Impossible Questions

"Job Confessing His Presumption to God Who Answers from the Whirlwind" by William Blake, circa 1803-05

“Job Confessing His Presumption to God Who Answers from the Whirlwind” by William Blake, circa 1803-05

This is the seventh in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles at the bottom of this page.

There are three questions in Scripture that, despite their apparent simplicity, strike at the very heart of who we are and reveal our position before the Creator. As each one is placed before us, we are forced to address the pride in our hearts and reconsider our notions of justice, for there are some questions that demand action simply by being asked. Most surprising of all is how these three seem, upon careful consideration, to actually be the same question.

God’s Question to Job

When Job was made to suffer bitterly – losing his children, his livelihood, and his health – he and his friends engaged in a wide ranging philosophical discussion about such fundamental issues as the nature of divine justice, the purpose of suffering, and the state of the human heart. While he never embraced his wife’s taunting suggestion to, “Curse God and die!” (2:9) Job did allow himself to question God’s purposes.

Have I sinned? What have I done to You, O watcher of men? Why have You set me as Your target, so that I am a burden to myself? Why then do You not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I will lie down in the dust; and You will seek me, but I will not be.

Job 7:20-21

I will say to God ‘Do not condemn me; let me know why You contend with me. Is it right for You indeed to oppress, to reject the labor of Your hands, and to look favorably on the schemes of the wicked? Have You eyes of flesh? Or do You see as a man sees? Are Your days as the days of a mortal, or Your years as man’s years, that You should seek for my guilt and search after my sin? According to Your knowledge I am indeed not guilty, yet there is no deliverance from Your hand. Your hands fashioned and made me altogether, and would You destroy me?’

Job 10:2-8

Job does seem to have a point. Few people have suffered on the same level as him, and God Himself says, “There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” (1:8) Even when God allows Satan to wreak destruction upon Job’s life, we are told, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” (2:10) Surely, if anyone ever had a right to question God’s methods, it was Job.

Yet, when God addresses him near the end of the book, he does not react to Job’s suffering and earnest questioning in the way we might expect. He comes not in the form of healing light, but in a whirlwind. He has no words of pleasant comfort for Job, but declares, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now gird up your loins like a man, and I will ask you, and you instruct Me!” (38:2-3) Then He hits Job with an inquisition.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Job 38:4-7

This NASA photo of a distant galaxy was taken by the Hubble Telescope.

This NASA photo of a distant galaxy was taken by the Hubble Telescope.

That opening line – “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” – is the first of our impossible questions, because it instantly takes everything that Job has said, every seemingly legitimate complaint he has offered, and reduces it to nothing. The obvious answer to the question, both for Job and for the rest of us, is that we had not yet come into being. The question reveals two important facts: 1) God is the sovereign Creator who has control over everything, and 2) There was a time when we were not, so there is something bigger than us and there are things that we cannot understand.

This question points out our true position before God. We are not on an equal footing with Him, so we cannot become a jury of His peers. We are not all-knowing, so we are not capable of properly evaluating His actions. We have the truth He has provided to us in His Word, but beyond that, we must be very careful.

Consider this: while thousands of years of scientific study have brought us closer to understanding the mysteries of the universe than we were in the time of Job, they have also made increasingly clear the volume of things we do not know, and possibly cannot know. The greatest scientific minds in the world today cannot say with certainty whether there is one universe or many, whether or not there is intelligent life on another planet, why time and chance produced the scenario we live in and not another (if there is any reason for it at all), and exactly how our own brains produce thoughts.

Job understood upon hearing this line of questioning that there was only one appropriate response.

Then the LORD said to Job, ‘Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it.’ Then Job answered the LORD and said, ‘Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to You? I lay my hand on my mouth. Once I have spoken, and I will not answer; even twice, and I will add no more.’

Job 40:1-5

After another round of questioning, Job concluded, “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” (42:5-6) That is the first step: to accept the sovereignty and lordship of God, and the frailty of our own reasoning. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Where indeed!

Illustration of events from the life of Jonah, from the Menologion of Basil II, 11th century.

Illustration of events from the life of Jonah, from the Menologion of Basil II, 11th century.

God’s Question to Jonah

The story of the prophet Jonah and his run-in with what may or may not have been a whale is a favorite biblical tale, particularly among children. Much like the story of Noah, its inclusion of kid-friendly animals has made it a natural fit for the walls of Sunday school classrooms, while its message of divine wrath tends to get watered down (to use a terrible pun).

