TEI Webstore), the freedom to pose hard questions of God and one another covers the whole Bible:
- Job’s friends have an unrestricted freedom to question him about the source of his sufferings. Job poses questions in response, also to Yahweh, and then Yahweh answers with questions that Job cannot answer.
- Abraham is free to question Yahweh’s plan of judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah, as he intercedes on their behalf. Jesus also says “if” Sodom and Gomorrah had seen the miracles he performed in Galilee, they would have been spared. The dynamics of the open-ended “what if” question.
- The Queen of Sheba travels 1,000 miles north to pose King Solomon her hardest questions. He gives her the freedom to literally talk with him “about all that she had on her mind.” In conclusion, she praises Yahweh Elohim, and his anointing of Solomon to “maintain justice and righteousness.” And Jesus praises the Queen of Sheba for seeking out Solomon.
- The Book of Psalms highlights the power to love hard questions. One scholar has titled it Out of the Depths because of its focus on the reality of broken relationships, and the emotional, physical, spiritual and intellectual questions that result. The Psalms are widely loved, and especially Psalm 23 – they minister to the souls of all of us, for we all know heartache. In his painful depths in Palm 22, David is free to cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And Jesus presses these very words to his lips on the cross.
- The Book of Ecclesiastes reflects the literary device of a man who knew better to begin with, who nonetheless indulges in folly, and emerges afterward knowing better what he knew better to begin with. The purpose of Ecclesiastes is to think aloud in retrospect, and to embrace hard questions in a conversational style. The reader, any reader, is invited to experience the process with the writer.
- The prophet Jeremiah pours out his complaint to Yahweh following some unexpected suffering. He is free to charge Yahweh with “deceiving” him (in the Hebrew, literally “opening” him up to the mockery of his enemies), even thought he is wrong in this charge. Then he praises Yahweh, and yet again, reverts and curses the day of his birth. He is free to lay open his emotions of suffering.
- In the Book of Jonah, it concludes with a question of the prophet by Yahweh relative to justice and mercy. In the Book of Habakkuk, the prophet poses his toughest questions of Yahweh concerning justice, he is given answer, and then rejoices while still facing further suffering.
- As the quintessential rabbi, Jesus’s teaching style is such that he poses far more questions than he gives answers. He teaches in parables that always leave open-ended freedom for his hearers to do more thinking, and to embrace further questions. And in the face of his plotting enemies during Passover week, he gives them the freedom to rake him over the coals with entrapping questions.
- When the apostle Paul addresses the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens, on their turf, he does so in openness to their questions. And when addressing two deeply divisive debates in the early church, Paul insists that “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”
The biblical narrative is an unrelenting profile of open-ended questions in all directions, in the presence of the living God. A healthy church or any religious community, academia, the media and a healthy political order, need the same.