What is going on?
Some people take life as it comes, floating in the current of circumstance, not worrying much, rarely making a concerted effort to swim upstream.
I’m not one of those people.
I utter, mutter, or implore “why” more than any other word in my vocabulary. I spend little time drifting and a lot of time kicking. Rather than go with the flow, I tend to push, calculate, ponder, and ask lots of questions. I tend to innovate and improvise. If an impediment can’t be streamlined, I want to know why. But while I’m asking, I’m digging and doggedly working my way through the current. It’s just the way it is. I can no more turn off my questions than I can stop the sun’s arc.
I don’t mean to be difficult, or intimidating with my questions, and I don’t enjoy conflict. I don’t see myself as rebellious. Granted, I’m curious, but my why’s go beyond curious. I want to understand, and when I don’t comprehend, I want to know why.
I don’t know if it is good or bad to ask God, why. I know He tolerates the question. In the famous line from Isaiah, the prophet quotes God saying, “Come now, let’s reason together” (1:18a). If you translate the original Hebrew literally, God is saying, “Come here now, let’s argue, debate, and contest together.”
Clearly, God is not put off by why’s. But whether this makes them okay or not, I’m not certain.
I went through a phase during my third and fourth grade years in school where I didn’t edit my need to know. I asked, “Why” and “What if?” a lot, and I asked about nearly everything.
One Sunday as the family returned from church, I leaned against the cattle trough that we used as a swimming pool and asked, “What if I fell in the tank with my good clothes on?”
My frustrated Mom said, “Like this?” as she pushed me overboard. My cardboard dress shoes were never the same after that.
I’ve wondered: Does God get irritated with my why’s—even though He invites questions and debate? Does He sometimes want to push me overboard, hoping that I will just go with the flow, hoping that when I look at my faded dress shoes I’ll keep my questions to myself?
There is a passage of Scripture in Romans that has occupied my attention for a number of years and a number of reasons. I read it again this morning and this blog is the working out of my reaction.
It is a dangerous thing to put yourself in another person’s shoes when you don’t really know them and can’t ask if you are reading them correctly or not. But nevertheless, I’m going to venture out and put myself in Paul’s shoes.
From Romans 1:8-15 the Apostle writes passionately about his thwarted attempts to get to Rome for a visit. These verses drip with frustration. He is shoving circumstance around, pushing against his limitations, expressing his discontent, and I think you could argue convincingly that he is using some manipulation against God hoping that He will make a way for the Gospel in Rome and beyond to Spain. That’s reasonable enough, isn’t it? Who could be against that?
But, Paul can’t get there, no matter how hard he tries. Instead, he writes a letter. It will be four years before he gets to Rome. The “why question” is evident in Paul’s introductory thoughts.
In retrospect, it is evident why God did not pave the way for Paul to go to Rome. For starters, the systematic theology contained in the biblical book of Romans would not have been written down. How would you like to piece your faith together without the benefit of Romans?
The takeaway could be: God has everything under control. Just trust Him. Relax. It will work out. Stop stressing. It’s just a guess, but I suspect there were those with Paul who gave him this type of counsel.
On the other hand, if Paul didn’t care deeply, if he wasn’t pushing, shoving at life’s current, and trying his best to figure an alternative, then the book of Romans wouldn’t have been written either. Or if it was, it would lack the focus and intensity that we love so much about this great work from Paul’s mind to our hearts.
I doubt Paul ever quit questioning—anything—including God. I figure he kept wanting to know more, understand more, see more. The “why” that rose up regularly in Paul’s thinking propelled him to sophisticate his writing with powerful words and concepts.
Paul spent between five and six years in prison. I’m just guessing, but I imagine he asked, Why am I here? In fact, I imagine he got more than a little irritated with God, the One able to free him, and asked why he was entrusted with the Gospel to the Gentiles if he was going to spend his days locked up. If God spent fourteen years mentoring him in the deserts of Arabia, why did He leave him locked up, compromised, and hamstrung in various prisons instead of setting him free to preach?
Paul was about thirty when he became a follower of Jesus Christ. He was forty-three or four when he began his ministry and he was murdered for his faith nineteen years later. This means that Paul spent about thirty percent of his ministry life locked up in jail.
Is it a stretch to assume he asked, why? Why am I here? What’s going on? Lord God, what are you thinking? What are you doing? Why is this happening?
You can’t read much of Paul without realizing he had a fire in his gut. He had visions, dreams, calling. He had places to go and people to see. It was the first century, time to spread Christianity, and the man entrusted with the Gospel to the Gentiles is locked up. He was a man on a mission, a mission given to him by God.
Why was he hamstrung in prison? The devil sure shut him down, didn’t he? Why didn’t God spring him free?
We can see it through the lens of history. Paul wouldn’t have penned the letters that comprise thirteen of our twenty-seven New Testament books if he wasn’t chained to a chair. He would have been out and about, doing what he did when he wasn’t writing. Who has time to do thoughtful writing when they are running here and there and everywhere? No one, including the Apostle Paul apparently.
Can’t you hear Paul asking God? How many times do you suppose the man buried his head in his arms and cried for deliverance? How many quills do you suppose he splintered in frustration? How many screaming, scroll-throwing tantrums do you figure he had? How many curses did he utter? How many complaints to anyone who would listen? How many prayers did he pray, how many counselors did he consult, and how many favors did he call in to get him out—only to be left at the end of the day with, why?
I don’t know, and often God isn’t saying.
But Father God has a plan. If we visit with Him, He lets us know the part we play in hopes that we will be obedient. Sometimes, He narrows the circumstances if He deems our focus important enough that we not digress too far right or left.
For me, when life narrows I ask “why” a lot more than normal. I’m more prone to push and calculate and doubt when I’m under duress.
There isn’t anything wrong with this, I don’t think. The “why” keeps me honest, keeps me searching, keeps me asking, keeps me from drifting, or from taking life at face value. The “why” fuels my mind, and the lack of an answer—eventually—chains me to my proverbial chair to perform in obedience the narrow mission given me, a mission sometimes known only to God.