I can understand this: scripture is full of many tales of judgment and repentance, but only one man in history is purported to have been swallowed alive by some form of sea creature, remained inside it fully conscious for three days, and then had that same creature belch it on the beach almost as good as new. It’s a story so audacious that most people in our enlightened, scientific era dismiss it as a legend or parable of some kind. Yet, from where I sit, Jonah’s worst ever cruise ship experience is actually much easier to accept than what comes later in the book.

Jonah ended up in that memorable predicament because God commanded him to go and tell the Assyrians that they were deep in sin and divine judgment was imminent. Without going into too much detail, the Assyrians were the obvious enemies of Jonah’s day: a bloodthirsty superpower bent on world domination that did not hesitate to kill, enslave, and exile the people of whatever nation was unlucky enough to be next on their target list. Based on historical evidence and biblical statements, there is every reason to think that Assyria and its capital city of Nineveh were just as evil as anything that the world has seen in recent history: as willing to kill as Hitler, as willing to ethnically cleanse as Stalin, and as willing to capture slaves as any of the European colonial powers.

Who can blame Jonah for not wanting to go to Nineveh? But God wasn’t simply asking him to go there: he was asking him to go there and condemn them all in no uncertain terms. Surely, Jonah assumed that this mission would be the end of him. He might have even worried about what the effect would be on his nation if he, a representative of the Jewish people and religion, accused the leaders of Assyria to their faces. Perhaps Israel would be next on the target list.

So Jonah ran in the opposite direction, catching a boat to cross the Mediterranean. One near death experience later, he submitted to God’s will and walked the streets of Nineveh proclaiming, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4)

This is where the story starts to get really weird. Rather than dismissing this as the ranting of a crazed street prophet, the people of Nineveh, from the highest to lowest, chose to believe this word from a God they did not know. The king ordered for both man and animal to fast and forsake their wicked ways, saying, “Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw his burning anger so that we will not perish.” (3:9) Now, we have no record that Jonah ever suggested to the Ninevites that his God was merciful – indeed, Jonah himself seems to be lacking in that character trait. Even so, they repented, and mercy was granted.

When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it. But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, ‘Please LORD, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.’

Jonah 3:10-4:3

It may seem counterintuitive for a person to complain not about God’s wrath and judgment, but about his mercy and compassion. Yet, that is exactly what Jonah does. His bitterness toward the Ninevites is so great that he desires their destruction. Remember, this was the nation that caused so much pain and suffering – people who paid no heed to the needs of others. They were also exceedingly prideful in their position atop the food chain of global powers. When you think about it from that perspective, Jonah’s desire for them to “get what’s coming to them” and to suffer as they made so many others suffer is not unusual. Ungodly, perhaps, but not unusual.

Even so, it is clear that he has allowed his own sense of justice to trump that of the Almighty, and in his denunciation of divine grace, we see how ugly Jonah’s heart has become. His anger and unwillingness to forgive is not out of reverence for God, but rather it is the product of his own sinful desire for vengeance.

Therefore, God responded to Jonah with a simple question. “The LORD said, ‘Do you have good reason to be angry?’” (4:4) Now, I have read the small book of Jonah many times in my life, and heard the Sunday school story version many times before that. Yet, it was when I took that question not as an isolated comment upon Jonah’s behavior, but as a challenge to every human being who has ever lived, that I began to grasp how impossible it was.

"The Prophet Jonah before the Walls of Nineveh" - drawing by Rembrandt van Rijn, circa 1655

“The Prophet Jonah before the Walls of Nineveh” – drawing by Rembrandt van Rijn, circa 1655

There it was in black and white: the question that I did not want to face, staring at me, rebuking me. “Do you have good reason to be angry?” Before those simple words I found myself at a loss for excuses. Why should I be angry when life is unfair? Did not scripture promise me that it would be so? Why should I be angry when I witness sin? Did not scripture warn me that this was the fundamental tendency of man? Why should I reel and complain when faced with trials? Did not my Savior face the same and more?

The more I contemplated that question, the more I knew myself to be devoid of righteousness, for though my outward demeanor is typically all politeness and tolerance, I knew my soul to be aflame with anger. By no means have I ever considered myself to be an angry person, but I cannot deny that there are many things in this world – some genuinely sinful, some less so – that cause something inside of me to cry out in frustration. I am a person who feels deeply, and it is difficult for me to hear of injustice and not be affected.

But what good did my anger serve, and how was it justified? When Christ felt anger, he did so while having perfect awareness of God’s purpose from beginning to end. Did I have such knowledge? Certainly not. I cannot begin to fathom how the worst things of this life might be made to serve the Almighty. Christ’s anger also came from a heart that was completely free of sin, whereas mine is torn by the desires of the flesh. Perhaps most importantly, Christ was right to feel that He was owed all glory, praise, and honor; but if I am angry because I desire those things for myself, then I am deep in error.

