Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The sin of questioning God

When humans suffer, they often question God, as if he has done them some wrong. For example, consider the recent case of an Israeli man who asked a court for a restraining order against God. According to the article, this man "argued that over a three-year period God, had exhibited a seriously negative attitude toward him." Why should this be happening to me? What is your problem? -- That is the questioning spirit of the person who is suffering.

To say that questioning God is a sin is provocative and perhaps even offensive. What about persons who have suffered such intolerable evils as famine, death, kidnapping, rape, and all other sorts of things? It is a sin for those persons to question why God should have allowed all this to happen? 

The title of this blog post comes from the following exchange in Niko Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ (Scribner, 1960). After heavy rains destroys a village's harvest, Jacob and Jesus have the following exchange:
The son of Mary sighed. "Ah, if there was only one man who had the strength to starve to death so that the people would not die of hunger!" 
Jacob glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. "If you were able to become wheat," he scoffed, "so that the people could eat you and be saved, would you do it?" 
"Who wouldn't?" said the son of Mary. 
Jacob's hawk eyes flickered, as did his thick, protruding lips. "Me," he answered. 
The son of Mary went silent. The other took offense. "Why should I perish?" he growled. "It was God who sent the flood. What did I do wrong?" He looked fiercely at the sky. "Why did God do it? How did the people offend him? I don't understand -- do you, son of Mary?" 
"Don't ask, my brother: it's a sin. Until a few days ago I too asked, but now I understand. This was the serpent which corrupted the first creatures and made God banish us from Paradise." 
"What do you mean by 'this'?" 
"Asking questions." 
"I don't understand," said Zebedee's son, and he quickened his pace (p. 120).
Jesus here suggests that it's a sin to ask questions of why God does this or that. (He doesn't say that it is a mortal sin, however.) In fact, questioning God -- doubting his character and the sincerity of his words, his good intentions for us in everything he does -- was the cause of the original sin, because of which the first humans were expelled from Paradise. Can there be anything to support this proposition?

This morning I was reading from the prophet Jeremiah. He writes this:

You will be in the right, O Lord, 
  when I lay charges against you;
  but let me put my case to you.
Why does the way of the guilty prosper?
  Why do all who are treacherous thrive? (Jer 12:1).

The complaint is the typical one of the apparent moral imbalance in the world: against what would seem to us plainly just, those who are righteous suffer and those who are wicked seem to benefit from God's special favor. The prophet goes on: 

You plant them, and they take root;
  they grow and bring forth fruit;
you are near in their mouths
  yet far from their hearts (v. 2).

But notice that the prophet, while bringing forth his complaint about God's apparent injustice, at the same time is confident that God has done nothing wrong. You will be in the right, O Lord, when I lay charges against you. So there is a strange paradoxical attitude embodied in this passage: on the one hand, the prophet is deeply dissatisfied with God's actual practice and is convinced that something is wrong; yet on the other, he is confident that God will be proved to be right. Why then bring the complaint at all, if you think God is in the right? 

There is an interesting kind of conflict here between a philosophically and scripturally adequate conception of deity, on the one hand, and our own sense of injustice and resentment when we suffer, on the other. If we are convinced, for example, that God is love (1 John 4:8), then we must think that everything that comes into our life is ordered by that love for our own ultimate benefit, as St. Anthony the Great has said -- even if things should appear otherwise to us. But when we come across some bit of adversity, to put it mildly, or when we suffer greatly, we might find ourselves questioning everything we previously believed, and impugning God's character.

Consider the case of the Hebrews being led into the promised land, an example I've mentioned various times on my blog here. Moses says to them:

All of you came to me and said, "Let us send men ahead of us to explore the land for us and bring back a report to us regarding the route by which we should go up and the cities we will come to." The plan seemed good to me, and I selected twelve of you, one from each tribe. They set out and went up into the hill country, and when they reached the Valley of Eshcol they spied it out and gathered some of the land's produce, which they brought down to us. They brought back a report to us, and said, "It is a good land that the LORD our God is giving to us."

But you were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the LORD your God; you grumbled in your tents and said, "It is because the LORD hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us. Where are we headed? Our kindred have made our hearts melt by reporting, 'The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven! We actually saw there the offspring of the Anakim!'" (Deut 1:22-8).

