Reclaiming Doubt
A sermon on Luke 20:27-38, 45-47 by Nathan Nettleton, 12 November 1995

Our doubts and questions are welcome to God so long as we are not using them to avoid Christ's question to us - "Will you follow me?"


How many of you have ever been told that you're not allowed to question God?

It is a line that is pushed strongly by some people. They speak of God as supreme and all-knowing and argue that we should therefore accept what ever God says and whatever God does without question. Sometimes they even assert that view in the face of very sincere and heartfelt questions. A person who's lover has left them or whose baby has died and who in the pain and confusion cries out “why?” is still sometimes told to meekly accept it because God knows best and they shouldn’t question God.

Have any of you experienced being told that, or hearing someone told that at a time that was particularly difficult, when the questions were really important for you? Any examples?

Now those of you who know me will realize that I am not a supporter of this view that you can’t question God. For one thing I am a student of theology which is all about asking questions about God and of God. Theology does not progress at all if you just accept everything as given and seek to defend it. Our understanding of God grows as we face the tough questions and look at things from new angles in light of those questions. I remember the first class of a course I once took with Dr Athol Gill just a week before he died. He said to us, “I want a good fight in here every week. We’ll never learn anything from being nice to each other. If you believe something strongly, state it strongly, and those who disagree should batter it with questions. That’s the only way we’ll learn what things can stand up under pressure and deserve to be considered truth.”

But apart from the context of intellectual questions, I also believe that questions in the sorts of situations of confusion and pain that we discussed before are important and valid. When my first marriage broke up I had a million questions of God. I couldn’t understand why God had allowed it to happen and my whole understanding of God and God’s ways in the world was shattered. For me not to have voice those questions and confusions in prayer and in discussion of God would have been to be dishonest. It would have meant withholding part of myself from God. God is not interested in me presenting myself as meekly accepting and unquestioning if it’s not true. The idea of offering yourself to God is about offering your real self, not some airbrushed and sanitized facsimile of yourself. I mean it is not as though God is going to be threatened by your questions. It’s not as though God’s self esteem is going to crumple if I think God’s let me down.

What’s more if I deny the questions, if I push them aside and refuse to acknowledge them or face them, they don’t actually go away. They just submerge and slowly erode my confidence in God and life because I have this gnawing uncertainty eating away at me. Facing them squarely out in the open doesn’t give any guarantee that you’ll find all the answers, but it at least means that they can’t take on an undercover life of their own. And even if you don’t really find an answer, you have a good chance of finding a creative way of living with the question.

When Jesus hung on the cross he screamed out in agony, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” No so far as we know Jesus was dead before he ever got any sort of answer to that question. And nearly every one who has ever lived has asked the same question at some stage at varying levels of intensity. And you can’t ever fully answer that question. Every theology of the cross seeks to answer that question, and no answer will ever exhaust it. I’ve cried that same question, and although I still can’t give a very full answer, it is no longer a question that ship wrecks my faith. I’ve lived openly with the question long enough that I now see glimpses of answers and I have experienced the goodness of God that not only accepts the question but continues to see me safely through it.

Now without wanting to deny any of what I’ve said, I want us to look again at the gospel reading and see something quite different about questioning God. In the reading we heard, some people were asking Jesus questions and Jesus ends up spitting the dummy and hitting them with one of the most scathing condemnations found anywhere in the gospels. The sort of response that would certainly not encourage you to ask any more questions.

We could have read a longer section. The story begins with a group of people coming to him from the chief priests and the scribes, that is from the religious leaders of Israel. They come first with the famous question about whether it was right to pay taxes to Caesar, to which Jesus gives his famous answer, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” And then it says they could not stump him with their questions and they fell silent. No doubt there were actually quite a few questions, but only one is recorded. Then the Sadducees chip in with their convoluted question that we heard about the woman who was successively married to seven different brothers. It’s one of those questions you ask when you want to disprove an idea by thinking up a really extreme example that will make the idea fall apart. The Sadducees are trying to disprove the idea of the resurrection of the dead. Jesus gives an answer which refutes their argument, but for me its idea about marriage and resurrection life raises just as many questions as it answers. And I don’t want to go into those questions here - I want us to look at why Jesus gets so angry about their questions.

He publicly denounces them, telling everyone who could hear that these questioners were completely up themselves, that they were publicly pretentious, parading their status and piety while secretly devouring widows and orphans.

So, what makes these questions so different to the sort of questions I’ve been saying are quite acceptable to God? What do you reckon? What is it about these questions that makes Jesus turn on them so savagely???

There is probably a few things that anger Jesus here, but what I think is a major one is hinted at in the bit that we didn’t read between Jesus’ answer about the resurrection and his attack on the questioners. Jesus takes his turn to ask a question, and he asks them about their view of the Messiah. What do you say about the messiah? And they don’t give him an answer, and it’s then that he turns on them.

You see sometimes our questions are not fair dinkum. Sometimes they’re a smokescreen that we use to avoid something. These guys were not really that interested in greater understanding of Jesus’ views on taxation or the nature of the resurrection. They were using the questions to try and discredit Jesus and to avoid facing up to the implications of his teaching. Jesus’ question to them was another version of the question he once asked the disciples - “Who do you say that I am?” Which is a loaded question because whatever answer you give it implies a commitment one way or the other. Effectively Jesus is saying “Will you follow me?” And what these blokes are doing is asking more and more questions to avoid answering that one question from Jesus.

“Will you follow me?” “Do you think it’s right to pay taxes or not?”

“Will you follow me?” “Can you explain the resurrection for us?”

“Will you follow me?” “Do you believe in miracles?”

“Will you follow me?” “What do you say about the authority of the bible?”

“Will you follow me?” “What do you think about sex outside of marriage?”

And Jesus explodes. “You’re not serious. You’re just playing games. You’ll just keep asking questions and keep asking questions to avoid facing the one question that really matters. “Will you follow me?” You’ll always make out that you just need it all clear in your mind before you can make a decision but there will always be one more question.”

Genuine questions will always be welcomed by God if we are asking them from a position of committed discipleship. Those who have already said “yes” to Jesus question and are actively following him and growing in faith and maturity can ask anything they like. Jesus encourages their questions because it is part of the road to growth and fullness of life. But if your questions are just a way of avoiding the real issues. If you stand on the outside and use questions only to try to undermine Jesus’ credibility and put off facing up to the implications of what he’s on about, the response will be different. Like with the sadducees he’ll answer for a while, but it won’t be long before he puts the tough question to you. And then its on your response that your right to keep asking questions rides.