All of us will experience flashes of anger, but we must not allow ourselves to dwell in that state. We must not “let the sun go down” on that anger, for as the Apostle Paul tell us, such a choice would “give the devil an opportunity”. (Ephesians 4:26-27) Those who live in anger sink into bitterness, which is completely at odds with the gospel. The truth is that, as a sinner saved by grace alone, I must in humility recognize my place in this universe. I am in no position to lord it over anyone or anything. Who am I to receive grace and then deny it to others? Is not my anger doing just that?

Anger can also come from a failure to trust in God’s sovereign purpose, which is a lack of faith. “And without faith, it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6) To have faith that God is a rewarder means that we trust in Him to set all things right in the end: to take His own perfect vengeance against unrighteousness and to properly reward whatever good is done in His name and according to His will.

Consider that anger is only appropriate when something unjust has happened, and given that we all really deserve hell, there is nothing on this earth that is truly unjust for us to endure. To the very extent that we do not experience those things, we must be wholly thankful to God. But we tend to look at it in the other direction: not in terms of what we have been spared, but in terms of what we are owed.

We must allow even our anger to be redeemed. We must be willing to turn over every aspect of our lives to Christ, including our heart, the seat of our emotions. To let God have jurisdiction over finances, time management, vocational choice, family relations, and all these other important areas may seem difficult, but there is nothing as challenging to a human being as to let God have control over our very heart and soul. This is not something we can do in our own power. We must pray to God for a heart that will act in faith, love, and mercy toward those around us. That is the lesson that Jonah learned, and it is still true for us today.

"Saint Paul Writing Hi Epistles", probably by Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century

“Saint Paul Writing His Epistles”, probably by Valentin de Boulogne, 17th century

Paul’s Question to Believers

Now we come to the third and final impossible question. This time, it is not God who asks it, but rather the Apostle Paul. Of all the churches that Paul addressed in his letters, none of them seems to be criticized as much as that in Corinth, specifically in 1 Corinthians. Upon reading this epistle, it becomes quite apparent that Paul is responding to one or more messages that they sent to him, in addition to his own observations from the time he spent in the city.

Paul had heard a lot of bad things about the Corinthians. The church had become characterized by division on a number of fronts. Factions had sprung up backing different Christian leaders of the day. (Chapter 1) A member of the church was living in an incestuous relationship. (Chapter 5) They disagreed over what behavior was permissible in light of Christian liberty. (Chapter 6) Sexual desires (Chapter 7), food sacrificed to idols (Chapter 9), and proper conduct during worship services (Chapters 10-11) were some of the other points of debate. Oh, and then there were also some people who didn’t believe in resurrection, and those who apparently did baptisms for the dead. (Chapter 15)

The church in Corinth was messed up both in terms of orthodoxy (right belief/doctrine) and orthopraxy (right behavior/actions). From what Paul writes, it seems that they did not disagree in an amicable, patient manner, but rather they had allowed differences of opinion to drive them apart. At the equivalent of the modern American church potluck dinner, some of the members would gorge themselves and leave little or nothing for the rest. (1 Corinthians 10:20-21) This seems to be exemplary of the kind of selfish attitude that many of the Corinthians had.

Paul did not hold back in his criticism of this group of believers. Unlike some of his other letters, which are characterized by encouragement and theological analysis, 1 Corinthians reads almost like a parent lecturing a misbehaving child. He calls them out on issue after issue. Halfway through the letter, he addresses the lawsuits that have been taking place between members of the church.

Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life? So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers?

1 Corinthians 6:1-6

Reading this text, it is easy to get hung up on questions such as, “What did Paul mean when he said we would judge angels?” I think that would be missing the point. It is also important to point out that Paul is not discussing criminal allegations here, but rather civil suits. The lesson that many draw from this is that a believer should never, ever sue another believer for any reason: the lawsuit itself is sinful. This is perhaps easier to accept as a general principle than in specific circumstances, but once again I think the point that Paul is trying to make is much bigger, and it isn’t the actual act of filing legal paperwork that has him most concerned. Here is how he continues:

Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren.

1 Corinthians 6:7-8

Paul’s ultimate concern here seems to be on two levels. First, there is the question of how such lawsuits reflect upon Christ and His people in the eyes of the world. While there have unfortunately been many examples of people using this as an excuse to sweep bad behavior “under the rug” rather than risk public embarrassment, it still seems better in regard to small issues not to “air dirty laundry”. But even this is not the most crucial point. That comes with Paul’s convicting question – one that hits me in the heart every time I read it: “Why not rather be wronged?”

