By: Rev. Paul Scalia
The now Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once summarized the book of Job with the pithy statement: “The questions of God are more satisfying than the answers of man.” …which is really just a riff on Chesterton’s summary of the same book: “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” Reflecting on that perplexing book, Chesterton observes that God does not mind being questioned, as Job questions Him. God just expects the same right to ask questions of us. He wants His turn at cross examination. We frequently look to God for answers, and He sometimes mercifully grants them. But He seems just as likely to pose a question — a source of frustration for those who demand nice, tidy solutions…and an invitation for those who want to ponder the questions with Him. Indeed, it is in the questions themselves that we find great spiritual nourishment.
The questions of God call forth from us, first of all, humility. Our wounded human nature always slouches towards that first sin, that first false promise: you will be like God. The heart of our problem is that we want to be like God…not by His grace, but on our own terms. All sin has this characteristic. It is called pride. In the last chapters of Job, the Lord asks him questions, all designed to humble Job before Him. They all have the same fundamental point: I am God, you are not. He not only knows all and can do all, but He is all. Without humble recognition of this fact, we completely misunderstand Him and our relationship with Him.
Put another way, we have the tendency to put God on trial — to put “God in the dock,” as C. S. Lewis phrases it — to demand that He prove Himself to us. Pope Benedict describes our trial of God: God is the issue: Is he real, reality itself, or isn’t he? Is he good, or do we have to invent the good ourselves? God’s questions — especially in the book of Job — confound and shock us to the realization that He has no need to prove Himself…but that we have every need to humble ourselves before Him.
Second, and closely connected to humility, the questions of God cultivate reverence. One who is humble recognizes what we are in relation to Him. One who is reverent bows down before Him. Job’s friends thought God could be explained and managed. They thought they had Him all figured out and came with human-sized explanations for their friend’s woes. We likewise seek to decrease the distance between us and God, to make Him manageable — to domesticate Him. So we say foolish things such as, “God is an important part of my life…” (as if He could be merely a part of anything) or “God is my copilot” (as if we keep Him on retainer). His questions preserve His transcendence. They provoke reverence because they confound us and ultimately elicit from us the answer: “I don’t know.”
Our Lord’s parables have the same purpose. Never a theological treatise or a direct answer, they always have something mysterious about them, something beyond our reach no matter how often we hear them. So also the Liturgy: vestments, incense, vessels, chant, veils, bells, and so on — they all serve to provoke reverence for the mystery, to remind us that we do not understand, that we are dealing with something, Someone, beyond us. Although God is near — “more intimate to me than I am to myself,” in Augustine’s words — He is still beyond our grasp and control.
Third, the questions of God remind us of the relationship. Yes, some of His questions are rhetorical. But all admit of some response because He is a personal God… sometimes more personal than we would like Him to be. The anonymous force of eastern religions is not personal. Allah is not personal, at least not in any way that would admit of a relationship or dialogue. But the Triune God — eternally three Persons — is personal, seeks a relationship, desires a dialogue. He asks questions to be answered, to become part of our conversation with Him.
Finally, the questions of God lead to reflection. Here is a fundamental principle: When God asks a question, He already knows the answer. He asks not because He needs the answer, but because we need to think about these things. Our fallen human nature always inclines us to complacency, to presuming things instead of reflecting and deepening our understanding and appreciation of them. His questions call us out of that complacency — they say, in effect: Stop and think…reflect on these things. He seeks to draw us out of ourselves, our self-referential thinking, and to apply our thoughts to Him, to His deeds, and to our relationship with Him.
The next seven posts here will take up some questions of God that satisfy more than the answers of man.