No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised. (Romans 4.20-21)
The Debate Team
A close friend in recovery was explaining how the tone and emphasis vary in different 12-step groups he attends. One of them, he said, spends a lot of time on Step 3: “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” In their discussions, a phrase he didn’t understand at first kept popping up. “I decided to quit the debate team,” they’d say. I asked what they meant. “They figured out they weren’t going to make any progress as long as they argued with themselves about whether or not God exists, and wondered if God really cared about them,” he said. As long as they tried to intellectualize faith in God, they’d run in circles and couldn’t get well. “There are a lot of folks, with and without dependency issues, who need to quit the debate team,” I remarked. My friend nodded, “Yep. If you’re waiting for answers, you’ll be in a rut. At some point, you have to stop arguing and start accepting.”
His comment reminded me of something our pastor said recently: “God promises to hold our questions, to stand with us in the gray.” But we must first believe that, if we’re to know God’s presence in our questions. Without that little faith leap, our inner debates will continue. The arguments won’t go away. The doubts won’t ease. Nowhere in Scripture are we told—nor do we see—that God despises questions. Nearly every great hero in Scripture, from Abraham to Jesus and the Apostles, wants answers that never come. Even when God does reply, the answers aren’t what the askers are looking for.
When God calls Moses to lead Israel, the tongue-tied shepherd asks, “How can I convince the people to follow me?” God says, “Tell them, ‘I AM has sent you.” (Exodus 3.14) When the angel informs Mary she will bear the Christ Child, she asks, “How is this possible?” The angel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1.35) When Paul asks why God doesn’t relieve the “thorn in his flesh,” God says, “My grace is sufficient.” (2 Corinthians 12.9) Time after time, we hear people whom God uses ask God for answers; time and again, we hear God say, “You’re gonna have to trust Me with this.” In Love Wins, Rob Bell writes, “There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous.” Questions don’t scare God. They scare us and until we learn to live with them, we’ll be stranded on the debate team, making no progress toward wholeness.
Hoping Against Hope
If faith in a God Who promises to hold our questions seems like a stretch, this next bit may be a mind-bender. As a rule, God makes promises that raise new questions we can’t answer. In Sunday’s Old and New Testament readings, we revisit the story of God’s covenant with Abraham, a 99-year-old whose elderly wife, Sarah, is barren. “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you,” God vows in Genesis 17.6 Unfortunately, the chosen passage stops short of Abraham’s question. In verse 17, he laughs as he asks, “Will a son be born to a 100-year-old man? Will Sarah give birth at 90?” All God says is, “Yes,” without explaining how it will be possible. It’s a promise riddled with riddles, yet Abraham is prescient enough to resist arguing its impossibilities. He quits the debate team. He accepts God’s promise as is. And God honors it.
In Romans 4, Paul retells Abraham’s story, writing, “Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’… He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.” (v18-21)
Hoping against hope is one of those oblique phrases Paul likes to use when he wants us to figure something out on our own. God’s covenant with Abraham is a hopeless proposition. He and Sarah have tried for decades to get pregnant with no luck. To appease Abraham’s desire for a child, Sarah permitted him to sleep with her maid and suffered the humiliation of watching her husband rear an out-of-wedlock son. Of all the promises God could have made, God bases the covenant with Abraham on the most hopeless, emotionally charged aspect of his and Sarah’s union. Unanswerable questions had to perplex them. (When Abraham tells Sarah about God’s promise, she laughs, too.) Yet Abraham hopes against hope. He sets arguments aside. “No distrust made him waver,” Paul says.
All of my life I’ve heard people say, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” If only that were so. More often than not, believing what God says can be very unsettling. At some point, we have to turn from hopelessness and cling to hope that makes no earthly sense. At some point, we have to understand we may never understand. Like Moses, we answer God’s call on the strength of Who God is. Like Mary, we trust the Holy Spirit is working in us to give birth to something miraculous. Like Paul, we rely on God’s grace. And, alas, sometimes like Jesus, we hang in torment and cry, “Why have You forsaken me?” And yet, like Abraham, we also recognize trying to figure God out is our surest way to get in God’s way. “He grew strong in his faith,” Paul says, “as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced God was able to do what God promised.” That’s how we quit the debate team—realizing our inability to understand has no bearing on God’s ability to do what God promises.
Promises! Promises! The Bible overflows with them, and with them come, Questions! Questions! that rarely provide Answers! Answers! We have to learn to live with that, to accept that just because God says it and we believe it doesn’t always settle it. My friend shared another statement from one of his groups that helps greatly, I think, with how we can learn to live with God’s promises, our questions, and the absence of answers. One of the participants said, “Let God be with you now. Don’t drag God back into yesterday or push God into tomorrow. God with you now is enough.” God promises to hold our questions and stand with us in the gray. That’s a promise too wonderful to debate.
More often than not, God’s promises raise questions we can’t answer, leaving us little choice but to trust God to hold our questions and stand with us in the gray.