Photo by David Dixon of the "Reconciliation" statue outside Old Coventry Cathedral in England. The sculpture is by Josephina da Vasconcellos.

Photo by David Dixon of the “Reconciliation” statue outside Old Coventry Cathedral in England. The sculpture is by Josephina da Vasconcellos.

Just think about that for a moment. Paul is suggesting that if a fellow believer wrongs you in some way, we should prefer to be “wronged” rather than receiving recompense. That is a fairly radical notion. Every person, whether Christian or not, has a sense of personal justice that is offended when someone mistreats them. Modern law has enshrined the concept of personal rights that are not to be violated. In the U.S., this belief in personal property, privacy, individualism, self-actualization, and the like is coupled with a relatively generous legal system to produce one of the most litigious cultures in the world. While there is certainly a need for illegal behavior to be held accountable and for some citizens not to take advantage of others, we are awfully quick to jump to the “I’ll sue you!” solution. Therefore, to those of us living in the 21st century, Paul’s simple question can sound downright ridiculous.

This is not just about money, the thing that typically drives Christians into courtrooms and can sever relationships as fast as sexual infidelity. This cuts deep into our collective psyche. “Why not rather be wronged?” Why not rather jump off a cliff? Some would say it hurts just as much.

Let’s consider this question in terms of personal reconciliation. If someone commits a wrong against you, you could allow that to drive a wedge between you and them. Indeed, that is what typically happens. But Paul challenges our thinking by asking us, “Wouldn’t it be better for you to overlook this wrong that has been done for the sake of the broader principle?” That broader principle is reconciliation, unity, and communion. Paul wants us to value our bond in Christ higher than some wound to our pride. He wants us to prefer healing over revenge.

It is my opinion upon reading this passage that Paul does not have in mind the kind of wrong that causes serious lasting damage. If someone is going around claiming that you are having an illicit affair, when in fact you are not, it is not wrong to set the record straight. If someone steals a damaging amount of money from you, it is  not wrong to warn others and take action to protect your family’s livelihood. But let’s face it: most of the slights that we feel are nowhere near that destructive, and dragging the matter into court would be a sign of our inability to “not sweat the small stuff”.

To me, the question behind Paul’s question is, “What would you be willing to sacrifice for reconciliation?” We should have a mindset that is mercy oriented rather than judgment oriented. For a group of people still working through the temptations of the sinful nature, this is the only way to live in harmony. If we make every issue into an ultimate issue and every wrong into a heinous betrayal, then we have no hope of making this Church thing work.

God had a choice when it came to us. When we as human beings turned our backs on Him and were never going to repent, He could have allowed us to suffer the consequences. He knew that were we to continue down that tragic path unabated, we would never turn back toward Him. We would always worship the creature rather than the Creator. While the outcome of history would suggest that wasn’t in line with God’s will or character, from a human perspective, He could have simply let us go…let the relationship die.

Instead, God said in essence, “I’d rather be wronged.” Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fully divine – He made the choice to suffer the consequences on our behalf. Instead of allowing that wrong to reverberate back onto us in the form of God’s holy wrath, He absorbed that wrath Himself. Sin against a holy God cannot simply be dismissed, and divine justice was completely fulfilled, but for our Lord and Savior, the satisfaction of seeing us reap what we had sowed was less glorifying than acting in mercy to bring us back to Himself.

Christ is calling to us. He seeks believers who would rather be wronged: people who will not give in to anger and put themselves in the judge’s seat. People who do not deny the need for justice, but are willing to place that fully under God’s control. These are the kind of followers Christ wants for Himself.

In the end, all three of these impossible questions – “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”, “Do you have good reason to be angry?”, and “Why not rather be wronged?” – deal with the same heart issue. It is about accepting God’s sovereignty and submitting ourselves to His plan of reconciliation. As we strive to obey that desire of God’s heart, we may find that it becomes the desire of our hearts as well. When that happens, the impossible questions might not be so impossible after all, for as Christ once said, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

Other articles in this series:

#1 – Wars and Rumors of Wars

#2 – Discord

#3 – A Scriptural Imperative

#4 – The Cross of Hate

#5 – The Age of Sacrifice

#6 – The First Step

#8 – True Love

#9 – A New (Old) Commandment

#10 – Truth with a Capital ‘T’

#11 – Christ is All in All

#12 – Awaken!

#13 – Another Path to Reconciliation?

#14 – Humble Rebellion

#15 – Those Who Live by Faith are Just

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