The Hebrew people, in spite of all the miracles and wonders they had seen coming out of slavery in Egypt, still doubted God when they had come across the first bit of adversity. No sign of his goodwill was enough; they were convinced that it was all a ruse to bring them out into the desert so they could be slaughtered like animals. They questioned God's motives and his goodwill, and because of that, When the LORD heard your words, he was wrathful and swore: "Not one of these -- not one of this evil generation -- shall see the good land that I swore to give to your ancestors" (Deut 1:34-5). 

Why do the Hebrews question God? This is clearly speculative, but my hunch is that there is some kind of deep awareness of our own guilt before God which comes out and manifests itself in these ugly ways at times of suffering and adversity. We know that we have sinned before God; but rather than admit the guilt and ask forgiveness, we project the guilt onto God, as if he has done us wrong and we are in the right. Indeed, almost any time we suffer in some way because of the actions of others, we think we don't deserve this, that we are being wronged, that our crimes are not actually that bad, and so on. Clearly the fear of and aversion to suffering and pain leads us to justify ourselves, even when our suffering is deserved and appropriate. So also when we discern God to be the only explicable cause of our suffering: we think we can't have done anything wrong, so it must be that he is in the wrong here. We are supposed to be reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:20); we are not supposed to oppose ourselves to him.

Is it a sin, then, to question God? There are at least two senses of the word "question" which need to be specified. On the one hand, there is a questioning which seeks to understand rather than to accuse. Here I am thinking of that wonderful phrase fides quaerens intellectum: faith seeking understanding. This is a quaestio or an investigation that begins from a place of trust. This could not be a sin. On the other hand, there is a "questioning" which does not begin from trust but rather from mistrust. This kind of questioning is an accusation, whether implicit or explicit, of the goodness of God. Of course, God could not in principle do wrong; God is, in Anselm's phrase, that than which no greater can be conceived, and such a person could not do wrong. Questioning God in this accusatory sense consequently seems to be a sin because it opposes the questioner to God, and it puts the questioner in a position of moral superiority to God -- which can never be the case.

It is especially interesting to note the deep irrationality of questioning God in this second sense, at least as it comes from persons who ought to know better. Persons who are theologically and philosophically informed, who know that God cannot in principle do any wrong, nevertheless sometimes find themselves disposed to question or to accuse God in times of suffering. This is another case of the irrationality of sin, about which I've written before. In light of this, the reality of suffering presents us with the responsibility to exercise some amount of control over how we will live our life: will rationality and scripture, by which we know that God cannot do wrong, prevail over our thinking, or will the truth of the matter -- that God is righteous, and that he cannot do any wrong -- dictate our thoughts?

Now, it is obvious that not every sin is mortal, and often times persons are exculpated by various factors implicit in their situation. I do not claim that persons who are in the middle of extreme suffering or horrendous evil are guilty for questioning God's character; they might not be able to help it in those circumstances. Still, however, the tendency to question God -- and by this, I mean accusingly to question -- is a dangerous one that ought to be taken note of and not cultivated or engaged in.


Aye Vee said...

It's interesting that it was a Jewish man that held the court case against God. I was reading Elie Wiesel's portraits of Hasidic Jewish leaders and a common theme was the many stories about rabbis yelling at God. Or, in one case, the story goes that a plague was killing an entire population of Jews and a Jewish mother went to the synagogue and something like "God, you sit there and do nothing while your children die. If I acted that way it would be called a sin." And then God admits his guilt essentially and stops the plague. That may not be normative theology for Jews but this guy seems to be acting within a certain tradition!

Steven Nemeș said...

Yeah, I've heard lots of stories like that. It can't be taken seriously as theology, because it implies a bumbling God who's considerably morally weaker than most of us. But it does highlight a central aspect of the religious experience of suffering: you want to ask, "God, why are you doing this? Why is this happening and you're not stopping it?"

Consider the following scenario. Suppose the answer came back: "You deserve this and worse because of your sins." How would you respond? Or how would I respond, or these rabbis? If you start with a philosophical conception of God as perfect being, or if you affirm the scriptural point that God does not and cannot lie, what can you reasonably do except admit fault and ask mercy? But most people, seems to me anyway, aren't willing to admit that they actually deserve the sufferings they experience. Neither should I be understood as saying that all suffering is a result of the suffering individual's guilt; scripture denies that. But the point is to illustrate our tendency to justify ourselves.